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Famous Psychologist Explains Moral Foundations Of Liberalism and Conservatism


John Stang

News Editor

In today’s political climate split by partisan lines drawn from ideological differences, Jonathan Haidt finds it very important to understand why those differences exist. Haidt presented his theory to an audience of RC students and faculty on Wednesday, March 16 with the title “What Liberals Don’t Understand About Moral Psychology (and How It Hurts Them). His basic premise is that liberals and conservatives have a certain set of intrinsic values which each claims to be the most important.

 Haidt confesses to be a former liberal, but has since moved to the center after conducting his research. As a social psychologist, Haidt analyzes the different moral views held by each side of the political spectrum to compile data that reflects how each side views the world. 

 “Liberalism is a hero of western history, but kind of clumsy hero,” Haidt explained at the beginning of his talk. 

  Haidt began by identifying three parts to his argument. First, morality binds people together into cohesive groups. Second, liberal morality is based mostly on one foundation, compared with conservative morality, which is a view of sacralizing the victim. Finally, liberals put certain types of morality lower on the totem pole, such as loyalty and submission to authority, than conservatives.

 “Conservatism has a broader morality,” claimed Haidt.

  To flesh out his thesis, Haidt identified five distinct characteristics of moral virtue: care for victims, proportionality and equality, loyalty, submission to authority, and holding certain items sacred. According to data collected by Haidt through survey research, liberals like to provide support for victims more than conservatives. On the other hand, conservatives hold up the other values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity in much higher regard than most liberals do.  So, one gets an unbalanced views in moral systems than can be very hard to breech to have a political discourse. For example, on loyalty, conservatives are much more “team oriented” than most liberals. So, during a time of war, conservatives often throw their support behind the troops to rally behind patriotism.  In contrast, most liberals would see a particular harm against soldiers fighting in battle, resulting in an anti-war sentiment.

 On another level, stereotypes often pin one side versus the other. Haidt presented the example of how a typical conservative family living in the suburbs might see a liberal lifestyle, where authority is subverted and loyalty is questioned, as an impediment on their value system.  Likewise, liberals can see the stereotypical fundamentalist Christian conservative as hampering their choices. Thus, a political divide is created that can be hard to bridge.

To be clear, Haidt is not calling for either side to give up ground on their political beliefs.  On the contrary, he sees each side’s political argument as a necessary function for healthy debate.

 “My view is that conservatives and liberals are yin and yang, you need both.  Both sides are preserving moral visions and we need both,” Haidt concluded.

 The audience had both liberals and conservatives alike, who seemed to come away with a better understanding of one another’s vision for the nation.

 “Being a liberal, I thought I would take offense to his aims, but his points were well backed up so that I could agree with them and still hold my political views,” said Ethan Guebert ’13.