Sunday, December 16, 2012

Conservatives, Liberals, & Libertarians: How We Reason and How We Relate

Last month, during the second week of November, several of my clients mentioned the election results during their sessions.  Some felt optimistic and jubilant about the results; others were anxious, depressed, disheartened, or frustrated.  Some shared mixed feelings and ambivalent thoughts; still others were indifferent to the entire process.  Because I'm blessed to have friends with a wide and diverse range of political beliefs, my Facebook page news feed was packed with thoughtful and sometimes divisive commentary leading up to Election Day, as I imagined yours probably was.  

When the dust started to settle, I thought it would be good timing to post a synopsis of research I've been reading on the moral and psychological differences and similarities between conservatives and liberals.  Because my interpretation of the data I reviewed led me to a conclusion that virtually all Americans who are passionate about politics embed their beliefs in sound and perhaps commendable moral principles, it was my hope that with the holiday season, the information I posted might save a few families from some heated holiday dinner arguments.

But just as I was about to post this information, tragedy ensued.  Two days ago, 20-year-old Adam Lanza used two nine millimeter handguns to murder 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, including 20 children between six and 10 years of age.  Instantly, my Facebook news feed was centered on the tragedy.  While the majority of the posts I read expressed grief, empathy, and compassion for the victims, I noticed an instant slew of political commentary on the event from others who are passionate about their political beliefs.  

On the Left, I read comments like these:

  • "Obama please rid this country of conservative 'values' 20 kids died today in part because of those values."
  • "So this tragedy has once again shown that Americans cling to their guns and religion...Somehow I'm sure our founding fathers and Jesus would be saying you guys got it all wrong"
  • "How many mass shootings must this country endure before something is done about gun control on the Federal level?"
  •  "And people don't want tougher gun sad"

 Here's a sample of some of the commentary from friends on the Right:

St. John's Episcopal Church, near the scene of the shooting
  •  "People wonder where God was during this tragedy and blame Him for these unimaginable losses, but yet we are becoming a Godless nation. Why am I not shocked?"
  • "If more teachers were armed, maybe this tragedy wouldn't have happened."
  • "Respond in weeping with those who weep, respond in prayer, respond by searching your own heart, respond in repentance and respond in love."
  • I read several posts featuring news stories and video footage of criminals who were using guns or other weapons to harm people being thwarted by armed citizens who used guns to defend innocent lives.
  • "At the gun second amendment rights shall NOT be infringed upon."
  • "...I think the media plays a huge role...bigger than anything else! You would not have seen this 50 years ago...even 20 years ago."
  •  "When tragedy strikes, understand that a blanket anti-gun perspective also prevents many Americans from defending themselves and their loved ones."

Depending on your own political and religious beliefs, some of these comments may offend you while you may experience as reasonable responses to a tragedy that evokes strong aversive emotions within most people.  (All this is aside from the issue of whether or not it was appropriate timing to politicize a tragedy of national interest.)  I think these quotes illustrate the following about people on both sides of the aisle: (1) We care about tragedy and suffering; (2) We sometimes convert our hurt and anxiety into anger, searching for one or more scapegoats; (3) We sometimes demonize "the other side" rather than seek to understand them even if we disagree with them.

Jonathan Haidt, PhD
Social psychologist, professor, and University of Virginia researcher (and this year's keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Mental Health Counselors Association) Jonthan Haidt, who has been described as "the world's leading expert on the science of morality," sought to better understand the moral psychology of conservatives and liberals through the lens of moral foundations theory, a pluralist moral theory that proposes that human moral reasoning can be divided into six foundations that evolved in human beings concurrent with the development of civilization:
  1. Care/Harm: Virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance fostered by our ability to feel and dislike the pain of others;
  2. Fairness/Cheating: Virtues of justice, rights, autonomy that can be further divided into two types of fairness; equality and proportionality;
  3. Liberty/Oppression: Characterized by feelings of reactance and resentment people feel towards those who dominate them and restrict their liberty; a contempt for "bullies" and oppressors;
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal: Virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group;
  5. Authority/Subversion: Virtues of leadership and followership, including respect of legitimate authority and traditions;
  6. Sanctity/Degradation: Reflective of the idea that the body is a temple that should not be desecrated by immoral activities or contaminants. 
Both liberals and conservatives are often thoroughly convinced that their beliefs are the "right," "moral" or "superior" ethical beliefs, but what did Haidt and other researchers find out about the differences in how liberals and conservatives engaged in moral reasoning when they administered the Moral Foundations Questionnaire?

