Several years ago I was chatting with a young, atheist, and fairly liberal friend about a mutual friend who had recently been sent home early from his Mormon mission. When he asked me why Elder R. had to come home, I responded that it was for immorality. He paused silently for a moment, then asked, "What does that mean? Did they put him alone in a room with a cat and a hammer and see what he would do? ... And he failed?"
I've long wondered what the difference is between liberals and conservatives. Not just platform and policy differences. Not just the mud that gets slung. What is at the root?
On Being's Krista Tippett recently interviewed social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt and he outlined a revolutionary (to me) new concept: liberals have a different morality than conservatives.
Haidt describes the five foundations of morality in these words:
In his research, he found that conservatives prioritize all five. Together they constitute morality. Liberals focus exclusively on compassion and fairness and reject the last three foundations, even classifying them as immoral:
- For a liberal, obedience to authority may be characterized as blindly following, like a sheep or a Nazi private who was "just following orders." Thinking for oneself coupled with independent, courageous action are held up as superior standards (think Edward Snowden).
- Loyalty to one's group creates firm boundaries: exclusionary boundaries that might marginalize outsiders -- this is where racism and other bigotry begins. Better to be inclusive, they say, and just drop the insular group identities.
- Sanctity relates to maintaining the purity of sacred objects, spaces, events, and ideas. Sexual purity is one example of a sacred concept liberals reject as parochial and oppressive (and what my friend mistook for a cat-and-hammer test). Sanctity of unborn life and traditional marriage are others.
By rejecting these last three foundations, liberalism puts all its weight on the first two, which means the two sides can talk about the "morality" of some decision and not understand one another at all. A common argument in our day is that religious fervor has been a major impetus for violence globally. Tippett brought this up in the interview and Haidt had a really striking answer:
Ms. Tippett: It’s also true, and we certainly have this specter in the 21st century, that religious energies are at the center of a lot of the, well, morally justified violence, ... moral anguish. So how would you explain the fact that this seeming contradiction that religion — that religions...
Dr. Haidt: Oh, it’s easy.
Ms. Tippett: ...are carriers of morality and also...
Dr. Haidt: Yeah, easy.
Ms. Tippett: ...that — that, uh, that those very same energies become most destructive.
Dr. Haidt: Well, if you think that morality is being nice and kind to people, well, then, yeah, boy it sure looks like a paradox. But if you go with me that — that morality is these many things, and a lot of it is, "are you a good group member or are you pursuing your own interests?" And those group interests often are about intergroup conflict. So, if you think about religion as functioning to bind groups together, well then, it’s no paradox. A lot of that is nasty stuff.
In trying to meet the demands of five pillars of morality instead of two, conservatives tend to be viewed by liberals as lacking in compassion and fairness. This, in addition to getting the blame for blind obedience, racism, and prudishness, make for a pretty uphill battle in the war for public acclaim. Add to this the fact that liberalism currently has quite an edge on messaging. Hollywood, academia, and most media outlets, especially the rising internet culture give a generous nod to compassion and fairness, while generally shying away from authority, loyalty, and sanctity.
For all the problems authority, loyalty, and sanctity might cause (and I do acknowledge them), there are many positive outcomes as well. The leftist aphorism to "question authority" should be applied to itself once in awhile, because authority, loyalty, and sanctity are also the pillars of stability, cooperation, and institution-building. Consider how much would get done at your workplace without a boss, or how your family would fare without loyalty. We need these elements, and they need to be included to some degree in everyone's moral code.
We need both camps for a checked-and-balanced society. Liberals are well equipped to challenge entrenched corruption. Conservatives are able to establish enduring social structures. What we most desperately need today is to better understand one another. I hope this essay gets us one step closer to that.