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Conventional Wisdom, Liberalism & Conservatism, The Moral Mind In Action

Do Liberals Really “Care” More?

In Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion Haidt makes the following observation about liberal morality:

But if you try to apply this two-foundation [i.e., liberal] morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss such concerns as social conventions. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

Procrustes is a figure from Greek mythology who would invite travelers passing by to stay the night with the promise that he had a bed that was a perfect fit for any person, no matter their size.  He would then ensure the fit by either stretching the person or amputating a portion of their legs. 

Procrustean analysis is where the data are forced to fit the theory.

Haidt’s studies show that in every measure that looks at empathy, sympathy, responses to images of suffering, or the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, liberals score higher than conservatives. 

The differences are small. It’s not that liberals care and conservatives don’t. We’re all human, after all. Natural selection wasn’t selective, placing the capacity to care in some people and not in others; it placed it in all of us. All groups rate care highest relative to the other moral foundations. It’s just that liberals score a little higher. Liberals “care” more.

Or do they?  What is “care”? Haidt’s measures of care look only at individual-on-individual caring. That’s what the moral “taste bud,” (using Haidt’s analogy) or color receptor of the moral eye (my analogy) is all about. 

But is there more to “care” than that?  Are there other ways to care, that might “even out” the slight disparity between liberals and conservatives on the care scale?  I submit there might be.

We know that the three-foundation morality is focused on the individual (the bees), and the six-foundation morality is focused on the community (the hive.)  Isn’t Haidt’s definition of “care” tailor-made to fit only the liberal morality, and therefore isn’t the conclusion that liberals “care” more a foregone, procrustean conclusion

In Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion Haidt observes the following:

In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris (2006, p. 8) gives us a standard liberal definition of morality: “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering… To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.” He then goes on to show that the Bible and the Koran, taken literally, are immoral books because they’re not primarily about happiness and suffering, and in many places they advocate harming people.

Reading Harris is like watching professional wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s great fun, with lots of acrobatics, but it must not be mistaken for an actual contest. If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins. So here’s my definition of morality, which gives each side a chance to make its case: Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. (Haidt, 2008)

Doesn’t this apply the same with “care” as it does with religion?  Isn’t it true that, if we want to stage a fair fight between conservative and liberal concepts of “care,” we shouldn’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins? Liberalism is focused on the individual, and conservatism is focused on the community and the individual.  The definition of Care that Haidt uses is all about the individual.  It essentially eliminates conservatism from discussions of care by definition.  So of course the conclusion is that liberals care more. 

I submit that there are more forms of care than direct bee-on-bee, or direct society-on-bee. I submit that all forms of protecting the health of the hive – the community – are also forms of care, because without a healthy hive it is impossible for the bees to thrive.  Caring for the hive is every bit a form of care as are all of the bee-on-bee forms that make up the exclusive definition that Haidt uses in his analyses. 

For example, loyalty; a moral foundation that is part of conservatism but which liberals largely reject.  People who are loyal to the group make personal sacrifices for the group.  Sometimes they even die for the group.  There is no greater form of altruism than that.  There’s no way it can be claimed that those people don’t care.

I submit that not just loyalty, but also respecting the social order, one’s elders, those in authority, traditions, and institutions is a form of care for our fellow man.  I submit that advocating “clean living,” – fixing broken windows in a run-down neighborhood, arresting fare jumpers in the subway, and defending traditional marriage and “family values” – are all forms of care, because we know that in the aggregate doing those things reduces the occurrence of much greater crimes, and generally leads to happier, healthier individuals (mentally and emotionally, as well as physically). They’re all forms of loving our neighbors. How can they not be “care”?

In the same way that morality is not just about care and fairness but also about binding people together into cooperative communities, care is not just about feelings of empathy for an individual; it is also about all of the things that ensure the health of the community as a whole, and thus of the individuals within it.

I submit that measuring the moral foundation of care independent of the synergy of the rest of the six-foundation moral matrix amounts to measuring care only with the liberal yardstick, which makes the conclusion that liberals “care” about their fellow man more than conservatives do into a procrustean, self-fulfilling prophesy.

On the topic of “care”, I would ask this: Which moral matrix is the best at achieving the miracle of a cooperative society, and thereby of doing the most good for the most individuals? And from the answer to that question, then, the question which follows is: Which morality, really, cares more?

If it is true – as I believe it is – that moral foundations work together to “check and balance” each other and form a synergistic system for which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, I’m not convinced that comparisons of liberals and conservatives which rely on a single trait, or moral foundation, offers an apples-to-apples comparison.