Arthur Brooks, PhD
  1. Liberals emphasize the Care foundation above all other moral precepts.  Conservatives also highly value this foundation, although slightly less than liberals.  However, conservative caring is somewhat different-it tends to be less focused on animals or people in other countries and more focused on sacrifice for the group (e.g. care for wounded veterans);
  2. Both liberals and conservatives care about the Fairness foundation, but there are two kinds of fairness: (1) Equality (favored by liberals); and (2) Proportionality, meaning that people are rewarded in proportion to what they contribute (favored by conservatives).  Social scientist Arthur Brooks applies these concepts in economic terms by labeling them as (1) Redistributive fairness: It is fair to equalize rewards, whereas inequality is inherently unfair (favored by liberals); and (2) Meritocratic fairness: Fairness means matching reward to merit, whereas forced equality is inherently unfair.  In other words, liberals tend to prefer that people have similar incomes even if they may be contributing to society in varying degrees, whereas conservatives accept the notion of different incomes based on what people are contributing to society, the economy, the company, etc. 
  3. Conservatives are more likely to emphasize the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations than liberals. The Liberal emphasis on the Care Foundation results in a tendency towards universalism and away from nationalism and puts them in opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power.  Liberals who consider themselves spiritual, however, tend to join conservatives in emphasizing the Sanctity foundation, although in different forms.  For example, spiritual liberals are more likely to visit New Age grocery stores, where they'll find a variety of products that promise to "cleanse" them of "toxins," whereas religious conservatives are more likely to refer to the "sanctity" of life, marriage, the family, etc.  Religious conservatives are more likely, in Haidt's words, to "view the body as a temple, housing a soul within, rather than as a machine to be optimized, or as a playground to be used for fun."
  4. The Liberty foundation is, essentially, owned by libertarians, a third political group that doesn't fit neatly into the conservative or liberal camps (although they are more likely to vote for Republican or third party candidates than for Democrats).  Libertarians identify with the early American political ideology known as classical liberalism.  Like contemporary American liberals, libertarians strongly emphasize civil liberties and take many "socially liberal" positions, such as support for gay marriage and the legalization of "victimless crimes," such as adult pornography, prostitution, and recreational drug use, regardless of whether they view those acts as healthy or moral.  They differ from the "Religious Right" faction of conservatives in the sense that they are more likely to be atheists or agnostics (although many prominent libertarian politicians are Christians) who abhor the use of government as a tool for imposing one's personal religious beliefs onto the public-at-large.  But like conservatives, libertarians prefer a nation with a very limited, fiscally conservative government, lower taxes, and a free market with minimal government interference.
  5. Liberals are more likely to inaccurately stereotype the moral reasoning of conservatives than vice versa.  Haidt teamed up with two other researchers, Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, to conduct an experiment with more than 2,000 American participants in which one-third of the time participants were asked to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire normally, answering only as themselves.  For the other two-thirds of the time, they were asked to complete the questionnaires as they think a "typical liberal" or "typical conservative" would respond, allowing researchers to examine stereotypes that each side held about the other.  The more liberal a respondent, the more likely he or she was to inaccurately stereotype the other side.  According to Haidt, "The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness question while pretending to be conservatives."  (Read more about this experiment.)  Some of my liberal friends have accused conservatives (and libertarians) of being selfish, greedy people who only care about themselves, but in Haidt's words, "Everyone-left, right, and center-says that concerns about compassion, cruelty, fairness, and injustice are relevant to their judgments about right and wrong."  While it's true that liberals score slightly higher on empathy than conservatives, the myth of conservative selfishness is contradicted by their scores on the Care and Fairness foundations and by a series of studies suggesting that while liberals are more likely to rely on government as a means for caring for the needy, conservatives are more likely to care for the needy through personal charity (especially religious conservatives), and more likely to volunteer for charitable purposes. In other words, both liberals and conservatives care about the needy; they simply disagree on the means by which we can best provide that care.
In sum, liberals tend to favor the Care foundation above all other moral foundations, libertarians tend to favor the Liberty foundation above all others, and conservatives tend to emphasize all five moral foundations, as depicted in the graphs below:

