Moral Psychology: Why Conservatives Have a Broader Palette of Morality

Let’s start with something we can all agree on: 

While walking, a man saw a dog sleeping on the road. He walked up to it and kicked it. (This was wrong.)

All right, let’s try something still pretty standard, but slightly more divisive:

A young married woman went alone to see a movie without informing her husband. When she returned home her husband said, “If you do it again, I will beat you black and blue.” She did it again; he beat her black and blue. (This was wrong for the husband to do.)

Most Americans who have read that scenario agreed with its moral judgment—most people from India did not. Let’s look at a scenario with the opposite effect: 

In a family, a twenty-five-year-old son addresses his father by his first name. (This was wrong.) 

Or, better yet:

A widow in your community eats fish two or three times a week. (This was definitely wrong for the woman to do.)

snidely whiplash

For most of us upon hearing any of these scenarios, the moral standing of the situation is immediately evident. Yet, the right-or-wrongness of the story is not as clear as we may think. As I mentioned, there’s a whole sub-continent of people who think the opposite of us. And this difference of understanding is the whole point of the book we’ve been looking at for the last three weeks. We started our study of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind by scanning some of the basics of moral psychology and then looking at what Haidt had to say about the phenomenon of religion, but the entire goal has been to ask: Why are good people divided by politics and religion?

Haidt answers the division described above (why Americans think some scenarios are moral while Indians favor others) by suggesting “WEIRD” culture. WEIRD, in case you’ve forgotten since freshman psych, is an acronym for “Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic,” and it is the historically and geographically unique culture to which most Americans and Western Europeans are born. Unlike most every other culture around the world (and through time), WEIRD societies see reality in terms of distinct individuals.

This strange culture has, over time, created an exceptionally concentrated demographic of liberals—a demographic Haidt finds himself a part of. And these liberals have the weirdest morality of all: they think Whole Foods is heaven sent, they want to disproportionately distribute wealth, they only have moral receptors for commercials featuring Sarah McLachlan.

Section Break

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt and his colleague Craig Joseph build on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder and present to the world Moral Foundations Theory. As a theory, Moral Foundations are meant to explain the variation in human moral reasoning based on these six innate pillars of morality:

  • Care – The care foundation is concerned with cherishing and protecting others. It wants others to feel good and to be safe. It is the opposite of harm.
  • Fairness – The fairness foundation is little more complex than the others, and Haidt and his team may even split it up to make a seventh foundation. Fairness has two manifestations, both focused on rendering justice according to shared rules. Sometimes it is more concerned with proportionality while at other times it is more concerned with equality. It is the opposite of cheating.
  • Liberty – This foundation is essentially the loathing of tyranny—of being forced to do something—and it is the opposite of oppression.
  • Loyalty – The loyalty foundation values standing with a group, whether that’s family, friends, team, or nation—all of it falls under loyalty. It is the opposite of betrayal.
  • Authority – The authority foundation honors obeying tradition and legitimate authority (not tyranny) and is greatly concerned with respect. It is the opposite of subversion.
  • Sanctity – This foundation is the abhorrence of disgusting things, including food, creatures, things, actions, and even ideas. Very often the language of purity (and especially in religious contexts, holiness) is used in conjunction with sanctity. It is the opposite of degradation.

Everyone has these foundations of morality built into them, but we can focus on and live by some more than others.

Section Break

It is not uncommon to hear a liberal person condemn conservatives for lacking heart or even go as far as to say they’re morally deficient. It’s funny to think that the reverse is possibly true.

According to Haidt’s work in Moral Foundations Theory, progressives and American liberals focus mainly on two of the moral foundations: Care and Fairness (their fairness being of the egalitarian sort). On the other hand, conservatives give equal attention to all of their innate moral foundations. It must be stressed that conservatives do not value Care or Fairness less; they simply experience them in balance with the other foundations.


Interestingly enough, libertarians (or “liberals” everywhere else in the world) can be even worse. They give a slight preference to Fairness over the other foundations, but mainly they are consumed with an infatuation with Liberty. They don’t want anyone to tread on them.


This mix of morality makes it hard for liberals (and especially libertarians) to appeal to others, particularly in elections. Liberals are so out of touch with their other moral foundations, they’ve nearly forgotten they exist. To demonstrate, Haidt tells this story:

A few years ago I tried a restaurant called The True Taste. The interior was entirely white. Each table was set only with spoons—five small spoons at each place setting. I sat down at a table and looked at the menu. It was divided into sections labeled “Sugars,” “Honeys,” “Tree Saps,” and “Artificials.” I called the waiter over and asked him to explain. Did they not serve food? / The waiter, it turned out, was also the owner and sole employee of the restaurant. He told me that the restaurant was the first of its kind in the world: it was a tasting bar for sweeteners. I could sample sweeteners from thirty-two countries. He explained that he was a biologist who specialized in the sense of taste. He described to me the five kinds of taste receptor found in each taste bud on the tongue—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (also called umami). He said that in his research he had discovered that activation of the sweet receptor produced the strongest surge of dopamine in the brain, which indicated to him that humans are hard-wired to seek sweetness above the other four tastes. He therefore reasoned that it was most efficient, in terms of units of pleasure per calorie, to consume sweeteners, and he conceived the idea of opening a restaurant aimed entirely at stimulating this one taste receptor. I asked him how business was going. “Terrible,” he said, “but at least I’m doing better than the chemist down the street who opened a salt-tasting bar.”

The story is not true (because Haidt is a lying liberal). However, this story allegorizes a lack of understanding common in progressives. The Care foundation can be exalted to such a place among liberals that they only deal in care—other foundations of morality have no value to them.

This misunderstanding is a major problem. Not only does it prevent liberals from successfully sharing their insights with moderates (those open to new ideologies), it also creates an insurmountable barrier in the much-needed dialogue between liberals and conservatives. If liberals cannot understand the morality of conservatives, there can be no conversation and there can be no progress.

This truth is not completely unknown, but it is widely dismissed as applying to you—“I understand how they think. I get their reasoning and can say with certainty: theyre wrong.” I recommend taking this test; it will gauge your ability to identify liberals or conservatives’ reasoning for their positions. Even If you manage to do well, the figures should still demonstrate to you that whatever your side may be, it needs a lot of help.

Conservatives may get a kick out of all this—the broader moral palette and everything—but Haidt’s whole goal in writing The Righteous Mind must be remembered: we need to better understand each other so that we can better work with each other. There’s a good chance that the readers for my blog have a liberal leaning, and I hope they will acknowledge any shortcomings in their own moral matrix and attempt to battle self-righteousness, but I also hope that conservative (and other non-liberal) readers will understand how their progressive brothers and sisters think and remember that quantity isn’t everything.


Add yours →

  1. Very interesting, as always – one reason why so many libertarians have a hard time with Christianity is because they have little room for authority. Perhaps this applies to liberals as well. When speaking with them, I try to acknowledge that authority is often abused, but I serve the One who practices authority perfectly. This usually doesn’t convert them instantly (and by usually, I mean ever), but I think it speaking in their language.

    Liked by 1 person

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