Liberal and conservative morality

Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes co-operation impossible. –Bertrand Russell.

Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that morality has evolved so that people can work together in groups. He discerns six foundations of our morality, which conservatives value equally but progressives value differently.

He says progressives value Care/Harm, the emotional feeling we get from someone in need, or providing for them. Conservatives value fairness/cheating to a greater extent. I observe this depends to a great extent on trust, in individuals and in larger consequences. If a man has been claiming sickness benefits for ten years complaining of back pain, progressives trust that he is telling the truth, and conservatives do not; progressives trust that no great harm will come of believing him, because enough people think it better to work than claim on the sick, and conservatives do not. Progressives do not like cheats, but are less prone to see cheating. As neither group will always get it right, the question is which mistake do you want to make- only paying to the deserving poor, so failing to pay some who cannot prove their pain, or only refusing payment to clear malingerers, so that some malingerers get through.

Both value liberty/oppression, but differently. I consider this as a trans woman: my liberty to transition harms no-one and I count it as essential to my thriving. Moral codes should not constrain me. But the numbers in need of care are so great that government should tax and redistribute. Conservatives would be happy to support social cohesion through common understandings of what Manliness is, greatly increasing my suffering, but not want to pay the necessary taxes. Many well-off progressives are happy to pay higher taxes.

Haidt, a social psychologist, sees differences in personality: do you find new experience stimulating or threatening? How sensitive are you to possible threat? Montaigne wrote, The only things I find rewarding are… variety and the enjoyment of diversity. Conservatives would be happier in a more ordered society, with proper respect for authority. Progressives can find that stultifying, and seek to subvert the controlling ruler. Haidt’s Authority/Subversion foundation pits us against each other. How can we make things better, by finding what is wrong with the current ways and improving them? How is the leader wrong, and how may s/he be challenged?

Conservatives value sanctity far more, he says. I doubt this from my own experience. People value different things differently. I tend to feel what I value has value- the biosphere, the planet- and what they value has not- the Bible, traditional family structures, unwanted blastocysts. I can see that valuing particular things can promote societal cohesion, but I feel those things could be chosen rationally. Fracking, damaging the water table, is obscene. Early termination of pregnancy, disposing of an aggregation of cells which could spontaneously miscarry, is not. But I accept his moral foundation of sanctity/degradation: I may cut down a tree, but should not poison it, because that is dishonourable or unseemly.

I also feel that I, as a progressive, have loyalty/betrayal more attuned to reality than the conservative has. Whistleblowers show a higher loyalty, to the good of the group gained by acknowledging truth and making necessary change. Cover-ups stultify, and are a greater threat in the long term, though challenges to leadership can seem like a threat- we realise we do not understand the world, which is unsettling. However the book gives a way to see the opposition as arguing from different ideals, rather than necessarily blind or wicked.

I enjoyed the book, with its explanation of group selection over individual selection. Multicellular organisms are groups, the necessity as life becomes more complex is to ensure co-operation. A woman told him that groups gain success in the competition through breeding more children, rather than through war.

He also describes what he calls the “hive switch”, that moment when we feel part of something greater than ourselves, which we can attain at a rave or in a cathedral. One attained it through endless marching round a barrack-square: as the marching became more unified, he gained a sense of well-being. Collective ritual can achieve that. So religions can make groups cohere, refuting Prof. Dawkins’ idea of a meme, a set of ideas parasiting on groups of people.

People are selfish, he says, caring more about their reputations than their integrity, but also groupish, concerned for the interests of their group. We form groups easily, and create ways of identifying within them.

People are not rational. We make decisions on instinct, and then rationalise them. Hence confirmation bias. His image is an elephant, with a small rider, the rational mind: the rider is there for the elephant’s good.

7 thoughts on “Liberal and conservative morality

  1. After reading Haidt, do you now believe that the overall good can be improved by policy enlightened through discussion arising out of people of both sides (Liberal and Conservative) talking and seeing the value of the other side; or is there only way and the other is wrong – end of discussion?


    • Welcome, Thomas. Thank you for commenting.

      Oh, of course- so we need institutions permitting that. Facebook and Twitter won’t. Haidt shows how difficult it is: so it needs face to face discussion, methods of increasing respect and starting with easier disputes. And it takes time. In some cases, one side is right and the other wrong- climate catastrophe is the clear example. If the deniers were arguing we should do nothing about that for some reason, we could engage with them and hear their reasons; as they are arguing it is not a problem, they are merely wrong.


      • Hi Clare, I don’t deny that climate is changing, nor that man is involved. I only resent the use of the need to prevent climate change as the alter upon which some politicians and capitalists become rich. I don’t see it as fair to deny the world poor a chance to gain dignity and control over their lives and destiny.

        If it were that we needed to live like peasants in 14th century France to prevent climate change, I would be with them over the lords and ladies.


        • That’s an interesting perspective. Who is getting rich off preventing climate change? In Britain a supermarket chain, Iceland, decided to stop using palm oil in its own-brand products, and has gained kudos for that- for palm oil is grown on areas deforested for the purpose, and so gets rid of a carbon sink and biodiversity. Arguably the countries growing it have a right to their resources to profit their people, though such work usually only profits a few oligarchs. If we stop using palm oil, the oligarchs will continue deforestation, to use the land for some other purpose. So the Oligarchs will take the value of the land regardless, and Iceland will profit from burnishing its green credentials. It is all about money. Yet with a temperature increase of 1.5° rather than 4° or more, there will be fewer dangerous weather events, less disruption to crops, and more ground water to share. Coastal cities are less likely to be inundated. If we reduce production of plastic (does plastic profit its producers, or make things cheap for everyone else?) we reduce damage to the oceans and ocean life. Profit is everywhere, but the damage will be real.


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