Gray Matter

New Research Suggests the Left & Right Are Guided By Shared Morals

Debates between liberals and conservatives often degenerate into the two sides talking past one another, as though they are speaking different languages. Jonathan Haidt’s and Jesse Graham’s Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind suggest that this impression is reasonably accurate: liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs are based on different moral foundations. Liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs both rely on fairness and harm. But conservatives are more likely than liberals to make moral judgments based on the foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity (the “binding” foundations, so called because they emphasize group cohesiveness and order). Claims like these imply that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different kinds of people; conservatives may be figuratively from Mars, whereas liberals are from Venus.

Research presented at the 2014 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, however, paints a more nuanced account of the moral wiring of liberals and conservatives.

Beneath the divisive surface, common moral processes unite liberal and conservative ideologies. For example, new research by Jeremy Frimer, Jennifer Wright, and Danielle Gaucher calls into question the common assumption that conservatives (more than liberals) believe that people should blindly obey authorities. Their research shows that liberals and conservatives both see obedience as a moral good when the authority making the orders aligns with their own ideological views. People on the political right see obedience to conservative authorities to be morally good, but obedience to liberal authorities to be morally suspect.

Conversely, people on the political left see obedience to liberal authorities as morally good, but obedience to conservative authorities as morally suspect. For reasons that are not yet well-understood, however, both liberals and conservatives see the general idea of an authority as someone on the political right rather than the left. The general tendency for liberals to be more skeptical about obeying authorities therefore has little to do with obedience per se, and everything to do with their skepticism about the authorities’ ideological commitments. Beneath the surface of liberals’ and conservatives’ beliefs about the moral appropriateness of obedience, is the same underlying process: affinity for one’s own ideological tribe. Liberals and conservatives are equally “groupish” about authorities and obedience.

Boiled down to their essential ingredients, a number of heated ideological clashes reduce to conservatives defending standards of purity and sanctity pitted against liberals defending the vulnerable or fighting for justice. Same-sex marriage and abortion are good examples. According to MFT, sanctity and harm are distinct moral modules, each with its unique evolutionary roots and emotional reactions. New research by Kurt Gray and Chelsea Schein call into question the assumption that different processes govern each of these foundations. Their claim is that a single cognitive template—entailing a perpetrator and a suffering victim—drives the full array of moral experiences and reactions. In other words, when conservatives refer to the “sanctity of marriage,” they perceive a victim in need of protection. For example, they may hold the belief that allowing same-sex marriage will harm children. This view, although controversial, raises the optimistic possibility that ideological clashes reduce to differences in beliefs and assumptions about what kinds of harm come of various social policies, and not more fundamental, deep seated differences in moral beliefs.

Other research presented in the symposium suggests that the moral differences between liberals and conservatives are not as widespread as MFT suggests. New research by Daniel Wisneski, Paul Conway, and Linda Skitka finds ideological differences in the foundations that predict the connections between moral foundations and the degree to which people moralize their political positions, but do not find ideological differences in the moral foundations that predict moralization of interpersonal or private matters. When it comes to how to structure society and politics, conservatives rely on loyalty, authority, and purity more than liberals. But a different pattern of results emerges in the context of everyday life (i.e., the moral importance of not stealing, being kind, or personal hygiene). Moral attachment to the binding foundations predicts stronger commitments to morality in the domain of everyday life, something that emerges just as strongly for liberals as it does for conservatives. Although it is true that conservatives are more likely to apply the binding foundations to politics than liberals, these results indicate that conservatives are the only ones who think the binding foundations are morally relevant. In the context of everyday life, liberals do as well.

Finally, recent research by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman and Nate Carnes also identified boundary conditions on the predictions of MFT: Liberals and conservatives differ in the moral foundations that predict their beliefs about macro justice but not micro justice. Micro justice refers to interpersonal exchanges such as whether a given transaction between two people is perceived as fair. Macro justice, in contrast, describes people’s perceptions of distributed outcomes, such as whether the overall distribution of wealth in a society is fair. MFT treats these different conceptions of fairness as functionally equivalent. Janoff-Bulman and Carnes measured these constructs separately, however, and across several studies successfully demonstrate that both liberals and conservatives have group-based moral concerns. Conservatives’ group-based morality reflects concerns about the binding foundations (what Janoff-Bulman and Carnes refer to as “social order,” or a protection oriented morality) whereas liberals’ group-based morality reflects concerns about social justice (which reflects a provision- or care-oriented morality). Liberals and conservatives are both morally concerned about the group; these moral concerns are simply differentially focused on prioritizing protecting versus providing for the group.

Taken together, this research paints a more nuanced picture of the connections between political orientation and morality. Liberals and conservatives are not quite as morally different as the original conclusions of research exploring MFT might have one think. Rather, liberals and conservatives simply differ with respect to whom it is morally appropriate to obey (and therefore when obedience is a moral good), their assumptions about the social outcomes of certain social policies (i.e., they worry about different kinds of harm), when and where they see the binding foundations as relevant (in politics versus everyday life), and whether they prioritize protecting versus providing for the collective good. None of this research necessarily falsifies moral foundation theory, but it does provide important insight on boundary conditions and highlights the importance of testing hypotheses across different contexts. When hypotheses are tested across more contexts, research reveals that the basic psychology of liberals and conservatives is more similar than different, and liberals—in addition to conservatives—care about the morality of the collective.

Linda J. Skitka (@LindaSkitka) is a professor and associate head of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests are at the intersection of social, political, and moral psychology, focusing primarily on understanding the cognitive and motivational underpinnings of moral conviction and ideological disagreements.

Jeremy Frimer is an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. His research interests include moral exemplars, moral foundations theory, and implicit measures of personality.

This article originally appeared on the Society for Personality & Social Psychology blog Character & Context.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Matt Neale