Cognitive moral relativism vs. moral absolutism in liberals and conservatives

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 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.



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