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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

Liberal morality versus conservative morality: Understanding the difference can help you avoid arguments

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 15th 2008

utah traffic sign with beehive logoDr. Elisha Goldstein recently blogged about the political anxiety that some people are experiencing during this run-up to the 2008 presidential election (What do Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have to do with your mental health?). A quote from that post sets up the point I want to address:

In the past, I have literally seen people whose bodies are in knots and whose friendships and family relationships are completely strained due to an election. People become imbalanced, stress-out, irritable, and potentially aggressive to those who do not share their views.

In his post, Dr. Goldstein gives some useful tips about how to reduce politically-motivated stress once it has occurred. What I want to do here is to help people begin to understand why it is that people think differently on political issues in the first place, on the theory that when you have a better understanding of where the other side of the aisle is coming from, there is less need for you to feel tension in the first place.

Some of what makes political disagreements tense is the sense that many people have that those people who disagree with their own position "don't understand". They think that if they could just figure out a better way to communicate what makes their policies and politicians a superior choice over opponent policies and politicians that the "misguided" people they are speaking with would somehow come around to their way of thinking. The sense that the other side doesn't understand what is really important leads to immense frustration, and sometimes to anger and anxiety.

Ask someone who strongly identifies with one end of the partisan spectrum why someone might believe what people who identify with the other side of the spectrum believe, and she is likely to tell you that the only explanation can be because there is something wrong with them. What that difference is varies on the person speaking, but it is usually some variation on a small number of themes: "we're smart and they're stupid", "we are patriotic and they are disloyal". I've even seen some partisans claim that the other side has a mental illness that is causing them to believe deranged and unhealthy things (see Lyle Rossiter Jr, MD's book "The Liberal Mind", and also Joe Papantonio's video podcast, "The Republican Mental Illness". Both are prime examples of the irresponsible use of the diagnostic process as a weapon with which to stigmatize a political opponent.

In the last several presidential elections, though Republicans ultimately took the White House, the popular vote either went Democratic, or was split relatively evenly between supporters of the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate. My point is that the country appears to be split, or polarized more or less evenly. In such a context, partisan cries that opponents are stupid or ill simply cannot be true. It's one thing to call a fringe group names, but really, when a group is so large as to be composed of roughly half the population of a huge nation, can any generalization really apply? Only a true believer (convinced of the superiority of their own position), or a manipulative propagandist (seeking to manipulate you for profit, in confidence-man fashion) would have you believe so.

A further important point to make is that the belief that more talking and a superior explanation will change minds on the other side is untrue. It doesn't doesn't work with regard to political arguments, just as it doesn't work for relationship partners who end up yelling at each other while trying to get their points across.

Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives think differently. However, not everyone knows why or how this is so. Political orientation is a complex thing and no single theory is likely to capture all of the nuances of individual positions. However, a partially useful way of thinking about it is going to be better than having no useful way of thinking about it.

The best recent partially useful explanation I've come across concerning how to psychologically characterize the differences between hardcore liberals and hardcore conservatives is due to Jonathan Haidt, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. In Haidt's view, the differences come down to a matter of the value systems that liberals and conservatives buy into. Such value systems are a matter of moral beliefs, and can, he believes, be best characterized by positions on five independent moral dimensions. These are:

  1. Harm/Care, which is the universal desire to minimize human suffering.

  2. Fairness/Reciprocity, which is more or less about a desire to see arguments and disputes handled fairly.

  3. Ingroup/Loyalty, which describes the desire to protect group membership (societal) boundaries.

  4. Authority/Respect, which concerns the desire to organize society into a hierarchy of social superiors and subordinates, with subordinates showing respect for the superior's superior position.

  5. Purity/Sanctity, which concerns the desire to maintain group membership in a pristine, pure, clean or proper state, and correspondingly, to reject from the group that which is dirty, impure, unclean and improper.

I strongly urge readers to read Haidt's recent and excellent article "What Makes People Vote Republican", from which I am drawing these moral dimensions. For those readers who don't wish to do this immediately, I will give a short summary of Haidt's basic ideas in the following paragraph.

According to Haidt, the first two moral dimensions (harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity) are universal, and heavily used by everyone in deciding what things are moral and what are not. However, the later three dimensions (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) are far more important to conservative people than they are to liberal people.

While both groups think that suffering should be prevented and that members of a society or group should treat each other according to principles of fairness and respect, conservatives place much more emphasis on maintaining ingroup/outgroup boundaries than do liberals; they demand and expect that members within the groups will be arranged into hierarchies where some are in better positions (with higher status, more wealth, etc.) than others, and that all members within the society conform to their assigned positions within society without complaint.

Reading between the lines, Haidt is suggesting that the real difference between liberals and conservatives is that the two groups have very different understandings of what it means to be a society.

