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Jun 14 2010

Why Being Liberal Really Is Better Than Being Conservative

Liberal definition Liberals and conservatives don’t just disagree about specific issues — we disagree about core ethical values. Can a case be made that liberal values really are better?

You may have heard about this. It’s been in the news and the blogosphere, and has been making the rounds at the nerdier water coolers and cocktail parties. A number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that ethics and values aren’t entirely relative, and aren’t solely derived from particular cultures. Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species. Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty, authority, and purity. (Some think there may be one or two others, including liberty and honesty; but those aren’t yet as well-substantiated, or as well-studied.)

Different people prioritize different values over others, of course. And of course, different individuals and different cultures come to different conclusions about the right ethical choice in any particular situation: based on our cultural biases, as well as on our own personal observations and experiences. But according to this research, these basic values — fairness, harm, loyalty, authority, and purity — exist in all of us, at least to some degree, in every non-sociopathic human being.

“Fascinating,” I hear you cry. “But what does that have to do with politics?” Well, what researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values — while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty, and purity.

Liberal conspiracy As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the offspring of a union organizer and an early-adopter feminist, taken to peace marches and McGovern rallies at a tender age — this idea instantly made sense to me. It illuminates a lot of weird dark corners about politics… particularly the rancorous and apparently unsolvable nature of many political conflicts. When liberals and conservatives debate the burning issues of the day — whether it’s immigration or marriage equality, global warming or health care reform — we often wind up talking at cross-purposes, and the conversations go around in increasingly belligerent circles… because we’re not starting with the same ethical foundations. We assume that we have the same core values, and are simply debating the best way to apply those values in the world. We’re not. We’re debating — not very effectively or coherently most of the time — the core values themselves.

And of course, when I heard about this research, my instant reaction was to say, “But fairness and harm ARE more important! We were right all along! This proves it — liberal values ARE better!”

But — being someone who places a strong ethical value on fairness — I realize that of course I’m going to say that. After all… those are my values. Of course I think they’re better. And — again, being someone who highly values fairness — I realize that conservatives are going to say the exact same thing. “But authority and loyalty ARE more important! This proves it! Conservative values ARE better!”

So I’ve been asking myself: Is there a way to distinguish between these values?

If these are core values, fundamental axioms of human ethics… how do we distinguish between them? I mean — they’re axioms. They’re our ethical starting points. When they come into conflict, as they often do, how do we step back from them, and decide which ones we should prioritize?

*

Thus begins my new piece for AlterNet, Why Being Liberal Really Is Better Than Being Conservative. To find out how we can distinguish between fundamental moral axioms — and why the fundamental liberal axioms really are better than the conservative ones — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Techskeptic Techskeptic

    Well, I’m not commenting over there, because the comment list got so long. Wow.
    ” The principle of purity has to do with the idea that the body ought to be pure and holy, not desecrated by that which is contaminated or evil.”
    Weird.
    Seems that for conservatives purity can only apply to the body.
    Because they are more than happy to thrust pipes into the ground over and over again hoping to gain a release of million of gallons of liquids spewing forth.
    Ok, sorry, that was my feeble attempt at using sexual innuendo for the drilling of oil.
    but the point is the same, screw the rivers, as long as we can burn coal. Screw the pristine mountaintops as long as we can dig up coal. Screw the air as long as we can burn oil. Screw a pristine mountain lake as long as we can make a few bucks installing some sort of tourist trap.
    etc etc. Purity seems to stop at the vagina for them.

  2. 2
    DSimon

    Greta, with this topic choice, are you now deliberately poking a stick into the cage where Alternet commenters live? You don’t want to provoke them too much; they can throw poo, and they have good aim.

  3. 3
    Tim Foster

    I disagree passionately with a great deal of what you’ve said here, not least of all the idea that the values divide into two sets rather than people having independent rankings of all five, however I wish to focus on just one idea:
    “So if you accept the idea that the philosophical foundation of ethics is that other people matter as much as we ourselves do, and that any principles of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves, then that makes liberal values… well, better.”
    “I’m saying that any moral progress humanity has made over the centuries and millennia has been made, not in the direction of greater adherence to authority or purity or tribal/group loyalty, but in the direction of expanding our understanding and application of fairness and the avoidance of harm.”
    This strikes me as deliberately inflamatory. Public health is closely related to ideas of purity for me. A core conservative value is the “American Dream” the idea that anyone can attain authority and power if they work hard enough to earn it. And just as fairness within one’s group has expanded to broader and broader groups, the idea of one’s moral obligations to support one’s group has grown considerably over the centuries (doing things for the good of mankind).
    A fundeamental moral development in the last millenium is the adherance to an abstract sense of authority: The Rule of Law (for you Yankees that would be more directly epitomized in the whole constitution thing). It’s been the basis for the expansion of a great deal of fairness expansions.
    It would be so much easier to live in a world like yours in which the value of one ideology were so easy to find superior to another.

