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Sep 15, 2008 10:32 pm

Liberal versus Conservative

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has an interesting new answer to a rather tired old question. (Tip of the hat to Arts and Letters Daily.) Why, a generation of academic researchers have wondered, do so many relatively low-income Americans, especially in rural areas, keep voting for Republicans, even though their class interests requires them to vote for our boys? Why don't they recognize that we are the ones who can look after them? What's the matter with Kansas, anyway?

Standard answers to this question in the literature are that these voters are in love with hierarchy, rigid, fearful of change, worshipful of authority, or just plain stupid.

I've long wished I could point out to these researchers that another answer to this question is right under their noses: maybe these people don't vote for you and your boys because they don't like smug, patronizing, narrow-minded, stuck-on-themselves jerks like you. This is an amateur opinion, though, based on no empirical research, so no one has any reason to take it seriously.

Haidt and his fellow researchers have come up with an answer that is the first cousin of mine: This phenomenon is about differences in values and in moral character. They have come up with evidence that conservative voters and liberal voters tend to view life through ethical categories that are profoundly different.

Briefly, liberals tend to think of people as individuals bound together my consensual relationships. Morality is a entirely about how one treats others, and is governed by norms like justice and reciprocity. Conservatives think this way as well, but they also think of morality, Haidt says, as something the binds people together into groups. Conservative moral responses are often governed by norms like authority and loyalty, as well as sanctity, purity, and the sacred. Liberals are Millian, conservatives are Durkheimian. Liberals are individualists, conservatives to some extent are tribalists.

Liberals and conservatives, according to Haidt, fail to understand each other because they are speaking different moral languages. Conservatives tend to use more of the full spectrum of moral responses that are available to human beings, and liberal discourse accordingly often has a thin and tinny sound to them.

I find this fascinating, but I am a little worried that Haidt has not interpreted his findings rightly. He argues that liberals might be able to get more conservative votes if they use more of the full spectrum of moral concepts -- apparently including, if I understand him rightly, seeing the criminal justice system as having a "quasi-religious importance" and seeing the state as "guarding the precious coherence of the whole" of society. I don't think that this would be to speak to conservatives in their own language at all.

Let me put it this way. Suppose that he had asked his informants to rate from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" a statement like Public officials have our best interests at heart, or maybe People who run governments are more likely to have good intentions and be well informed than people who head other sorts of organizations, such as families or business corporations. This is only a guess, of course, but I bet that liberals would agree with such statements more than conservatives. If that is so, I would take this to mean that liberals are the ones who are most likely to think of heads of state as a morally privileged priesthood.

It is true enough that conservatives sometimes seem to base policy initiatives on religious considerations. It is partly for religious reasons that they want the state to pursue, capture, and punish doctors who perform abortions (and perhaps the women who have them performed as well). Religious considerations might also be part of the reason why they are so interested in having the state torture and kill jihadists. But they don't think that these policies would bring more virtue into the world, nor that they would in any other way make the world a positively better place. These policies are purely negative moves against (as they see it) injustice and evil.

Of course the values they associate with the family are important to them, but that is why they have families. They want to get in touch with the sacred, but that is why they go to church. They don't go to the state for such things.

On the other hand, liberals do seem to see the state as closely associated with virtue and moral purity, and as a source of not merely happiness but to some extent of the very meaning of life itself. Conservatives often allow the state to overlap with the church, while liberals want the state to be a sort of church. I am just guessing here because, as may be obvious, I am neither a liberal nor a conservative myself, but this, it seems to me, is part of the difference between them.

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