The Moral Psychology of Liberals and Conservatives: Disgust & Love

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting article out today (h/t to JR) in the New York Times entitled Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal. It's a summary of some of the research we've discussed before on this blog.

The crux of this research has to do with the distinctive moral psychologies of conservatives and liberals. Much of this work is based upon Jonathan Haidt's notion of moral grammars/foundations. These moral grammars create moral warrants, the reasons we give for judging something to be morally “wrong." According to Haidt there are the five moral foundations:

Harming others, failures of care/nurturance, or failures of protection are often cited as reasons for an act being “wrong.” Some virtues from this domain are kindness, caretaking, and compassion.

Inequalities or failures to reciprocate are often cited as evidence for something being “wrong.” Some virtues here are sharing, egalitarianism, and justice.

Failure to support, defend, and aid the group is often cited as evidence for “wrongness.” Virtues include loyalty, patriotism, and cooperation.

Failure to grant respect to culturally significant groups, institutions, or authority figures is often cause for sanction. Virtues include respect, duty, and obedience.

Anything that demeans, debases, or profanes human or religious dignity or sacredness is also a cause for sanction. Virtues include purity, dignity, and holiness.
Research has shown that liberals and conservatives differ in the degree to which they deploy these moral grammars. Specifically, liberals tend to emphasize the first two: Harm and Fairness. Conservatives, by contrast, often appeal to the last two: Authority and Purity. This is not to say that liberals or conservatives restrict themselves to these warrants, but they do display moral tendencies with some warrants being used more than others or some warrants held as more vital than others.

Kristof's article highlights the role of disgust in the moral psychology of conservatives. This makes sense as disgust is the emotional correlate of purity/contamination attributions. This makes conservative moral psychology a volatile brew. While concerns over purity, sanctity and holiness are important moral concerns, the psychology of disgust and contamination is dangerous when applied to people. This is known as sociomoral disgust and conservatives are prone to it, due to their psychological tendencies. I've written about the conflict between love and disgust at great length on this blog and published on this topic (online version of the article can be found here). Suffice it to say, the problem of sociomoral disgust was at the center of the controversy surrounding Jesus's ministry (i.e., welcoming the "unclean" to table fellowship) and it remains the critical issue at the heart of the missional church movement. For whom does the church exist? Personally, I like the formulation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The church is the church only when it exists for others.
If that's true, well, the rugs are going to get a bit dirty...

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5 thoughts on “The Moral Psychology of Liberals and Conservatives: Disgust & Love”

  1. Hey Richard,

    Catching up on the last half dozen or so posts, just wanted to say the Freud series was excellent -- and the Freedom Ride post was incredible. Whoever is able to participate in that trip next year (or two) will be profoundly blessed. This may already be on your list, but in Atlanta near the King Center (I believe) is the house King was born in.

  2. Richard
    Just took a look at the JoP&T article, and just wanted to commend you on the insights of that work. One of my most significant realization over the last few years is the recognition of the considerable psychological inertia behind our deep ethical considerations/ frameworks. Thus, while I find yourself rationally agreeing with what you write, I still find it difficult to overcome the implicit orientation that I have developed over the years. It has been a process of framework development, search for framework confirmation, and then framework reinforcement. The assumptions drive the conclusion, but that iterative process results in a difficult to crack foundation. For me, the issue has not necessarily been one of convincing myself rationally of the merits of this perspective, but finding a way to develop a more personal orientation in my lifestyle and decisions. I think this change comes slowly over time, through various personal experiences, and specifically seeing the downsides of sociomoral disgust framework to my loving relationships. As a person who finds himself straddled between these worlds, I guess I just wanted to note how difficult and slow that journey can be.


  3. I would argue that conservatives generally try to stretch their emphasis over all five moral foundations (with more leaning to the last 2), whereas liberals put nearly all the emphasis on the first 2, and intentionally work against the last 2.

  4. Conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than Liberals.

    Look at this George Will column:

    This would tend to indicate strength in the first 2 moral foundations.

  5. Sorry. Your figures are misleading because they do not distinguish humanitarian charities fitting the first two categories above, with aesthetic charities that don't. Conservatives give to aesthetic and non-humantarian ideological charities like art museums, opera houses and rightwing thinktanks and largely ignore humantiarian charities. Arianna Huffington engaged in a great deal of charitable fundrasing among wealthy conservatives in her Republican days and she was amazed at how much more difficult it was to raise funds for humanitarian charities than for aesthetic ones. This experience was a major factor in her political conversion from conservative to progressive.

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