Moral Sentiments and Political Ideology

Why do reasonable people disagree so much about politics and what can we do about it?

Jonathan Haidt’s 2008 TED talk provides an interesting perspective from moral psychology.

Haidt identifies five core moral sentiments: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. Each of these sentiments, he argues, is an inborn impulse. They all serve important evolutionary purposes and allow humans to cooperate and reproduce. Over the course of one’s life, these moral sentiments may become more or less important to each person due to one’s social environment.

Haidt then shows survey evidence from around the world that liberals and conservatives develop divergent view of the relative importance of these moral foundations. Liberals value care and fairness over loyalty, authority and purity. By contrast, conservatives value them equally.


In Haidt’s words:

Because liberals reject three of these foundations [authority, loyalty, and purity]. They say "No, let's celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership." They say, "Let's question authority." And they say, "Keep your laws off my body." Liberals have very noble motives for doing this. Traditional authority, traditional morality can be quite repressive, and restrictive to those at the bottom, to women, to people that don't fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.

Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It's really precious, and it's really easy to lose. So as Edmund Burke said, "The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights." This was after the chaos of the French Revolution. So once you see this -- once you see that liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute, that they form a balance on change versus stability -- then I think the way is open to step outside the moral matrix.

Haidt’s prescription to liberals (as I understood it) is that we must learn to recognize the usefulness of all moral sentiments, not only fairness and care. The various moral impulses need balance and harmony, and we should not completely entrust our own moral impulses.