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Science-Based Definitions of Conservatism and Liberalism

It’s long been a belief of many that there’s no single definition of liberalism or conservatism, and in order to understand each we need to look at the tenets, principles, arguments, and actions espoused by each side’s most eloquent spokesmen and try to tease out from those things the fundamental differences between the two world views.

Not any more.

Social science research now allows us to crisply define left and right in terms of the psychological profile of cognitive processes and “evolved psychological mechanisms” that drive the thinking of each side.

It turns out that many, MANY aspects of human nature are common to liberals and conservatives alike; things like the rider and the elephant, motivated reasoning, tribalism, throwing truth, logic, and evidence under the bus in defense of tribes or sacred values, flip flopping, hypocrisy, and on and on and on.  You get the picture. These are not liberal things or conservative things, they’re human things.  We evolved to form into groups of like-minded people which then compete with other groups for scarce resources and political power; where “like minded” means that the members of the group share a set of values about what the world is, can be, and should be.

The number of things truly unique to, or uniquely characteristic of, each side is very small, but have deeply profound effects.

Those things are 1) moral matrix, and 2) cognitive style.

Moral matrices are described in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  The psychological profiles of left and right differ in the degree to which they employ six evolved cognitive processing modules of social perception, subconscious intuitions, and conscious reasoning.  These “moral foundations” are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  The first three are known as the “individualizing” foundations because they are focused on the autonomy and well being  of the individual.  The second three are known as “binding” foundations (although I suggesting “cohering” is more accurate) and are focused on helping individuals form into cooperate groups for the mutual benefit of each member. The liberal psychological profile employs mostly the individualizing foundations, and of those mostly just care.  The conservative profile employs all of them in roughly equal balance. Here’s data from Haidt’s studies in America, and on every continent:



Cognitive styles are described in The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman, in which Plato and Aristotle server as metaphors for the two main cognitive processing types that appear consistently throughout human history. Platonic idealism is the belief that everything that exists in the real world is but a shadow of its ideal self, and it is the responsibility of the enlightened among us to help us see the potential ideal and work toward it.  This is reflected in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” RFK’s “I dream things that never were and ask why not,” and Obama’s (and liberalism’s) stated desire to “fundamentally transform” America. It is seen in the writings of thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Condorcet.  Aristotelian empiricism agrees that we should always strive to improve ourselves and our societies, but that human nature is flawed, human clay is limited in the forms it can take, and that those flaws and limits place real world practical limits on what’s possible, and that we ignore those limits at our peril. This is reflected in the works of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Sowell. 

Here are the science-based definitions of conservatism and liberalism as I see them.  I may update these definitions to improve them as I continue to research these topics:

Conservatism is the psychological profile of the all-foundation moral matrix in combination with the cognitive style of holistic intuitionist Aristotelian empiricism. It is the predisposition (ala Hibbing*) toward the set of moral intuitions for which the object of care is the family unit – social capital –  and which favor process-based negative conceptions of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness. Its goal is “to create a healthy, happy society” that does the most possible good for the most possible people.  It accepts human nature as immutable, and sees the enemy of liberty as consolidated, concentrated, political power.  It therefore sees government as a necessary evil, the purpose of which is to protect rights, and for which power must be restricted lest tyranny and oppression rule.

Liberalism is the psychological profile of the three-foundation moral matrix, with extra emphasis on care, in combination with the cognitive style of WEIRD rationalist Platonic idealism.  It is the predisposition (ala Hibbing) toward the set of moral intuitions for which the object of care is the individual and his/her feelings, and which favor outcome-based positive conceptions of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness. Its goal is “to create a healthy, happy society” that does the most possible good for the most possible people. It sees human nature as having unlimited potential, and sees political power as a source of good.  It therefore sees government as the ultimate tool for achieving good, for which power must be consolidated and concentrated in order to prevent the rich and greedy from abusing and oppressing the less fortunate.


* Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences



  1. Pingback: The Hierarchy of Evolved Psychology, Morality, and Public Policy | The Independent Whig - April 29, 2017

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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