Which brings me to my next point, and one of my concerns, about some Haidt’s analyses; I think that breaking morality into its component parts, measuring each of the parts independently in the abstract, and then drawing conclusions about the differences between liberals and conservatives based on that abstract analysis (i.e., liberals care more) tends to overlook the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and in doing so I think, at least in the case of care, it measures morality on a playing field that is tilted toward liberalism.

If liberals and conservatives were asked to weight each of the six moral foundations in importance such that the total weight of all six together added up to 100, I suspect you might get scores something like 40, 25, 20, 5, 5, 5 for 16.6, 16.6, 16.6, 16.6, 16.6, 16.6 for conservatives (where the numbers stand for the foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation, respectively.)

I am not a statistician, so maybe I’m missing something, but I do not believe that a care/harm score of 40 for liberals and 16.6 for conservatives means conservatives care “less” than liberals do.  Think of it this way: Each egg in a basket holding three eggs contributes about one third of the weight relative to the total. Each egg in a basket holding six eggs contributes about one sixth the total weight. It does not follow from this, however, that each egg in the six-egg basket weighs less, or matters less, than each egg in the three egg basket. But when the baskets are filled with moral foundations instead of eggs it seems Haidt is suggesting it does follow. That just does not seem right to me.

These are not just data points, but actual human beings.  On an absolute, apples-to-apples scale, I believe conservatives are actual human beings who are every bit as sensitive, compassionate, and empathic as liberals are. I think that measuring moral foundations independently takes the human out of the equation. I think a measure of any single trait shows the relative importance of that trait to the total moral system – to the whole human being – of the person answering the questionnaire, and that’s all. I do not think that lower scores for conservatives means they value a particular trait less than liberals do.

I do not think the reverse is true for the three-foundation morality. Hear me out…..

For the most part the three “binding” foundations – along with any traits or viewpoints that might be associated with them – are outside of liberal morality. As Haidt said in his TED talk, liberals reject the other three foundations.

With regard to the three binding foundations, it does not seem that liberal sentiment is “I agree that they are valuable, I just happen to think that the first three foundations are more valuable.” What seems more accurate, if I’m reading Haidt’s work correctly, is that the liberal sentiment about those foundations is “Throughout all of human history they have been used only (or mostly) to oppress. They have no legitimate place in a moral society.”

But from the conservative perspective the opposite is not true.  The conservative view of the three “liberal” individualizing foundations is “Yes, those are indeed important. But these other three foundations – the binding foundations – are important as wellI think Haidt’s data supports these ideas.

Any suggestion, therefore, that conservatives “care” less about the “liberal” foundations, or any associated trait like empathy, does not reflect the reality of the situation, and is an incorrect – and even unfair – characterization of conservatives.

I don’t mean to belabor this. And again, my education in statistics is limited to those required for an undergraduate degree in the sciences, so I realize I may be missing some important point(s).

I am aware that it can be difficult to obtain truly representative data samples. Also, I’ve read some of the YourMorals.org blog entries on the subject. For example, Haidt’s entry entitled Nationally Representative Data is (sometimes) Bad Data for Psychology, and Ravi Iyer’s entitled Sampling limitations and what you can deduce from YourMorals data.

But there’s an element of the analyses on YourMorals that I’d like to offer for consideration.  This question is more or less an expansion of the ideas above, and it truly is a question much more than it is any sort of critique. The expansion takes my question beyond just data analysis to a larger idea about the possibility of an underlying premise behind the Haidt’s analyses and the discussions on YourMorals.org, and maybe even at CivilPolitics.org, which, if present, might be tilting the discussion toward the three-foundation world view.

If the conservative morality is defined by all six foundations and if the liberal morality is defined (essentially) by three of those six, then isn’t any comparison between the two moralities really just a comparison between a set and a subset of itself? Isn’t this a comparison of unequal things as if they were equal? And if so, how is such a comparison meaningful?

The response to this question might be that the comparison is between the views of *people*, not moralities. But aren’t the people still answering the survey questions from within their own moralities? And from the perspective of moral foundations, isn’t the liberal morality a subset of the conservative morality? And even if it’s not a subset, aren’t the liberal and conservative moralities of widely different sizes and scopes? And if so, then doesn’t assessing the averages of groups (i.e., of liberals and conservatives) “normalize” (I’m not sure of the right word) significant differences, essentially removing them from your data, and therefore from your assessments?

