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Holy Moly, I’m An Arch-Conservative?

June 9, 2009

At least according to the results of a survey made by Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

His theory is that there are 5 moral categories common to cultures around the globe: preventing harm, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.  Liberals tend to prioritize the first two values, whereas conservatives care more about the last three.  He says:

This difference seems to explain many of the most contentious issues in the culture war. For example, liberals support legalizing gay marriage (to be fair and compassionate), whereas many conservatives are reluctant to change the nature of marriage and the family, basic building blocks of society. Conservatives are more likely to favor practices that increase order and respect (e.g., spanking, mandatory pledge of allegiance), whereas liberals often oppose these practices as being violent or coercive.

My results were… surprising to say the least.

Liberal or Conservative?

(Green = me, Blue = Liberals, Red = Conservatives.)

If Haidt’s data is representative, it is unsurprising then that culture war battles are so intractable.  Conservative and liberal arguments are simply appeals to hidden core preferences.  Liberal values for example are understood by people who share liberal morality, but the language and way that liberals proceed to persuade others falls flat in the ears of conservatives.

This is because on many issues neither liberals nor conservatives are actually arguing from universal reason, but from gut instinct.  In other words, unstated, unquestionable, unmovable preferences color the way we speak, the method we use to persuade, and determine which kinds of appeals we will positively respond to.

This explains why conservatives typically despise unions and liberals revere them — conservatives see them as rabble-rousers, subverting the common good for their short-term interest.  Liberals see unions as protectors of the voiceless, through which traditionally low-status individuals can compete on equal terms with the more privileged management class.  The language used by conservatives to limit union influence appeals only to conservatives because their assumption is that loyalty to company and employer is a value their audience shares.  Arguments that proceed from this assumption are destined to be unpersuasive to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them because this seems not to be a concern for more liberal individuals.

Both sides of the culture war are firing salvos, but while the sound of the explosions are exhilarating when heard from friendly territory, in reality they miss the mark completely.   Therefore in conversation amongst like-minded people, arguments that seem self-evident will sound at best irrelevant and at worst totally unreasonable to anyone on the opposition.

The torture debate is a great example of this. Conservatives are scrambling to protect the honor of soldiers who were “just following orders,” (authority/loyalty) and liberals despise the lawyers and politicians who could possibly bring themselves to dehumanize prisoners while holding other nations to much tougher standards (harm/reciprocity).  The disconnect has little to do with stubbornness and everything to do with communication strategy.  My advice for liberals on this debate (because they are right) is to understand your audience, adjust the way you argue, try to empathize with people who likely have a diminished capacity for empathy.  Or wait until it happens to a white, Christian terrorist like Scott Roeder.

It’s no wonder that California voted for Proposition 8.  Almost every commercial ran by equality groups focused on fairness and rights!  To liberals, these are obvious reasons.  It’s also necessary to motivate the base.  But how about diversifying the debate?

Liberals should do everything they can to explain how marriage will commit homosexuals to monogamy and reign in the sexual deviancy many conservatives perceive gays to engage in (obviously this is a mistaken perception, but why not use it to your advantage?), giving young gays positive role models that look, act, and work a lot more like the kind of people conservatives know and are comfortable with.  This could appeal to their sense of purity.

They should also be careful to craft their policy proposals in hostile states to make clear that marriage would not impose any views on places of worship, assuaging fears that legalization will force churches to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples.  This appeals to their belief that God’s authority and religious tradition trumps counter-cultural mores.

Are these arguments going to change a conservative’s mind?  Not necessarily.  But they will do much to disarm the hot-button, core moral preferences that excite one enough to write to representatives or mobilize others in opposition.  The key here is not making a conservative switch positions (if true that they care more about in-group loyalty, they are thus are less likely to be persuaded to openly endorse heterodox opinions), but making him care so little that he will begrudgingly accept an unfavorable outcome without making a big stink out of it.

I, of course, would rather conservatives use similar tactics against liberals with regard to taxes, the minimum wage, and other forms of economic liberty.  Honestly, with how professional the business of politics has become, I’m surprised this kind of message-marketing isn’t already commonplace.  Perhaps ideological blinders or Rove-ian dedication to the base have stopped people from actually caring whether they win new people over to their side (or the people espousing these views are doing so to gain power for its own sake, cyncially exploiting the sensibilities of their constituents)?

As for my results, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the test.  I’m guessing the ‘authority’ score comes from my experience as a teacher?  The important thing is that my purity score is so low that my future is secure as a dirty old man, an outcome which was never really in any doubt.


If you want to take the test yourself, register here and then report back in the comments!  I’m interested to see the stuff your morality is made of…


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