Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why do I think that right-wing people are stupid and lack compassion?

It is not a bombshell that people have different morals standards. We feel differently about what is wrong and what is right and wrong and we can feel really strongly about something without being able to argue exactly why- “it’s just right”. But why do we care about some things more than others? Researchers have now found what they believe to be the five most important components that make out our moral foundation. These are issues that have always mattered to humans in most societies. Even monkeys care about this stuff. These issues are:

1. Harm
2. Fairness

Harm and fairness is about treating people right and being kind and compassionate. We feel pain when we see people get harmed, and we get disgusted when people are treated unfairly.

3. Loyalty
4. Authority
5. Purity

The final three issues are about how to be a good member of society. Patriotism and self sacrifice is motivated by loyalty to a group. Authority and respect shape the social hierarchy; it explains why some are considered leaders and others as followers. Respect for traditions also stems from the moral dimension of authority. Finally, a sense of what is pure and sacred shapes what we feel is OK to do to our bodies and what should be condemned.
It’s intriguing that we share an evolutionary predisposition to care about these things and that they shape the institutions that make up society. What I find even more intriguing (and really really cool) is that our party preference is determined by our morality, and in a rather systematic way. I will show you:

What you are looking at is the results of an online survey that maps the moral mind. As you can see, there is a significant difference between liberals and conservatives. While they all care about treating people right, liberals don’t have strong opinions about how to be a good member of society, but conservatives do. It amuses me to see that I am an extreme version of liberals. This is not surprising though, the Norwegian political spectrum is located more to the left; our “right wing” parties are would probably be center in the American political spectrum.

Jonathan Haidt from the team that developed the survey says that there might be good reasons to why both sets of morality are present. The different moral sets balance each other out. So according to Haidt, we need them both.  
“Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order even at the cost to those at the bottom”
I wonder how flexible the morality is and whether we can change others morality? Haidt says that the morality is linked to the degree of openness. Liberals are more open to experience, while conservatives are not as open. I wonder how morality is linked to the tight norms in Norway, something I wrote about earlier. Since Norwegians are more left-wing, but also have high expectations and restrictions to social behavior, how will the moral map look like? I also wonder whether liberals can contribute more to world peace. Yes, that might sound a bit harsh, but what I mean is this: Conservatives are stricter on who can become members of society (they care more about authority, purity and loyalty to the group), it seems like they make more exceptions to the golden rule (I wrote about the implications of this in another blog post).

Jiz! There are so many questions that arise from this. I also wonder how society shapes morality. If you want to learn more about the theory of moral foundations go to If you want the short version, watch the intriguing video Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. You should also do the survey, it is really fun!

Ps. I don’t think that right wing people are stupid and lack compassion any more. I just think that they point their compassion the wrong way; inward instead of outwards. And that is just not right.


  1. It's interesting that the conservative scores are so stable across all the indicators ... does this mean that liberals have a more "unbalanced" moral compass? Or does it suggest that some points on the compass are more important than others? If it's the latter then which ones are more important and why?

  2. I don't think that liberals are more unbalanced, they have as consistent pattern as far as I can tell. Rather it indicates, as you say, that some things are more important. You can see from the map which is more important to the individuals (on average), but it is more difficult what is more important objectively, for society. Is that even possible?