A Venn diagram of the two moralities drawn from the perspective of moral foundations would represent liberalism as a small circle completely inside a larger circle representing conservatism (as shown in this post.) The conservative circle would be twice the size of the smaller one. The moral, perceptual, and cognitive “space” that is defined by three foundations encompasses only a fraction of the space defined by six foundations. The liberal and conservative constructs are not equivalent, yet by taking averages of liberal and conservative survey respondents’ answers at face value it seems as if Haidt is presuming that they are equivalent, and then he’s assessing the data based on that presumption.

It seems to me that the different perspectives on issues regarding morals and politics between three-foundation and six-foundation people is a bit like the different perspectives on issues regarding physics between a person who has studied algebra and a person who has studied calculus. You can’t really say that the perspective of the algebra student is not valid *for that student*, but you also can’t really say that that perspective is equivalent to the perspective of the calculus student. The same sort of difference exists between the perspectives of liberalism and conservatism. I wonder if this distinction is being missed in Haidt’s analyses.

I’ve taken several of the surveys on YourMorals.org. The surveys ask respondents to select from ranges that extend from, for example, “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” or from “very important” to “not important,” seemingly without any recognition that those ranges might be very different – in an algebra vs. calculus, or three-foundation vs. six-foundation, sort of way – depending on the depth and breadth of the moral, perceptual, and cognitive space the respondent inhabits.

I understand the goal of science is to understand and to explain without passing judgment as to who is “right” and who is “wrong.” But I’m having a hard time figuring out how it is scientifically accurate to compare the views of the algebra student and the calculus student – or the three-foundation and the six-foundation moralities – as if they are equivalent-but-different when clearly they’re not.

I just can’t help having a sneaking suspicion that Haidt’s analyses might be based on a premise of equivalence among unequal things. And since the “things” we’re talking about are moralities, doesn’t this mean that Haidt’s analysis, and his evenhandedness, could rest on a premise of moral relativism?

At this point, let me say that I honestly believe that Moral Foundations Theory affords the most insightful analysis of the political divide, and greatest hope of bridging some of the divide, that has come along in quite a while; possibly decades. It is my fervent hope that the ideas continue to gain traction such that they eventually reach the tipping point – in the Malcolm Gladwell sense – and become part of America’s mainstream understanding of itself, and even of the world. It is in that spirit, rather than from a spirit of trying to find fault with the ideas, that I offer these, and most other, comments in this blog.

My above rationale is not the only reason I suspect moral relativism could be “built in” to some of Haidt’s analyses. I also suspect it because I sense a tone of moral relativism at times in some Haidt’s analyses and in some of the blog entries and comments throughout YourMorals.org.

Some examples of this include Pete Ditto’s entry entitled Are Liberals and Conservatives Polar Opposites or Mirror Images? the Yin/Yang, Shiva/Vishnu, and “Let go of for and against” concepts that pop up throughout Haidt’s work (e.g., in his TED talk), and Brad Jones’ response to some of the comments to his Attitudes Toward Inequality entry, in which he says “Hopefully I won’t do too much violence to your blind-squirrel metaphor by proposing an extension. Perhaps, liberals are the blind squirrels and conservatives are deaf. Alone, neither would survive long, but working together we can accomplish more than we ever could apart.”

I know there’s truth in all of Haidt’s analyses and all of the blog comments.  I’m not suggesting that anyone at YourMorals is doing anything other than honestly and conscientiously seeking the truth. What I am saying is that observations like those, while not false, may also not tell the whole truth. For example, the mirror image argument in Pete Ditto’s piece seems to be based on surface observations only. It does not seem to delve into the rationales that exist behind those observations, yet it’s in those rationales where the major, fundamental, core value differences lie. The fact that liberals and conservatives appear to be mirror images of one another on the surface does not mean that they actually are where it counts. The mirror image observation seems to argue for moral relativism by looking only at the surface and ignoring the part that counts.

I realize that one of the goals of YourMorals.org is to delve into the rationales behind various political and moral viewpoints such that the bedrock upon which they stand is seen and understood. I also realize that science doesn’t take sides. Impartiality is at the core of the discipline. So I appreciate that there’s a strong element of a Catch-22 style, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum involved with how Haidt’s findings are presented and discussed. If he doesn’t go to every length possible to be as impartial as possible then he might appear to be taking sides. But on the other hand, here I am suggesting that the way he’s implementing that impartiality is itself a form of taking sides. He just can’t win. This might be an issue for which there is no solution. But that doesn’t mean that my ideas are without merit either.

In summary, the way I see it there are at least three ideas which argue against the notion of presenting liberalism and conservatism as equivalent-but-different, and that liberals “care” more (or maybe they’re three variations around a single central theme.)

The first idea is that since the three foundations of liberalism are a subset of the six foundations of conservatism any suggestion of equivalence between the two moralities is, essentially, a suggestion that a set is equivalent to a subset of itself; and isn’t that logically impossible?

