One of the main ideas behind the moral foundation theory is that greater understanding of the differences between liberals and conservatives will lead to less demonization of the other side. This is a goal that is shared by liberals and conservatives alike. However, most of the people who work on this theory are liberal and most of our friends are liberal, so when we see this theory in action, we are possibly getting only one side of the picture.
For example, one of the ideas is to help liberals realize that conservatives do care about the harm and fairness foundation and so we should stop thinking of them as 'heartless'. Conservatives simply care about other things as well. Anecdotally, this seems like it works as I have a few liberal friends who have softened their attitudes toward conservatives through greater understanding.
Does the opposite work? Are conservatives less likely to demonize liberals upon hearing that liberals have fewer moral foundations they care about? I blogged about this anecdotally here, but there is a more objective way to test this, specifically to see if there is a difference between liberals and conservatives in terms of endorsing moral relativism (or it's opposite, moral absolutism). The idea is that some people feel that there is one system of morals that one should go by, while others are more willing to accept the idea that some people live by one moral system and others live by another. We have a survey on yourmorals.org which deals with this issue and below are the results (green=me).
So liberals do score higher on moral relativism than conservatives. BTW, moral idealism is the idea that it is sometimes necessary to make moral tradeoffs (ie. kill 1 person to save 10).
For further confirmation, let's take a look at conservatives and see how 'very conservative' individuals rate on moral relativism vs. 'slightly conservative' individuals.
It looks like there is a pretty clear trend that the more conservative you are, the less of a moral relativist you are. Indeed, in my opinion, this is one reason why people like Ann Coulter see liberals as 'immoral'. If you believe that loyalty is an objective absolute moral, then people who don't believe in loyalty are immoral.
So where does this leave those of us who research moral foundations? Perhaps we need to collect data on actual reactions to our theories so as to see if understanding really does bring people together. And perhaps we need to further refine our take home messages if we really do want to achieve the goal of reduced demonization of the 'other' in American politics.
talking morality with conservative blog writers of mayor sam, libertas, the big picture, and bridget johnson
So I'm just starting this blog and who knows where it will go, but so far so good and to continue the enjoyment of the process, I went to a 'bloggers night out' organized by Vik Rubenfeld who runs The Big Picture. Also in attendance were Bridget Johnson, a blogger from Libertas, and a writer from Mayor Sam's Blog in addition to my friend's who also blog, Zendi and Tara. It turns out that everyone who I didn't already know there was a conservative blogger, which was great because I didn't realize that Los Angeles had a political blogging scene.
In addition, it is always wonderful to get fresh perspectives from people who are really passionate about politics about some of the academic theories that we study. So what did I learn...
- As a group, they lament the lack of civility and demonization of the other side that is pervasive in politics. Naturally, their focus was on the demonization of conservatives by liberals rather than vice versa. Still, it is good to know that at least among this group, one of the central goals of our political morality research is shared.
- It is hard to get passionate conservatives to dispassionately hear the academic theory that liberals don't care as much about 'loyalty'. While I tried to spin it in as non-judgemental a way as I can, my example that liberals may not care about patriotism was not taken in as dispassionate a way as I might have hoped. I think the idea that someone who doesn't care about loyalty to other Americans as much is not a bad person, is rather radical. Indeed, much of the criticism of liberalism I heard at the table had tinges of loyalty based arguments (ie. why do liberals bash America?).
- In a face to face encounter, it's hard to not get along, no matter what the differences...indeed, I think we all parted as friends and I look forward to drinking with them in the future.
The 2nd point above actually contains a somewhat testable hypothesis. Specifically, some people see morality as absolute (ie. people who don't believe in my moral system are bad people) and some people see morality as more relative. The reaction I got to my revelation that liberals don't care about group loyalty as much as conservatives leads me to believe that conservatives would score higher on scales of moral absolutism. We actually have a test that measures moral absolutism on yourmorals.org and I'll be sure to run that analysis and post it soon.
So I was in my office today when my advisor came in to chat and I mentioned that I started a blog, which got us talking about YourMorals.org. I was showing him some of the political graphs when he noticed an interesting thing about our political candidates survey (built by Sena Koleva, btw). Specifically, he noticed that conservatives rated republican candidates lower than liberals rated democratic candidates. The graphs are below and you can see that the average liberal ratings of democrats are around 5 (blue bars), while none of the conservative ratings of republicans have an average rating close to 5 (red bars - Thompson comes closest at 4.6).
....interesting, eh? Good news for liberals? not so fast...yourmorals.org is clearly not a representative sample of the population as we've gotten a lot of subjects from liberal blogs, liberal new york times readers, etc...So our 'conservatives' are likely to be more liberal than most samples of conservatives.
Still, there is a way to test this theory better and that is to look at the results for people who described themselves as 'very conservative'. The results are below.
Now I think the democrats can take a bit of solace in this as while self described 'very conservative' subjects do rate republican candidates higher, they still rate republican candidates lower than the average liberal rates democratic candidates. So unless even our 'very conservative' subjects are less conservative than average (I doubt it), it seems like this is evidence that republicans really aren't as happy with their choices for 2008.
Still, there is plenty of time for democrats to pull defeat from the jaws of victory.
You can read more about republican dissatisfaction here.
Over the past year, I've gotten involved in research on moral psychology and it's political implications, specifically working with a theory put forth by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham at the University of Virginia called the moral foundations theory. You can read more about it here.
The main idea is that there are a finite number of moral areas that people can care about (the exact number is still to be determined, but 5 is the current number). Liberals care about harm and fairness. Conservatives care about those 2 and in addition, care about group loyalty, authority, and purity. Understanding these differences will hopefully lead to more civil dialogue.
Anyways, their wonderful work is getting noticed and together with collaborators at the University of California-Irvine (Pete Ditto and Sena Koleva), we put together a website at YourMorals.org to collect data on this theory.
Recently, this article was published in the New York Times and this reference to this article was published by Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic. As someone who enjoys playing with data, I thought it would be interesting to compare people who took the moral foundations quiz via the New York Times vs. those who came from Andrew Sullivan's blog (who should be largely Libertarian). The results of this are below (green = me).
Not the most exciting graph as I thought there might be more differences. Andrew Sullivan's audience should skew largely libertarian while the New York Times audience should be largely liberal. Haidt's theory is largely focused on social issues, so it's actually somewhat unsurprising in retrospect that Sullivan's audience and the Times audience score similarly.
Always looking for another reason to distract myself from "real" work, I decided to compare Libertarians vs. Liberals vs. Conservatives on the same quiz.
As one might have guessed, Libertarians do indeed score similar to Liberals with perhaps a slightly lower emphasis on the harm and fairness foundations (they actually score very similarly to conservatives there...and if you believe in this small difference, Sullivan's audience looks more liberal than libertarian). I'm actually somewhat skeptical that "fairness" means the same thing to liberals and libertarians and so I'm developing a scale to test that which will run at yourmorals.org soon. Specifically, it seems likely that liberals will endorse equality, the idea that everyone should receive an equal share of the pie, while libertarians will endorse equity, the idea that people who bake the pie should eat the pie, as the "fairest" way to divide a pie. Stay tuned.