Conservative and liberal morality: five foundations

by Dr. Steve Wright

Jonathan Haidt is a research psychologist at the University of Virginia. One of his main research interests is morality. Recently I ran across this quotation from him:

…the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer.

Haidt is not a conservative himself. But he seems to want to understand both liberal and conservative views of morality on their own terms, and he seems completely genuine in this effort. I was already familiar with his other research on happiness and related topics, which I thought was among the most interesting and compelling work anywhere in psychology.

Some conservatives are likely to cite him, saying something like: “See – conservative morality has more depth and completeness according to this research psychologist.” But intelligent and insightful conservative (and liberal) observers will go beyond this, and see the breadth of mind involved in each side genuinely trying to understand the other side on its own terms. I’ve known about Haidt’s outstanding research for years, but after seeing this new line of research I was even more impressed with him. The video below is a full presentation (not a 5-minute video), but well worth the time; I highly recommend it. It also is as timely as ever, with the presidential election coming up very soon.

According to research, people tend to accept information more easily that agrees with what they already think, and tend to screen more skeptically information that tends to challenge their beliefs. It can be a useful exercise to make extra effort to be open to the best arguments that a contrary view has to offer, and to question whether every part of a particular position you believe in is really as airtight as you thought.

A psychologist I know who does life coaching, Ben Dean, told a group at a conference I attended that some of his clients (and others he knew) were depressed after Kerry lost to Bush. I think it would be healthy for each side to consider the world from the perspective of the other side. It’s also helpful to realize that life won’t be much worse if their own guy doesn’t win the election.

Video: “The five foundations of morality, and why liberals often fail to get their message across”

Written by Dr. Steve Wright on October 23rd, 2008

Leave a Comment