The incessant allure of Republican morality and what Democrats can do about it.

September 10, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

For the past few years, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has successfully injected a huge does of psychology into the study of morality. Along the way, he has gone a long way toward bridging the “is” with the “ought,” a chasm that many philosophers have insisted to be unbridgeable.  Haidt explores these moral-psychological issues in highly readable form in his 2006 book, The Happiness Hypothesis:  Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Here’s a photo of my personal well-worn copy of Haidt’s book:

Based on his experiments, Haidt has been extraordinarily successful in describing the moral differences distinguishing conservatives and liberals.  Which group is more moral?  That isn’t the right question, according to Haidt.  Both of these groups sincerely strive to be “moral.”  Conservatives and liberals differ in the way they characterize morality because they base their differing moral senses on different measures. Based on Haidt’s research, there are the five separate measures (I think of them as tectonic plates) that underlie all moral systems.  Conservative morality substantially draws on all five of these five measures:

– harm/care
– fairness/reciprocity
– ingroup/loyalty
– authority/respect, and
– purity/sanctity

For liberals, however, the moral domain consists primarily (or only) of the first two of these five measures (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity).  For liberals, the other three measures (I’ll call them “conservative measures”) tend to fly under the liberal radar.  In fact, many liberals scoff at claims that the conservative measures (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity) have anything at all to do with morality.  To avoid a potential misunderstanding, remember that many conservatives also find the first two measures on the list to be important. Conservatives don’t limit their senses of morality to these first two measures, however.  Many conservatives thus feel strongly about issues regarding fairness and they feel compelled to help the poor and unfortunate members of society.  These impulses aren’t the full story for conservatives, though, and these first two measures are often overruled by the three “conservative measures.” For more detail on the five measures, see this previous DI post on Haidt.

Liberals thus downplay the three “conservative measures” and argue that when a government treats its citizens well and fairly, the government has fully done its job.  For liberals, the three conservative moral-measures are, at most, matters of personal prerogative.  For liberals, it’s certainly not the government’s job to tell us “My country, right or wrong.”  For liberals, it’s absurd for the government to expect us to respect authority figures we find severely lacking.  For liberals, government should focus on equal rights, not the personal disgust felt by many heterosexuals, when considering the issue of gay marriage.

Here’s the problem:  the three conservative moral measures often work for conservatives.   Why do they work for conservatives?  It’s not clear.  It’s a trillion dollar question.  If you can figure it out, let us know.

Conservative measures don’t compel all of us, of course, but they seem like life and death considerations to many conservatives.  The bottom line is that the three “conservative moral measures can be incredibly powerful influences on many people.  The conservative measures underlie the emotions that are triggered when conservatives see waving flags and threats of “terror.”  Use of certain types of triggers (such as “orange alerts” invocations of “God”) allow Machiavellian political operatives to play conservatives like puppets.  The documentary “War Made Easy” demonstrates the unrelenting (and potentially destructive) power of these “conservative” moral measures.

In his September 9, 2008 article at, “What Makes People Vote Republican?”, Haidt hits the bulls-eye when he explains why Democrats are so often seem so confounded in the face of Republican moralizing.  In his article at Edge, Haidt has persuasively explained how it is that so many conservatives embrace God-fearing flag-waving, even when those preachy flag-wavers are unabashed liars. Consider what Haidt proposes as the “first rule of politics”:

This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

In short, morality bubbles up from below for most people.  Morality is a gut-level phenomenon.  Morality does not originate in the form of top-down intellectual activity, contrary to what philosophers have often suggested. Haidt’s writings thus line up well with those of Antonio Damasio, who demonstrated through experiments involving people with damage to the pre-frontal cortex that there is no such thing as rationality in the absence of the guiding influence of emotions.

If Democrats are going to prevail, then, they can’t simply explain things to the People, they can’t simply stand up to reason with the People.  Instead, Democrats need to tap into the right emotions with their political positions.  They need to set aside serious time to better understand those conservative moral tectonic plates.  Only if they take this bottom-up approach will good things follow.

As Haidt makes clear, preaching about a “fair” society and a society that “cares” are not enough.  These two moral measures, in the absence of the other three, make for a thin, non-compelling moral soup for most conservatives.  Conservatives don’t want soup, they want a thick stew!