  4. 4
    Maria

    I have to ask this. The title of this article was different before. A part of it, now removed, was in a tone rather unlike you, and it didn’t match the tone of the rest of the article either. My first thought seeing it on the alternet (a few days before you now posted it here) was that the article had somehow been “hacked” by someone, and that that part was added by someone else. ??

  5. 5
    AYY

    Techskeptic, how do you know it’s not liberals who are doing what you said?
    The problem with the study is that it’s divorced from reality. Liberals might flatter themselves that they are concerned with fairness, but its mostly self-indlugence. Look at what liberalism has brought us. There’s plenty of evidence that FDR ‘s New Deal prolonged the depression. Now we have racial and sexual quotas, stimulus plans that don’t work, a federalized heath care system that hardly anyone wanted, speech codes, threats against global warming skeptics, a loss of respect in the world, etc. etc.
    As a lady once asked: “So how’s this hopey changey thing working out for you?”

  6. 6
    Iamcuriousblue

    Greta:
    First, thanks for the link to the NYTimes article; its a long one, but *really interesting* and I’m going to have to take some time with it over the next few days. I notice its by Steven Pinker, who I don’t always agree with, but in this case, it looks like he’s doing a solid review of the science rather than blowing his own horn about his particular take on evolutionary psych or “mental modules”.
    Your article raises some interesting points, though I think it applies to a wider range of political disagreements than just the old “conservative vs liberal” split in American politics. I think the authoritarian/ libertarian split is just as fundamental, and there are probably other political axes one could come up with.
    And as I often observe, it comes down to differences in what Daryl Bem called “zero-order” and “first-order beliefs”. Beliefs that are so deeply socialized as to be fundamental to one’s entire view of the world, or beliefs that *very* closely derive from that.
    In my sex-positive writing, I often end up debating anti-porn people, and I notice this is very much the case. Even the anti-porn feminists, who have some recognizably liberal beliefs, are working from basic assumptions about sexuality and about the individuals relationship to society that are wholly different from my own. Neither of us is likely to change their mind short of a conversion experience because our basic outlook is so different. (This is also the reason why I find so many feminist blogosphere calls for moderation on the sex industry argument to be so disingenuous – haven’t they figured out that arguments over porn are just a *symptom* of a split that’s *so* much deeper?)
    I have an even harder time having a dialog or argument with religious conservatives because there’s practically no shared value system to speak of beyond a few basic human universals.

  7. 7
    Valhar2000

    AAY, you are absolutely right, and it’s time that we stand up and say it! I mean, come on! The abject failure of the New Deal as as well established as the validity of Intelligent Design, at least!

  8. 8
    Valhar2000

    I think the authoritarian/ libertarian split is just as fundamental, and there are probably other political axes one could come up with.
    Let’s not get too American here.
    The division between “liberals” and “conservatives” that we see here is an artifact of current American politics, not some essential feature of “the right” and “the left”.
    For example, in the former USSR the authoritarians who valued purity and loyalty were all staunch communists who believed that American right-wingers were exponents of maximum evil. The dissidents who valued fairness and equality got those noble qualities ironed out of them pretty quickly in the Gulag.
    We should, therefore, not be too surprised to find that these findings do not correspond very precisely with Party Affiliation.

  9. 9
    Eclectic

    Greta, you talk about being baffled by purity, but I expect the relevant research has actually defined it rather more precisely, and the adjective “purity” came later.
    The NYT article is behind a paywall for me, so I haven’t chased down the source myself (although this page and this paper look good), but I’d think the argument could be made much better using the experimentally-derived parameters rather than the dictionary definitions of their descriptive adjectives.

  10. 10
    Valhar2000

    As a lady once asked: “So how’s this hopey changey thing working out for you?”
    Well, worse than I had hoped, but about as badly as I expected. Don’t do the victory dance yet, though: Obama’s (and most other Dem’s) problem is that he is insufficiently liberal, by several orders of magnitude.
    We now have the choice between hard-core lunatic and lunatic-light in American politics, and it shows.

  11. 11
    DSimon

    AYY, you list a lot of bad things and then say “liberalism did it” without actually establishing any reason why there’d be a causative link.
    Why should we assume that it was liberalism that got the US a bad reputation around the world, instead of the tendency of the US to go around bombing places? Why should we assume that “threats against global warming deniers” is a direct result of liberal philosophy instead of, say, a small group of assholes, which you’ll find among all political groups?

