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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Are We Liberal or Conservative?

Everyone in America is clamoring about societal labels. Does the election of President Obama and others with similar convictions signify a definite change in society? Is America now a more liberal democracy, as some would claim, or are conservative values dominant in American culture? Or, in truth, are these "labels" really just vague representations with little significance? People feel free to use the words liberal and conservative to categorize people and their beliefs, yet many of these same people have little understanding of their true meaning. With research in hand, Professor Jonathan Haidt attempts to make a distinction between the two terms. His research focuses on the psychological bases of morality across different cultures and political ideology. Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in his Moral Foundations Theory examines the way morality varies between cultures as he identifies five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals. These five follow:
  1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.)
  2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.
  3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.)
  5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (Haidt, Jonathan; Jesse Graham (2007). "When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize" PDF. Social Justic Research 220:98-116. )

Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tended to value care and fairness higher than loyalty, respect, and purity while self-identified conservatives valued care and fairness less, and the remaining three values more. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. (Haidt, 2007)

Haidt ponders the question of why working class, rural Americans would vote for pro-business Republicans when they would seem better served by Democrat policies. He concludes that these people vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity," a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in the electorate. On the other hand, Democrats appeal to reason with long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

Haidt states, "America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom." His findings confirm that unity is the eternal struggle of our immigrant nation. Liberal and conservative polities are manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.

The first rule of moral psychology is: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The emotion of disgust is particularly strong.

Would you, in private, cut up the American flag and use it to clean your toilet if you could find no other rags in the house? Or, would you dismember the body of the family dog that has been killed by a car and eat it for dinner? Haidt found that most of the people he interviewed said the actions were morally wrong even when nobody was harmed. Only one group-- college students at Penn-- consistently overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog.

So, what are the implications of so-called liberal and conservative beliefs? Much of America seems to be denying basic heritable personality traits that predispose many people to become inflexible. Even as people are taught to question authority and to believe that dissent is patriotic, the authority foundation is about maintaining social order. Diagnosis of problems with authority can be very pleasurable. However, which group holds the real moral high ground in the perception of the masses?

Loyalty, respect, and purity are deeply ingrained virtues. Until many liberals learn to logically address a moral order they see as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb, most conservatives will continue to say, "They just don't get it."

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