So now that we better understand the similarities and differences in moral reasoning of conservatives and liberals, how can we have a healthier, more productive dialogue?  How can we avoid nasty arguments at family or social events or through online social networking sites like Facebook in which we say things we later regret?  

One option is to avoid discussing controversial subjects.  While this approach works for some and may be effective at keeping the peace, it also prevents people from having healthy dialogue about important subjects and from learning more about others perspectives.  It prevents us from obtaining new information that influences us to change our own positions, and sometimes these shifts are pivotal in increasing our life satisfaction.  

Perhaps this data gives us a starting point for a healthy dialogue about moral, religious, and political issues.  In addition, I think these findings can be used to help increase empathy between people who lie on varying points of the political spectrum.  We can capitalize on the two  moral foundations we all tend to share in common (Care and Fairness) rather than emphasizing the foundations we don't equally value.  Doing so can create a "launching pad" for a more constructive conversation about areas of disagreement.  

I offer the following recommendations for a healthy political or religious dialogue:
  1. Before you give your own perspective about a controversial issue, start by learning more about the other person's perspective.  Ask questions (e.g. "What do you want to be different?"  "What are you concerned about?"  "What about this is troubling to you?" "Why is this issue important to you?").
  2. When you think you have a clearer picture of the other person's perspective, summarize your understanding of his or her perspective to check in and make sure you are understanding.  In relationship counseling, I often refer to this as "mirroring."  If the other person does not think you are understanding, ask him or her to clarify and then continue mirroring until he or she agrees that you have it right.
  3. After mirroring, validate anything about the other person's perspective that you agree with or find commendable (e.g. "I really like that you're concerned about whether or not this piece of legislation is fair.  I have the same concern;" "I can see that you really care about others' suffering, and I admire your compassion.").
  4. After validating, introduce your own perspective, using "I-language" (e.g. I feel, I think, I'm concerned about, I believe, I'd prefer, etc.).
  5. Try to keep the dialogue respectful (e.g. monitor your tone of voice, avoid interrupting, avoid labeling and exaggerating, etc.).  If your notice yourself getting too upset, you can acknowledge that you are too passionate about the issue to have a respectful dialogue at the moment and can politely terminate or postpone the conversation.  You can later reflect on what was going in within you as the topic was being discussed.  In the words of Confucius, "When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves."
  6. Release the need to be "right" or the need for the other person to see things as you do.  Political, religious, and moral issues are controversial precisely because there are so many valid, reasonable points on both sides of the argument.  Practice accepting that others do not believe as you do and shift your attention to (a) understanding the other person's perspective; (b) attempting to help the other person to understand yours.  The goal here is understanding, not necessarily persuasion.

I can think of no better way to end this post than by sharing some of Haidt's concluding words in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion: "Morality binds and blinds.  It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning the battle.  It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say...if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first.  If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the 'other' group, you'll find it far easier to listen to what they're saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in new light."


How do you score on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire?  Take the test online for free and find out!
Interested in Haidt's work?  Consider reading his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.


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