Conservatives think of society as a thing which is more important than the sum of its parts, and understand that it is the duty (and I don't use that word lightly) of all the individual parts of society to play out their assigned role, even if that role is not in the best interests of some of the parts. In other words, it is the duty of the individual to subordinate their own needs to the needs of the larger society. To do otherwise is to be selfish.

To illustrate this perspective, think of how the Mormon Church uses the image of a beehive as one of their emblems. They are suggesting that if everyone works together, the group can produce something sweet and good. In this view of society, individual self-expression is a disaster, as the hive will fall apart if all the bees do their own thing. That is the belief anyway; not necessarily the reality.

Liberals think of society as something that emerges from the parts, and which is never more healthy as a whole than the most downtrodden of those parts. Liberals believe the dictum that "all men are created equal" and this makes them be less enthralled with the idea of a rigid hierarchical organization for society. If all men are created equal, then the least advantaged members of society should have a realistic opportunity to climb upwards in society, and that it is society's duty (and I don't use that word lightly) to provide opportunities for the more disadvantaged members of society to make that climb possible. By helping the more disadvantaged members of society to get a leg up, liberals think that they will help society as a whole become better. This idea is expressed beautifully in the phrase, "A rising tide lifts up all boats".

Conservatives often think that liberals would like lazy people to get a free ride, but this is not the case. What liberals want is for motivated people to be able to climb upwards based on their merit and effort and not to be held down due to circumstances beyond their control, occurring on account of an accident of their birth. If all men are created equal, then discrimination or prejudice is morally unacceptable.

Conservatives often get upset when liberals seek to use tax dollars to expand opportunities (educational, healthcare, etc.) for various minorities. If Haidt is correct, conservatives get upset not because they are trying to be cruel, but because they believe that it is somewhat immoral for people to complain about their place within society. People who advocate for more than they have are whiners, who don't have the decency to just accept their lot in life. This resistance to social change is based on the self-sacrificing idea that loyalty to the group trumps loyalty to self, and reinforced, based on its association with religion, so as to be in line with what God wants. Resistance to societal change thus becomes a sacred duty and is based on an unimpeachable source of authority.

Where conservatives are coming from is not so much resisting all change, but rather resisting alterations to the basic values system they have inherited from their "pure" and "authoritative" religious or societal sources. So there is no problem with their desiring to change laws or rules that are perceived as being against or in opposition to core conservative values. Conservatives are fine with changing society when change is interpreted as undoing the "damage" that liberals have caused.

Another angle on illustrating this: From the conservative point of view, society is like a body, and liberals with their ideas about individual rights and self-expression and the right to be free from repression and abuse and the "tyranny of the majority" are like a cancer - a bunch of cells that don't want to do their assigned job, but instead are "growing" and in the process threaten to take the entire body down with it. It must be kept in mind that this is a weak analogy, for all its attractiveness to some. Conservatives think that society will end due to the changes that liberals advocate for, but society doesn't actually end when these changes occur. Society did not end when women received the right to vote, for instance. It did not end when Lincoln freed the slaves. But these sorts of past facts do not stop many conservatives from thinking that similar future changes will be the ruin of future society.

In our present moment in time, we have to look no further to see conservative resistance to societal change than the struggle for acceptance of homosexual marriage. There is a great resistance upon the part of most conservatives to the idea that homosexual individuals should be able to marry each other. This resistance is in spite of the fact that such status would provide important legal and financial safety benefits for the dependent children and surviving spouses of homosexual partners; all things that are in society's interests to promote, in the liberal view, so that such families can stay intact in the event of the death of a partner. If Haidt is correct, however, conservative resistance to homosexual marriage is not occurring because of any desire on the part of conservatives to be cruel, but rather because, largely on religious grounds, they find the very existence of homosexual behavior to be perverse and impure; a sign of the weakening of society; and possibly something that God will decide to punish all Americans for if allowed to occur. The solution is to hold firm in the face of the demand for change and acceptance, resisting it as strongly as possible. Hence the many recent amendments to state constitutions defining marriage as a union which may only exist between a man and a woman.

Viewed from a liberal perspective, gay marriage is an institution that will protect a class of citizens who have been unjustly and immorally discriminated against. Legalization of homosexual marriage will aid in the formal recognition of the rights and responsibilities of partnered gays and lesbians, some of whom have dependent children, and will serve as protection for widowed spouses and dependent children just as it does for heterosexual couples.  It is a violation of the spirit of "all men are created equal" to allow this prejudice to continue. That conservatives cannot get past their beliefs to allow this injustice to be righted is why liberals sometimes describe them as cruel.

