The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

I saw this in TED recently, and thought it would be of particular interest to the Dopers.

Though this has the potential for a great debate, I really have no bold statement about it other than that I thought particular aspects of it are illuminating. One of the central tenets of the talk are that at its roots is liberals value change and conservatives value order. I also particularly like the notion that liberals and conservatives are interdependent like the yin-yang.

The speaker also briefly mentions their polling website, and have started taking the multi-part quiz.

Yes, that is understood to be the definition of “liberal” and “conservative”. Nothing particularly Earth-shattering there. It is not surprising that Liberals tend to “speak for the weak and oppressed” and Conservatives “value order, even at a cost to the bottom”. Conservatives tend to be the ones who benefit from the order of the system while Liberals tend to be those who are or identify with those who do not enjoy the benefits form or are actually harmed by that system.

I have long thought that the benefit to having a two party system like ours was that it does provide a sort of “yin and yang” between the Left and the Right. As either side moves too much in one direction, the mostly moderate middle tends to swing it back the other direction.

I have heard Haidt speak, and met him as well. His model of liberal and conservatives is very interesting. One of his points is that Liberals use two of the 5 points, while Conservatives look at all 5. This is why Conservatives can usually understand why Liberals believe/act in certain ways, but Liberals have trouble understanding Conservatives.

I always saw liberalism and conservatism as two sides of the same coin, but I also saw us on equal footing in terms of power. It wasn’t until I took a course on the history of social welfare policy in the United States that I began to really understand how conservative our country has, and has historically been, and how much conservative values have shaped our country.

The roots of our attitude toward social policy can be traced back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws of our colonial times. Colonists had no choice but for everyone to work because the very survival of the members of the colony were dependent on it. Those were harsh times, and out of that grew a rigorous work ethic as well as a tendency to stigmatize those who were not working. In general, our approach to policy has always been very residual - the government has been used only as a last resort to alleviate social ills. In the 1700s in some areas recipients of public aid were forced to wear patches on their clothing indicating that they were living off the system. Those caught idle were whipped. Our society abhorred those they perceived as lazy and decadent because not working meant certain death for our civilization. There was a gradual shift from ‘‘outdoor relief’’ (meaning cash assistance) toward institutionalization of the poor and mentally ill. A moral distinction was made between the ‘‘deserving’’ and ‘‘undeserving’’ poor which persists to this day.

In the 1850s a woman by the name of Dorothea Dix began to worry about those folks in institutions. She began conducting her own research and discovered that a huge percentage of those in almshouses were mentally ill. She published her research and argued before congress that special residential facilities be built for the mentally ill. Congress agreed to give her something like 500,000 acres of land to build institutions for the mentally ill.

But… in 1854, President Pierce vetoed the measure, stating that the federal government was not responsible for taking care of its citizens. That veto set a kind of precedent that was pretty much followed to the letter (with the exception of war veterans) until the Social Security Act in 1935. The first time the federal government actually stepped in to try to resolve a social problem was after the Civil War with the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau to deal with the thousands of suddenly homeless slaves in the south. But that was absolutely intended to be temporary and didn’t even receive federal funding for the first year of its operation.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s-ish that people really began questioning the role that the government ought to have in addressing the impoverished and destitute, because until that point most everyone was poor. But the success of capitalism really took off and the disparity became pretty noticeable particularly in urban areas where the very wealthy tended to live alongside the very poor. Suddenly the issue of child abuse and childrens’ rights became a significant issue, because for the first time there was a large enough class of people that was comfortable enough to worry about stuff like that.

Hell, even in 1935, with the Social Security Act, FDR intended that as a temporary measure, and even then, it deliberately excluded ‘‘agricultural and domestic workers’’ in the interest of preserving the social order (read: institutional racism) of the south.

But in my opinion we have NEVER been a liberal country, with the possible exception of the Civil Rights Movement/War on Poverty in the 60s and 70s , but the backlash against that was so huge I’m not sure we will ever recover from it. That’s too bad, because our poverty rates had improved quite a bit.

So it’s interesting, because before I learned all this, I always thought the conservative claim that America has always been informed by traditional religious conservative values was completely B.S., but it’s actually true. We ARE a conservative country, one of the most conservative countries of the modern world. Our country has been full of people complaining about taxes, arguing against universal social welfare programs, trying to throw out foreigners, and praising Jesus since before it was even a country.