  12. 12
    MomInLatteland

    The bigger issue in “liberalism” vs. “conservatism” is the over-riding question of “who decides.” I have seen a tendency, on the part of both groups, to try and force their point of view on others and expect compliance. The big issue I have with “liberalism” is the tendency to assume that big daddy government knows best and should dictate fairness. Unfortunately with this mindset, what is “fair” for one group or individual ultimately becomes “unfair” for someone else. You cannot possibly make enough rules to always make it fair or equal. If those who are liberal want to spread the wealth then why is Pres. Obama keeping his 5.5 million that he made last year? Why isn’t he giving all but the very minimum he “needs” to the federal government to help reduce the debt? Or the big stars in Hollywood who make millions? Why are they not “sharing” their wealth voluntarily?

  13. 13
    Ron R

    Conservative philosophy basically consists of finding a better justification for selfishness.

  14. 14
    AW

    Purity here doesn’t mean ‘pure in body’.It’s more like ’100% one of us’. A ‘Real American’ or a ‘True Member of the Master Race’ or a ‘True Muslim’ or what have you.
    Things like drinking and smoking and sex and other drugs are perfectly acceptable under many definitions of purity.
    Excellent article, though – and I agree, this is a fascinating piece of research.

  15. 15
    DSimon

    MomInLatteland, I’m not sure what definition of “liberal” you’re using, but it doesn’t seem to match that of any self-described liberals I know, including myself.
    Liberals don’t believe that government always knows best; rather, we think that government is a better approach than the free market to handling certain kinds of issues. In both cases, checks against corruption and abuse of power are required; the difference is just a matter of how the power is organized and overseen.
    Liberals don’t think everything, on every playing field, should always be equal. Otherwise we’d be advocating hitting smart people in the head with bricks until they were stupid, and tying rocks to fast people until they were slow. Fairness isn’t about making everyone precisely equal in ability or opportunity (although granting people more opportunity is a good thing), just about equal treatment by authority, and reciprocity.
    And liberals don’t want to spread around all wealth until everyone has the exact same bank balance. That’s not even what way-out-there communists want; that’s more like what McCarthy imagined that communists want.

  16. 16
    Greta Christina

    Tim Foster: You’re arguing against points I didn’t make. I’m not saying that all liberals adhere to the values of fairness and harm to the exclusion of all others, or that conservatives adhere to the values of loyalty and authority to the exclusion of all others. And in fact, I made a point of saying that loyalty and authority were important and necessary. I simply argued that, when they come into conflict with fairness and harm, the latter should generally be prioritized… which is what liberals, on average, do.
    In fact, your comment is largely making my point for me. You say that authority (i.e., the rule of law) is important, not on its own, but because it can increase fairness and reduce harm. You yourself seem to be acknowledging that fairness and harm are better values than authority.
    Which leads me to something you said that was wildly off-base: your comment about public health. I happen to know an awful lot of people who work in public health, including my wife and a strangely disproportionate number of my friends. And they would be very surprised indeed to hear that “purity” is one of their primary moral values. In public health, purity is important as a practical consideration (making sure water is clean, food isn’t tainted, etc.). But as a moral value? Absolutely not. As a moral value, for people who work in public health, purity is important only because of its power to reduce harm. Period.

    Conservative philosophy basically consists of finding a better justification for selfishness.

    Actually, Ron… I don’t think that’s either true or fair. And it’s definitely not backed up by this research. I’m obviously about as far from conservative as you can get without being an actual bomb-throwing anarchist… but many conservatives do take morality and ethics seriously. They just prioritize different values than liberals do. The wrong ones, in my opinion — obviously, that’s the whole point of this piece — but despite what Tim and others might think of my ideas, I don’t think the evidence supports the idea that liberalism always equals compassion, or that conservatism always equals selfishness.

    Purity here doesn’t mean ‘pure in body’.It’s more like ’100% one of us’. A ‘Real American’ or a ‘True Member of the Master Race’ or a ‘True Muslim’ or what have you.

    AW: Actually, according to this research, the “100% one of us” stuff comes under the heading of loyalty, not purity. The value of purity is mostly about how we treat our own bodies: not eating forbidden food, not having sex with forbidden people or in forbidden ways, etc. It’s very baffling to me as a moral value, and I have a hard time getting my mind around it… but the research shows that many people see these things as moral values in and of themselves, totally apart from any question of harm or whatnot.

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    Oh, and Maria, to answer your question: No, the headline didn’t get hacked. AlterNet often changes or re-writes headlines, and they did so in this case. However, I asked them to change it again, since the original headline (“Get a Brain, Morons: Why Being Liberal Really Is Better Than Being Conservative”) was entirely in opposition to the point I was making.