Conservatives don’t believe that the job is done when government makes sure that citizens have fair doses of resources and then sends them out to have a good life with no strings attached.  For conservatives, this seems like a big amoral (or immoral) party-time or, as Haidt, puts it, a shopping spree.

How does Haidt, a “moral psychologist” define morality?:

Morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

Notice how Haidt’s definition focuses on the function of a moral system rather than any particular repertoire of activities (e.g., “Don’t have gay sex!) or any particular way of intellectualizing conduct (“For the sake of justice, let’s enact a new program to fairly distribute resources to the poor.”).  Notice, too, how both conservative morality and progressive forms of morality easily fit into Haidt’s definition.

In what way do conservative politicians excel?   They know 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.” For conservatives, morality is far more than a voluntary social contract. Instead, it

emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other’s selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy.

Republicans see morality through the lens of Emile Durkheim,

who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.”  A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups.

Contrast this traditional morality of conservatives to the enlightenment-based morality of Democrats,

who have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don’t understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.

Haidt has great sympathy for aims of Democrats and he recognizes the danger of turning the country over to conservatives, especially the danger presented by unbridled nationalism.  Therefore, his article reads as both a warning and a potential solution to the immense challenge faced by Democrats.

The final third of Haidt’s excellent article presents the Democrats with some methods of supercharging their own agenda with a recognition of ingroup/loyalty authority/respect and purity/sanctity.  His approach is clearly articulated and potentially powerful.  The bottom line is that Democrats need to take that which is powerful from the conservatives and use it to their own advantage.

For example, the conservatives seem to have a lock on purity/sanctity.  They commonly invoke the importance of purity/sanctity through their positions on gay marriage.  Here’s how Haidt would use that same moral-measure (purity/sanctity) to make the Democrat approach more palatable to conservative-leaning voters:

The purity/sanctity foundation is used heavily by the Christian right to condemn hedonism and sexual “deviance,” but it can also be harnessed for progressive causes. Sanctity does not have to come from God; the psychology of this system is about overcoming our lower, grasping, carnal selves in order to live in a way that is higher, nobler, and more spiritual. Many liberals criticize the crassness and ugliness that our unrestrained free-market society has created. There is a long tradition of liberal anti-materialism often linked to a reverence for nature. Environmental and animal welfare issues are easily promoted using the language of harm/care, but such appeals might be more effective when supplemented with hints of purity/sanctity.

Democrats can succeed in taking back the hearts of conservative voters, if only they would stop laughing at uninformed, dunderheaded flag-waving Republicans such as Sarah Palin. We need to tap into the “conservative” forms of morality.  To some extent, they lie dormant in many Democrats, especially in politically moderate Democrats.  Here’s Haidt’s bottom line:

The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.


I note that Haidt is on sabbatical writing an entire book based on the the ideas in this article.  At his site for the forthcoming book, he writes:

This book will be a friendly slap in the face to liberals and atheists, delivered by a liberal atheist who desperately wants his peers to wise up, drop their self-righteousness, and understand the moralities of conservatives and of religious groups. The central idea of the book is simple but its implications are far-reaching:

Liberals and atheists generally do not understand the breadth of human morality. They think morality is about decreasing harm and increasing justice and autonomy. But for most of the world, morality is primarily about binding people into cohesive communities with strong institutions and collective goals.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Good and Evil, ignorance, law and order, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Miles McCullough says:

    As a super-liberal atheist, I could perhaps identify with all five pillars. So long as the only ingroup we're talking about is the community of suffering beings, respect is defined as standing up to authority, and the only sacred principles are Truth and Justice.

    I guess what I'm saying is most of the world is wrong, so might as well tell 'em that instead of pandering.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    "In the new study, Haidt and his colleagues note that libertarians score low on all five of these moral dimensions. “Libertarians share with liberals a distaste for the morality of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity characteristic of social conservatives, particularly those on the religious right,” Haidt et al. write. Libertarians scored slightly below conservatives on harm and slightly above on fairness. These results suggest that libertarians are “likely to be less responsive than liberals to moral appeals from groups who claim to be victimized, oppressed, or treated unfairly.”"

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