But there have always been a group of us compelled to consider the overall social welfare of the nation as a whole, and questioning the roots of this class stratification, and rejecting the moral stigma associated with those who are impoverished or deemed ‘‘unworthy’’ of care by society as a whole. And I would argue that our country has changed, indeed, the entire world context has changed, and it makes sense to me that we ought to consider those changes and question whether these values we have always clung to are really appropriate for our current social context.

Algher, I don’t agree with Haidt.

  1. Ingroup/loyalty: see the treatment of Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. Also see Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan.

  2. Authority/respect: they just have different standards for those.

  3. Purity/sanctity: environmentalism and political correctness come to mind.

Note that that work ethic developed from the failure of a communal setup for reasons that are obvious (to me, anyway).

I suspect that’s primarily because your definition of “liberal” is quite different from what it was then.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that, in your own opinion, there really is no question. You also have values that you cling to.

I don’t buy it.

Conservatives understand liberals, but not the other way around? Not that I’ve ever seen.

Where does traditional conservatism apply on the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity indices?

Authority/respect and ingroup/loyalty are described as if they are inherent virtues. Following a leader is fine, as long as enough people exercise their best independent judgment and pick a good leader. And the world needs mavericks, too; those who think, do, and invent that which hasn’t been done before.

I also don’t buy that at all. I see rather the opposite; conservatives tend to be easy to understand, while conservatives tend to have a view of why people who disagree with them do things that is largely detached from reality. Including other conservatives who disagree with them, not just liberals. An example would be the common attempts by religious conservatives to treat Darwin like a religious prophet; to discredit him in order to discredit evolution. The idea that evolution has become the overwhelming scientific consensus because it fits the facts appears to be beyond them; they don’t think like that, and can’t imagine anyone thinking differently than they do. They follow the words of prophets; therefore everyone else must too.

Algher, are you perchance “conservative”? (Wouldn’t if be convenient if there were a political ranking up there where it says “Guest” or “Charter Member”? :cool: )

Your comment certainly focuses on what I see as a major feature of “conservatism”: smug sense of superiority! “We understand how your Liberal lack of moral sense leads to your perverse views, but you’re too ignorant to comprehend our Moral Nobility. Oh, and by the way we don’t need to read your left-wing books or watch your left-wing news shows; we already know the answers.”

Could very well be.

There is ALWAYS a question. That’s what it means to be a critical thinker. I certainly don’t question my values, but I question whether liberalism is the ultimate embodiment of those values. I’ve tried on this board to find alternative solutions to the problems I see, but nobody ever seems really interested in asking themselves these same kinds of questions. If you don’t think the fact that our country has one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world is a problem, then no, your argument is not going to move me. But if you think you have a better way to end poverty, I’m all ears.

Moving thread from IMHO to Great Debates.

I was going to post a sarcastic comment about

with respect to the birthers, then I realized that maybe the reason conservatives question Obama’s status is because it allows them to veer from their respect of authority by showing that he is not a *legitimate * leader.

Interestingly, Mitt Romney has a new book “No Excusues” whose premise is that America is the best country on earth and we should stop apologizing for our faults. This is also know as the “San Dimas football rules” philosophy.

From what I am reading here, that’s certainly the pot calling the kettle black. One of the defining characterists of Liberals is their smug sense of moral superiority and political correctness.

Wow - this suddenly got some interest and moved over - I was just trying to share some information. To respond to the many statements:

Haidt himself is a self-described liberal, I fall into the libertarian wing of conservatism personally.

Haidt’s research is published and peer reviewed - I would recommend reviewing his site - I simply grabbed the highlights. He and his collaborators are considering adding another framework, based on additional data collected.

His point is that Liberals, based on the data collected, do not really care about:

  • ingroup / loyalty. They do NOT follow the “my country do or die” mantra.
  • authority / respect. Liberals tend to not just follow orders. They are the original questioners of authority.
  • purity / sanctity. This is defined in moral terms, not the environment. Social Conservatives are the ones that rely on this, while Liberals tend to not consider this critical.

None of these is superior - they are simply ways that the two different groups approach issues. For Liberals, understanding that Conservatives also approach issues with a view towards the other 3 might help explain WHY they do not put as much weight onto the first two.

You realise, if you read your Pit threads, that half the board would say the same about you?

Your interpretation of conservative positions tends to be “they hate women/blacks”, regardless of the fact that none of the explanations offered by the conservative members of the board comes close to that.