  18. 18
    Maria

    Ah, that explains it. The headline seemed so off to me.

  19. 19
    Headbhang

    When I first read your piece I was left wondering where you had got those five core values from, but didn’t delve into the issue at the time and eventually let it pass.
    However, I have just through an entirely different avenue ended up landing on a website highly relevant to this issue, and thought I would share:
    http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php
    and from there, the profile/quiz website:
    http://www.yourmorals.org

  20. 20
    Andrew G.

    As for any supposed authoritarian vs. “libertarian” split in contemporary US politics, you can argue from Altemeyer’s survey results (ch.6 of The Authoritarians) that (a) there is a real split on party lines; (b) that the authoritarian side is the Republican one; and going further (this is my own argument), that no democratically-elected right-wing government in the USA can ever follow a legitimate “small government” policy, because it would be forced by its authoritarian-follower support base to do the reverse.
    The “American Dream” of anyone being able to succeed on their own merits is not what the conservative “authority” value is all about; quite the reverse in fact. Nor is “authority” necessarily about the rule of law; again, more the reverse. Specifically, strong adherence to the conservative “authority” value leads to excusing or otherwise downplaying violations of law by an authority figure; this manifests for example in lenient treatment of cops who break the law, or indeed presidents who break the law.

  21. 21
    Andrew G.

    Oh, forgot to mention: I’m not in the USA. The work of people like Haidt and Altemeyer is pretty much the only thing that has explained the insanity of recent US politics as seen from outside.
    The odd phenomenon whereby US conservatives try to claim that liberals are the authoritarian side is also well explained in Altemeyer’s work.

  22. 22
    Lenoxus

    I have a feeling that of those five values, Americans would get very good consensus behind fairness, and less so for most of the others. In particular, this is a culture in which almost no one would comfortably define themselves as “authoritarian”, and saying you care about “purity” isn’t too far behind that.
    So I don’t think it seems right to characterize a conservative as saying “”But authority and loyalty ARE more important!” Even if they do, they wouldn’t say that of themselves.
    Now, do we hear “patriotism” rhetoric, which, as conservatives use it, comes close to the “authority” thing? (“Don’t disagree, that’s unpatriotic.”) Yes. But only when a Republican’s in office; under Democrats, Republicans become True Rebels. Whereas the values of fairness, etc, get lip service throughout the years.
    (Actually, even Republicans in Rebel Mode are likely to characterize it in terms of loyalty, namely to the Founding Fathers, so, maybe that’s not too far off. Whereas my liberalism is such that I feel perfectly free to say fuck the Founding Fathers, those slave-owning patriarchal assholes, why the hell do we need to abide by their 200-year-old principles? Why not the principles of the founders of some other country; isn’t it arbitrary anyway? Already I’m making myself wince, because there’s a degree to which Founding-Father-worship is an assumed given, and to dispute it feels like Holocaust denial or something.)
    The one I’m not so sure about is the harm principle; I imagine a number of conservatives and even libertarians might associate that with such things as political correctness, “victim culture”, and “positive” rights. Of course, some libertarians characterize their philosophy as driven solely by the harm principle and nothing else, so there you go.
    When it comes to purity, I think that is a strong concern of conservative America (for example, re same-sex marriage), but most of them nonetheless feel the need to couch it in terms of the other principles; they don’t consider it self-evident.

  23. 23
    Andrew G.

    @ Lenoxus: are you confusing what people say their values are with what they actually are?
    To quote Altemeyer [on p87 of The Authoritarians]:
    And when I give feedback lectures to classes about my studies and describe right-wing authoritarians, it turns out the high RWAs in the room almost always think I am talking about someone else.

  24. 24
    Greta Christina

    Lenoxus: are you confusing what people say their values are with what they actually are?

    What Andrew said. The researchers in this field don’t ask people questions like, “Do you prioritize authority, or fairness?” They pose a series of specific ethical situations that hinge on these five values, and ask people to say whether the actions described in them are good, bad or neutral. (Look at the quizzes linked to by Headbhang above,)

  25. 25
    Tim Foster

    You know what? You’re right, Greta. I commented too quickly, and I was so caught up in my emotional response, I criticized the wrong parts and I don’t think I have enough information to criticize the right parts.
    It seems to me that there are interpretations of each of those values with respect to each side of the political spectrum. For example, for fairness or harm reduction (the easy ones) conservatives want to do different things (people should see more direct fruits of their labours and should be less interfered with, respectively) vs. liberals who would implement institutions to oppose unfairness and reduce harm.
    Bottom line though, the researchers are using common English terms (fairness, purity etc) to describe very specific behaviours that they are observing, and people reading it bring in all this extra baggage (like I did). I’m having difficulty finding their research and definitions.