Fairness is not the same thing as Equality

If I've understood Haidt's work correctly, he is suggesting that liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about the nature of fairness. To liberals, fairness concerns boil down to equality concerns. In contrast, conservatives are more likely to view fairness complaints through the lens of the social status hierarchy If a subordinate and a superior both get sick and require medical care, but the superior status individual gets better access to medical care and recovers as a result, while the subordinate status individual gets sicker, this situation is entirely fair from the conservative perspective. Both individuals get the sort of care that their status allows them to access. The two individuals are not equal and should not have equal access to resources. To allow this to happen would be damaging to society. The same situation is not fair when viewed from the liberal perspective because of the liberal rejection of the relevance of social hierarchy in decisions that affect the distribution of critical resources such as medical care.

The ultimate point I want to make is this. If there is merit to the idea that conservatives and liberals go about thinking morally in very different ways, then it follows that 1) both sides are acting morally (according to the way they understand morality), 2) neither position is stupid, and neither position represents a mental illness, and 3) it isn't going to do much good to argue back and forth with one another, because it is unlikely that anything you say will cause the other person to radically adjust their basic moral beliefs. Particularly that last point is important. If it doesn't do much good to argue with a hardcore liberal person or with a hardcore conservative person you are confronted with, that kind of takes the pressure off, doesn't it?

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

so wrong, couldn't be more wrong - Kip - Nov 27th 2012

This author, and the majority of liberals that have posted comments after, are just so wrong about the basic conservative that's it's tragic.

Conservatives choose a moral imperative based upon freedom and liberty.  We typically don't inflict those feelings, but we do protect and defend them when liberals attack us on what can be ID'ed as Christian issues.

We are defending, not inflicting as portrayed by the MSM and Alinskyites.  You can have any character you so choose, as long as it doesn't inflict those views or lifestyle upon me and mine.

You have been on the attack so long that you've forgotten who the aggressor is.  Take N.O., keep San Fran, leave the heartland out of your conquest.  We have rights , too.


morality - propane - Mar 12th 2012

basically what i got from this article is "when you see how badly the underclass suffers in india, our local authoritarian busybodies don't seem so bad"

i love when conservatives talk about how hateful liberals are because they criticize them for persecuting minority groups and trying to roll back civil rights. it's not moral to concern yourself with other people's behaviors that are none of your business and try to punish them when they harm no one. it's not moral to get your jollies off of the suffering of the powerless because you believe they deserve it. it's weird and malicious. it's very clearly a mental illness. just because half the electorate has a psychosexual fetish for authority and control doesn't legitemize their concerns. they are actually bad people, actually attempting to cause harm to the rights of women, gays, the poor, etc. and make their lives measurably worse.


what exactly do liberals need to learn from conservatives? how to ostracize, how to punish, how to judge people based on arbitrary morality written down by some middle eastern redneck thousands of years ago? maybe they'd capture the coveted self-righteous malicious moralizing segment of the population, but people with normal brain chemistry who can feel compassion would have no one to vote for.

Reply to 'philosophy of individualism' - Mutale - Aug 15th 2010

Conservatives only have an individualist stance on economic issues, on social issues, they have a vertical collectivist stance. Liberals have a horizontal collectivist stance on economic issues and an individualist stance on social issues. Libertarians (as the term is used in the U.S) have an individualist stance on both economic and social issues.

truth and falsehoods on both sides - Joe - Oct 16th 2009

What does he say about the comments left here?  Notice the conservatives tend not to agree.  Also they are saying that liberals are just plan wrong fundimentally.  I think this points to a much deep inability to accept any thought process other one's own.  If it were true that it was just a difference on priorities and importance then surely on would be able to argue why one is more important than the other based on the person view.

However, as you can see that is not the case.  The opinion of the conservatives is that the liber thinking is just plan wrong and misguided in just about every sense.  As the opinion of a die hard liberal would probably be similar towards may conservatives.

I think its a good theory but I believe it may be more accurate to describe how these views are evaluated and expressed but not the true psychology of it.  

I believe once a person is commited to a way of thinking they are unable to openly critic themselves.  The human brain strives for consistancy not correctness.  We are even physciologically rewarded when we come to conclusion that supports our current reasoning, even if it false.  And the less likely a person is apt to honestly evaluate their beliefs against opposing information (notice not opinion but opposing information) , the farther on the fridge they probably are to a set way of thinking.

Additionally, research has shown that political thoughts and reasoning do not happen in the logic centers of our brain but in those that are tied to emotional responses (similar to religion and other philosophies).  In a word we don't treat politics like a math or logic problem but more like a dramatic one or one based on faith.  This means people are predisposed to thinking and form reasoning based on how they feel about the subject matter,the "other", or how well it fits into our preexisting beliefs rather then evaluate the truth of the matter.