While I don’t think it’s fair to say that Liberals don’t understand Conservatives, at the same time, if you read this messageboard at a remove, both sides often attack complete strawman representations of each other, without really considering the views of the other side, and ascribe strange, yet easily attacked motivations to them.

I’ve often thought, when looking at discussions here, that a book entitled “Conservativism explained to Liberals” and “Liberalism explained to Conservatives” would, while selling poorly, be great aides to discussion.

I get all this but totally missing how it is Conservatives can understand Liberals better.

I mean, I get the theory but my experience is anything but that. I find conservatives to be far and away less “understanding” and I think our current political environment tells this tale loudly.

Not that liberals are a lot better at getting the other side. When faced with a death panel type I shake my head in wonder and just cannot fathom where their head is at.

I was a conservative for a long time - subscriber to National Review, worker for the NY Conservative Party in two campaigns, war supporter in a liberal college in the early '70s.
I totally disagree that conservativism has anything to do with preserving the status quo. In many cases conservatives want fundamental change in government, and often even in society. Conservatives often have an ideal of a society (sometimes in the past) they want to go back to, but that is far different from not wanting change now.

The big difference is in a somewhat inflexible view of the impact of programs, and the ability to consider some groups as “others” not inherently worthy of support. If enough people don’t feel like offering charity (which is seen as a good thing) then tough.
Conservatives are also a lot less pragmatic than liberals, possibly tied to more conservative religiosity. Look at economics. Look at dragging their feet on civil rights and now gay marriage. Look at all the conservatives who refuse to admit that conservative economic principles put into place during the Bush years failed.

So, the moral roots of non-libertarian conservatism is more what is right for God rather than what is right for people in general.

But once again, after making an outragous statement, the best conservatives can hope for is equivalence.

Conservatives often explain liberals’ opposition to their agenda on the grounds that they “hate America” or are "socialists"m as opposed to the harm/care principle. If they oppose religion, it’s because religion doesn’t allow them to have immoral fun, or indeed because they “hate God”, not because religion is factually challenged.

But FWIW, my understanding of conservatives is that their views are mythology-based, either religious or “patriotic”. For example, WWII establised the myth that when the US takes military action, we are always righteous, always victorious, and the defeated peoples always become our friends.

There’s also a lot of monomania. Once conservatives got ahold of the idea that cutting taxes was good for the economy, there was no shaking it, no moderating it, and no nuancing it. If a little of something is a good thing, then a lot of it must be a great thing.

I believe attempts to find overarching descriptions of liberals and conservatives are doomed to fail since those words are mainly labels of convenience for political rallying. Neither group is homogeneous enough for generalities to be useful.

Conservatives want fundamental change, but usually because they feel the nation has moved ‘off track’. The Pinochet coup in Chile would be an example of radical change that was, in theory, supposed to restore the old order.

So conservatives want radical change, but my impression is because they feel things are moving away from tradition whereas liberals want to abandon tradition (because it is usually inefficient and anti-egalitarian).

I agree that conservatives are a lot less pragmatic. I have no idea where the concept of the GOP as the party of ideas came from. Even their leaders and head pundits form argument so shoddy and false that a junior high debate club could rip them apart. Any party that thinks a nation in the midst of a severe economic crisis & 2 wars needs Sarah Palin in charge is not the party of ideas.

The concept of ‘others’ not worthy of support is arguably just an extension of ingroup loyalty and purity.

In fact, you can play on most of those 5 values with a major conservative theme.

“Blacks and illegal immigrants contribute nothing of value to society (except crime), assuming they even belong here in the first place, then they collect tons of tax dollars in welfare.”

You’ve tapped into harm/care (crime), fairness/reciprocity (the concept that blacks/latinos don’t contribute to society but collect welfare), ingroup/loyalty as well as purity (by portraying them as interlopers who aren’t part of society)

The end result is a conservative movement made up of angry, bitter white people. And it works. And until liberals learn to counteract it, more and more people will move into conservatism

However my impression is that religious authoritarianism wasn’t really a part of the GOP up until a few decades ago. So in contemporary conservatism, religious authoritarianism is a role. However the TED talk showed similarities in those 5 values across cultures. So I think this liberal/conservative division transcends religion and its role in politics because it seems to hold true for more and less secular societies as well.

Say hello to the “Southern Strategy”: