How do liberals and conservatives differ? Review of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind

According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by politics and religion, liberals and conservatives differ significantly on the moral foundations on which they base their lives.  Haidt thinks that conservatives base their ethics on additional principles beyond those used by liberals, and those extra principles give conservatives an advantage during elections.

Specifically, Haidt thinks that liberals typically base their morality mostly on just two principles:

  1. Care/Harm (sympathy for suffering), and
  2. Fairness/Cheating (including righteous anger at injustice and cheaters)

Like liberals, conservatives also use the above two principles, says Haidt, but in addition they typically also use the following additional principles:

  1. Loyalty/Betrayal
  2. Authority/Subversion
  3. Sanctity/Degradation

Haidt presents empirical research and reasoned argument which support his Moral Foundations Theory explaining the differences.

I was impressed by Haidt’s erudtion, originality and clear writing.  What annoyed me was his over-simplification of liberal morality.

He defends conservatives and blames liberals for not understanding conservative ideology. Liberals typically think conservatives are irrational and selfish or mean. Not so, says Haidt. They have different values.

As liberals, “we never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals.” (p 126) Haidt says that liberals often want equality of outcome, not just equality of opportunity.

I think Haidt gives conservatives too much credit and overstates the differences.

Haidt says conservatives are better at maintaining a group identity — Loyalty to their group. But, I say, this applies to smaller groups than the nation or the entire planet. Liberals believe in a strong central government and loyalty to that government and the world community.  Liberals in fact have a wider scope for their loyalty and identification. Nowadays most conservatives seem hostile to the central government and to international cooperation.  Conservatives restrict their care to their families or in-groups.   Liberals are quite concerned about loyalty and betrayal — not just to themselves and their kin.

Haidt quotes a conservative who says he doesn’t want his tax dollars going to “a non-producing, welfare collecting, single mother, crack baby producing future Democrat.”  (p 210) It’s the “makers versus takers” meme: we need to reward hard work and avoid rewarding laziness.

I think Haidt over-states the degree to which liberals want equality of outcome.

Conservatives often express outrage at free-riders — welfare moms.  But the real free-riders are Wall Street, military contractors, and tax-evading corporations and rich people…..

“Democrats often say that Republicans have duped these [working class] people into voting against their own self-interest. (That was the thesis of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?.)  But from the point of view of Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, rural and working-class voters were in fact voting for their moral interests.” (p 216)

See here for a video of a TED lecture in which Haidt summarizes his theory.

Later in the book, Haidt adds a sixth principle, Liberty/Oppression, which makes people rebel against domination by bullies. I don’t see much difference between this principle and 2. Fairness/Cheating.

“We humans have a dual nature — we are selfish primates.”  But, on the other hand, we “also long to be part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.”  In short, “We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.”   Chimps are quite individualistic and competitive; they don’t share and don’t cooperate much. (You’ll never see two chimps cooperatively carrying a log.) Bees, on the other hand, bees, like the social ants, are ultra-social;  they are totally subservient to the group.  Once you understand our dual nature, “the groupish and hivish things that people do make  a lot more sense.”    (p 255)

Humans’ devotion to groups is a source of great nobility and self-sacrifice, but it’s also a source of incredible violence (e.g., in war), due to devotion to the group.

As an over-simplification, libertarians are like chimps, while socialists are like bees.  Obviously, we need a mixture of individualism and groupism.

Oddly, conservatives seem better at cooperating and following the group than liberals, who always seem to be fighting among themselves.  The Left is divided. The Right’s coalition has endured despite its internal inconsistencies:  libertarians, necon hawks, social/religious conservatives, and corrupt capitalists.    Religious conservatives in particular are strongly into groupishness (restricted, perhaps, to fellow believers).

Haidt believes that ecstatic experiences that result from rituals, dances, marches, drugs, sports events, and other shared experiences function to activate our “hive mind.” Our capacity to fall in love with others can be hijacked to serve social and religious functions. But I suspect that Haidt conflates the various purposes that ecstasy serves.   He implies that altered states of trance and ecstasy are necessarily related to group consciousness.

Haidt says that religions “bind and blind”: bind people together in cohesive groups and blind them to truths.
The anthropologist Richard Sosis examined the history of 200 communes in the U.S. from the 19th century. “Just 6 percent of the secular [mostly socialist] communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.” (p 298). Surprisingly, the single most significant variable that predicted whether religious communes would succeed was the strictness of their rules: the more rules and sacrifices the commune had, the longer the commune persisted. But stringent rules didn’t help secular communes. Go figure. Are people masochists?

Haidt defends the notion of “group selection” — a hypothesis within evolutionary theory that says that Darwinian selection occurs not only at the individual level — competing for resources and mates — but also at the group level.  There is some controversy within biology about whether group selection happens for humans. Clearly it happens for social insects such as bees.

Haidt summarizes research showing that genetics, to a large degree, determines many of our traits: our IQ, whether we’ll become mentally ill, shyness, food preferences, your chance of getting a divorce, how religious you’ll be, and whether you’ll like abstract art. Even your political orientation. “Genetics explains between a third and half of the variability among people on their political attitudes.” (p 324)

After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, scientists recently found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to neurotransmitter functioning, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain’s response to threat and fear. The finding fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger… Other studies have implicated genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been tied to sensation-seeking and openness to experience, which are among the best established correlates of liberalism. (p 325)


I find it ironic that liberals generally embrace Darwin and reject “intelligent design” as the explanation for design and adaptation in the natural world, but they don’t embrace Adam Smith as the explanation for design and adaptation in the economic world. They sometimes prefer the “intelligent design” of socialist economies, which often ends in disaster from a utilitarian point of view. (p 356)

Haidt misrepresents the situation. First, most liberals are in favor of the capitalism and the free market — provided it’s regulated and balanced by regulations and sensible government initiatives. To design a car, or run a corporation, or write a book, or build a successful economy and society, you need a fair degree of top-down design and planning. It’s a myth that laissez-faire capitalism would work.  Haidt vastly over-estimates the degree to which the market system is responsible for our prosperity. Government and central planning played a huge role. See Countering anti-govt propaganda.

Haidt says that social conservatives are “right that you don’t usually help the bees by destroying the hive.” (p 366). But in fact liberals want a hive: a strong central government. Similarly, liberals respect Authority and Sanctity — of the national government and its symbols. Conservatives (libertarians, anyway) want to weaken the central government.

Haidt says that libertarians resemble liberals in many ways but ally with Republicans because they have a common enemy: “the liberal welfare society that they believe is destroying America’s liberty (for libertarians) and moral fiber (for social conservatives).” (p 353). Most liberals that I know are middle class or upper middle class. They’re not so concerned with protecting welfare for the lower class. They’re more concerned about stopping corruption, militarism, environmental destruction, and welfare for the rich.


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