The problem is that there are truth and falsehoods on both sides even at differing times and in differing situations. This allows differing sides to claim they are correct (when their view is supported) and also claim others wrong (when the other person's view is not supported). The problem is that the human brain seems content to ignore conflicting information and is bias to information that supports its created structure.  Even, it seems, if this support is in the form of not supporting anothers view (i.e. they are wrong therefor I am right).  As I often tell people, your brain rather be right, than correct.  This a natural response, as conflict causes stress which has an adverse effect on the body as well as distracting the person from actions that are maybe vital to the biological person (reaction time for example).  So, in order to promote things to "go smoothly" the brain rather resolve any issues based on the quick pre-existing belief systems (reasoning based on a preset structure).  The truth really has little bearing on the matter unless purposely pushed by the thinker.  even then the brain will tend to try and lead you to your prexisting view.

Projecting? - - Sep 30th 2009

Have you ever read or watched Animal Farm?  In a more liberal (socialist) society, some are considered 'more equal' than others.  You say it's conservatives that 'demand and expect that members within the groups will be arranged into hierarchies where some are in better positions (with higher status, more wealth, etc.) than others'.  Have you ever considered that the liberals are trying to call conservative religious views 'hatred' and to severely punish us for them? That's real hatred, and that's a real forced hierarchy - only allowing liberals their liberty!  It's one thing to let people live their lives, and it's quite another to force indoctrination of our children and try to punish us for our views. 

And you said that conservatives want 'all members within the society conform to their assigned positions within society without complaint'?  Our complaints are called 'hate speech'.  Using psychological terms, you're having a 'projection' problem!

Also, abortion is forcing the choice of death on the unborn.  The laws against abortion saved my life, and now my mom is grateful she didn't make that choice.  An an unborn child, I wasn't part of her body - I was simply on her life support.  Now liberals are also supporting infanticide in many cases (including partial birth abortion and abandoned infants), as the Spartans practiced in ancient Greece.  Where do you draw the line of when life is precious?  Who gets to decide that, really - the socialized health care system?

And why don't the liberal poiliticians go on this socialized system, if they really think it will be a good thing?

philosophy of individualism - - Aug 19th 2009

Shocking how you portray CONSERVATISM as the ideology that forces individuals to conform into a society. 

Conservatism in America is the philosophy of individualism. Free trade, limited government interference.

Liberalism is the philosophy of homegenity - buttered up with such platitudes as "all men are equal". Except humans have a strange tendency to achieve unequally, which is why a large government is called on to be the Great Equalizer.

The fundamental difference between Conservatives and Liberals is that conservatives are not horrified into denial by the BASIC FACT that every human is NOT equal to every human. Far from it!

Humans are equal as far as basic human and political rights are concerned, but they vary DRASTICALLY in terms of abilities, talent, work ethic etc in ways that are NOT largely determined by how well a society coddles each one. Anyone who has had more than one kid recognizes this instantly.

Conservatives want individuals to be able to reap the rewards of their individual abilities and hard work. Yes, this means a few people will rise to the top economically, while most people will stay in the middle, and a few will need some assistance. There is nothing rigid, unfair, or unnatural about this. In statisitics it is called "normal distribution".

Conservatives CERTAINLY do not believe in a society where everyone is forced to play out their "assigned role". 

That would be more akin to Liberalism, which is about forcing everyone to achieve the same as everyone else regardless of whether you are smart or dumb, hardworking or lazy. This view of society is not only artificial but also dystopian.

That is why Liberals are illogical - They try to alleviate human suffering while denying human nature. That can't work. I am very supportive of individuals being able to hold different views, even wrong ones, but it must be noted that logic is not subjective. So it is a fact that Liberals are on some level fundamentally "wrong" and conservatives "right".

One theory of why Liberals continue to make up a sizable portion of the electorate is naivette and immaturity and I will just say it is telling how the "The Liberal Mind" was written by an MD while the sophomoric sounding "Republican Mental Illness" was done by a video blogger.

Note that the view I have described is for Conservatism outside of the rigidity of religious fundamentalism, which is incompatible with true conservatism. I myself am I Libertarian - The GOP without all the religious baggage as we like to call ourselves. 

My distillation of the Conservative View is accurate for me and the conservatives I have known. Doubtless my bluntness will have piqued many liberals, which seems to be the majority on this page. I would love to hear your response.

Conservative fairly described... - - Jul 14th 2009

No - my conservative perspective is in no way fairly described by the author.  His description, however, does seem to be a view of how a liberal person might perceive a conservative person to be.

Me, too - - Apr 20th 2009

I'd also like to know whether conservatives think their point of view is fairly represented.

Lib & Con morality - Belle4 - Jan 17th 2009

As a liberal, I agree with Dr. Dombeck's assessment of the basis of my view of morality,and of how I see the individual in relation to society. I'm interested to know if conservative readers agree that he's assessed their view accurately.

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