The second idea is a consequence of the first. By presuming equality between unequal things, it appears that the analyses might be “normalizing” the unequal things in a way that removes at least some of the differences between then, and then assesses the remaining differences as if the unlike things actually are alike. If this is true, then the comparisons of the moralities, and the conclusion that liberals “care” more than conservatives, is not a “fair fight,” and I’m not sure of the accuracy, or at least the completeness, of some of the analyses. An incomplete story may not be a true story.

The third idea is probably the most important. It just might be the crux of the entire matter. It is this: If an equivalent-but-diferent, Yin/Yang style relationship exists among the moral foundations doesn’t it exist between the first three foundations and the last three. That is, doesn’t it exist wholly within the six-foundation morality? Indeed, the entire basis of that morality is the trade-off, or balance, between the autonomy and freedom of the individual (represented by the first two foundations) and the societal constraints that are necessary to ensure that every individual may exercise their autonomy to the greatest extent possible without impinging on other individuals’ exact same freedoms (represented by the last three foundations.) In other words, the trade-off, or balance, between liberty and constraint (or between autonomy and community) is the essence of the six-foundation morality. The six-foundation morality IS Yin/Yang.  So the suggestion that a Yin/Yang style balance exists between the five-foundation morality and the two-foundation morality misrepresents both moralities as well as the relationship between them.

To be abundantly clear, and at the risk of tiresome over-redundancy, I’ll repeat that I am not a statistician and I am not a social scientist. I’m just a person who enjoys learning about the origins and history of political ideas. There may be major flaws in my thinking that I don’t see. But from the way I look at things it seems to me that there might be an unseen premise of equality between unequal things behind much of Haidt’s analyses, and when those things are moralities, doesn’t that create a context of moral relativism, and within that context, is it really fair to say that liberals care more?  


7 thoughts on “Do Liberals Really “Care” More?

  1. And to the argument that the Leftists (euphemistically called liberals and progresssives) are the ones who really care more, I must answer just like C. S. Lewis answered against the modern welfare leftist Nanny state:

    “My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”


    Posted by Juan Jeanniton | January 10, 2018, 11:05 pm
  2. Liberals say they care more but most believe in abortion, killing unborn children is not what I call caring. And calling Bush’s policy of water boarding does not make it torture… Its a real world out there.. hug an enemy and get a bomb up your ass… its simple. Liberals I do believe care but are flawed in their thinking and blind to many realities one of which is abortion.. for example.. they are for abortion but not for putting a horrific criminal to death for murder.. see my point??


    Posted by Doug Brinlee | September 25, 2012, 9:37 am
  3. First off liberal do see things like loyalty as important they just don’t weigh the core 5 roughly equally. And I do think if someone has a 2 point scale rather than a 5 point scale they do end up “caring more”. In real life choices are made to extend some aspects of policy at the expense of others. All values that don’t strongly reinforce one another are in competition with one another. So weighing one velue higher necessarily means weighing others lower.

    Let me take an example from your post. You use an example of the Bee Hive as the importance of groups. The way Bees make decisions is an individual Bee transmits information to a team that arrives at consensus. Bees do not have anything like a command and control organizational structure, the queen is responsible for breeding she doesn’t in any sense “rule”, the worker bees collectively decide on issues of resource allocation and group activity. In other words they achieve group loyalty partially and importantly through a consensus based organizational structure, not submission like dogs do. Bees reject respect for authority, they don’t have authority. Yet the factor you choose to focus on is their group loyalty not their democratic and egalitarian aspects. You saw the bees as supporting your moral theology not undermining it by focusing on those aspects in which “bee morality” agree with you.

    The argument between say care/harm and authority don’t take place when there is a good policy that has broad support or a terrible policy which everyone, including authorities, agrees need to change. The argument happens when the authorities are advocating policies which are harmful. Bush’s policy to combine intelligence information wasn’t controversial because most people agreed that more authority/respect and less equality was a fair trade off to maximize the good (i.e. catch terrorists). Bush’s torture policy was controversial because not because anyone disagreed that interrogation policy was in his scope of authority but because they believed the harms of torture far outweighed the good, and believed that this assessment allowed them to question how power was being used by the authority. Conversely conservatives believed that war authority is vital for war and even if they might disagree with the policy having a break down or order was far worse than any individually bad policy might be.

    That is more typical of political debate.


    Posted by CD-Host | April 1, 2012, 7:41 am


  1. Pingback: Moral Foundations Have Facets; Are Experienced Differently by Liberals and Conservatives | The Independent Whig - December 15, 2016

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