Morality is Different to Liberals and Conservatives, but it’s More Complex than That
Have you ever wondered how, in public political discussions, the other side can defend stances that are so obviously wrong? Are they stupid? Or just evil?
Our judgment on what is right and wrong is based on multiple, sometimes conflicting feelings about broad classes of stimuli, called moral foundations. We all have all of them, but how strong each of the feelings is varies from person to person. When you judge that something is wrong, it is a feeling first, and we only come up with justifications afterwards.
This means that when you try to figure out why the others are defending what seems indefensible, they are (probably) not stupid or intentionally evil. The argument is typically about the justifications—finding reasons why, if you assume certain premises, the other side is illogical—but it is very often futile because the core of the conflict was never about them. Your feelings and theirs are just disagreeing. It’s like when you’re angry: it changes how we see people, even people we love. Realizing this makes it easier to reject the urge to argue, and to find common ground instead.
Fortunately, the pattern of which feelings are stronger is similar in most of us, so we can largely agree on some basics: it is wrong to hurt others or cheat them, you should care about your family, and so on. Unfortunately, the patterns also form groups that are different from one to another, meaning there is still a lot to disagree about. Enter politics.
Research by Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, and their colleagues has shown that the moral foundation patterns differ between liberals and conservatives (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SOQduoLgRw): On average, the conservatives care roughly equally about not harming others, not cheating, letting people choose themselves, loyalty to ingroup, deference to authority, and purity or sanctity. In contrast, on average, liberals care less about the last three, and much more about the first three—harm, fairness, and liberty. This was based on surveys done with a huge number (> 200,000) of people from all over the world responding to their website, YourMorals.org, and the researchers concluded that this division can be considered universal.
But is it universal? My colleagues and I went through hundreds of studies on this topic and ended up with over 30,000 respondents who were not part of the YourMorals.org dataset. Our analysis generally supported the patterns of values for liberals versus conservatives described above. However, we also found notable exceptions.
Our results showed that the differences between liberals and conservatives are not as large as previously thought. We suggested that this may be because the people participating in the YourMorals.org surveys were not very diverse but were quite motivated due to their personal interest in politics. We found that people who are less invested in politics are more similar across the political divide, and particularly uninvested Black and Hispanic conservatives and liberals did not differ at all in how they felt about the moral foundations. Furthermore, our results repeated a known pattern that for people outside the United States, liberal-conservative dimension is not the same as left-right dimension—we found that this applies to how they feel about morality as well. Liberalism-conservatism is associated with social issues, and the difference is more about loyalty, authority, and sanctity (conservatives feel they are more important morally than liberals), while left-right is associated with economic issues, and the difference is more about harming and cheating (the left cares about these more than the right; liberty was not part of our study).
Finally, the studies included in the review were very much focused on the English-speaking countries. We had only a couple of studies from countries such as Latvia, Sweden, and Chile, and none at all from countries such as China or India or any African countries. But the data we had suggested that political views may be associated with even more different patterns of moral foundations in countries that are further away from the Anglosphere political culture. Even though the popular and political culture of the U.S. is familiar to everyone using the English-language internet, you shouldn’t assume that your understanding of morality applies to all racial, cultural, and geographical groups equally.
First, political groups really do think and feel differently about morality, but the divide is smaller than it appears, because it is stronger particularly in people interested in politics—that is, those who probably talk about it most (and the loudest). There is also a solid common ground to build on: across almost all political groups, people very much agree that most importantly, morality is about not harming others.
Second, these divisions can be bridged more easily if you understand and can speak to the moral foundations embraced by the other side. For example, the study by Feinberg and Willer in our “For Further Reading” shows that a liberal might best convince conservatives about environmental issues by emphasizing the purity of the land of our ancestors.
And third, you must remember that you are biased by your own foundations as well. Everyone understands that two people arguing angrily will have trouble understanding each other, and that sticking to your own point of view without any care about what’s important to the other person will not go well. Morality works like that too—no one is being rational, but we still need to get along somehow. Feelings, and living with feelings, can be learned.
For Further Reading
Kivikangas, J.M., Fernández-Castilla, B., Järvelä, S., Ravaja, N., & Lönnqvist, J.-E. (2021). Moral foundations and political orientation: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 147(1), 55-94. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000308 (Open access manuscript at https://psyarxiv.com/b64rc/)
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2012). The moral roots of environmental attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56-62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612449177
J. Matias Kivikangas is a post-doctoral researcher at University of Helsinki and Aalto University, Finland. His research topic focuses on emotions and the affective system, and their role in morality and politics.