  26. 26
    Buck Fuddy

    Superiority isn’t an attitude I’m naturally inclined to, but there are times, like when the Dixie Chicks were receiving death threats on a regular basis, and now, with the history of death threats against Ted Kennedy coming to light, when I can’t help thinking we really are better than them.
    I think one reason for the ascendency of right-wing ideology has been that the liberal principle of fairness–keeping an open mind, tolerating dissent, letting everyone have their say–is a weakness. Right-wing authoritarians are under no such burden. Whenever they have the power, they stifle debate.

  27. 27
    Greta Christina

    So apropos of absolutely nothing, I just want to say:
    Buck Fuddy! It’s so nice to see you again! I was just thinking about you, and thinking that you hadn’t commented in a while. It’s nice to see you again!

  28. 28
    Bruce Gorton

    There’s plenty of evidence that FDR ‘s New Deal prolonged the depression.
    Bullshit. The so-called new evidence is the Austrian school theorising and hoping nobody notices that the Austrian school rejects evidence based economics.
    The actual facts and figures from that period show that the New Deal achieved its aims (Not simply rebuilding the US economy, but also preventing the reinflation of the finance bubble) quite handily.

  29. 29
    Bruce Gorton

    Now we have racial and sexual quotas, stimulus plans that don’t work, a federalized heath care system that hardly anyone wanted, speech codes, threats against global warming skeptics, a loss of respect in the world, etc. etc.
    Single Payer, which goes somewhat further than what the US has introduced, had the support of 70% of the US’s population in polling. That constitutes hardly anyone of course.
    Women still on average earn less than men for doing exactly the same job – as do non-whites. Racism and sexism in hiring are very real.
    You talk about threats against Global Warming skeptics – point to one point at any time in which a contentious issue hasn’t ended up with threats going against one side or another.
    The speech codes amount to “Don’t libel or slander entire populations with the intention of inciting violence against them.”
    As to a loss of respect in the world, as a non-American that has a lot more to do with conservative authoritarian types coming to the conclusion that it only counts as human if it has US citizenship, and a lot of money.
    It has more to do with a bunch of people who would rather spend twice as much on healthcare than have their neighbour covered by it too.
    It comes to a political climate where religious discrimination is a political platform and the guys who want to ban gay marriage think it is acceptable to say it is a threat to the institution of marriage and present zero evidence for it, when they say that in court.
    (I am not kidding on that last one :http://www.timeslive.co.za/world/article506751.ece/Gay-marriage—evidence-against-unneeded)

  30. 30
    Andrew G.

    The gay marriage thing is an absolutely perfect demonstration of the sort of thing that Haidt’s work is about – in the conservative brain, “marriage” belongs to the category of “important ‘sacred’ stuff” and anything to do with teh gay sex has an “ick, disgusting” tag on it; any attempt to bring these two things together violates the “purity” instinct hard.
    Never mind that this is all about as logical as saying “1 + 2 = green”; a large proportion of people make their voting decisions on pure emotional reactions.
    (This doesn’t justify it, of course; but it does explain why US gay marriage laws keep failing at the ballot box.)

  31. 31
    Sastra

    Excellent post, which I’ve gotten to a little bit late, but I wanted to comment.
    I noticed that I did something interesting; as I read along, I applied the “conservative” and “liberal” labels not to politics, but to religion — specifically, spirituality/mysticism vs. humanism/naturalism — and I seemed to find the same sort of split. The “conservative position” is oriented towards top-down skyhooks and inherently subjective and narrow in focus: the “liberal” position is oriented towards bottom-up cranes and inherently objective and universal in focus.
    Science and democracy are only going to spring out of the latter, for they build up from common ground of humanity, and a presumption that there will be a tendency to err and self-correct. Thus, the primary need for fairness and avoiding harm: we’re dealing with other human beings like ourselves, and we’re doing grubby work,in order to collectively improve and progress.
    A religious or mystical world view, however, is going to try to get the individual to align oneself with a prior Perfection, known and trusted through subjective means — hence the need for loyalty to (faith in) the authority of that Spirit which is higher and purer than us humans. Our primary relationship then is with a Cosmic Other above the impure physical level, and we are progressively enlightened or unenlightened to the extent that we let go of the material world, and its apparent need to work things out with others on the same ground, and seek what’s given to us from above.
    Hm. Okay, this is a rather rough and sloppy outline, but I think it merits some thought.

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