Reading Time: 10 minutes

I’m taking the bait that Jonathan laid out for me, and critiquing “The Righteous Mind” – Understanding Conservatives and Liberals by R.B.A. Di Muccio.

For the following to make sense, you should read the article in question. It’s not long, but it manages to cram an awful lot of wrong in. (All quotation in this post are from the source paper unless otherwise specified.)


The entirety of “Understanding Conservatives and Liberals” is a mischaracterisation of liberals (and conservatives, as it happens), whether because the author takes his cues from Haidt himself, or because he is (based on a quick reading through some of his other articles) neither liberal, nor left, himself. Whether that means moderate, libertarian, or conservative is unclear, and mostly irrelevant, but it allows for the assumption that there is some degree of bias. Yes, there is a degree of bias in my writing as a leftist and liberal. So let’s see what is born out by the facts of the matter.

Those who tend to see morality mostly through the prisms of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating are “liberal.” If your moral compass tends more toward Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation, you are “conservative.” Simple enough.

Let’s ask a few probing questions about these values, shall we?

Is it possible to define Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion or Sanctity/Degradation without recourse to Care/Harm or Fairness/Cheating?

Is it possible to define Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating without recourse to Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion or Sanctity/Degradation?

I would suggest that the answers are, ‘No’, and ‘Yes’, respectively.

Oppression is not fair. Betrayal harms the group. Subversion weakens the ties that bind the group, thereby causing harm. Degradation is unfair to the individual, but relies on group definitions – enjoying what a group considers to be degrading weakens ties, and harms the group (supposedly). These are heuristic devices by which to ascertain whether Care/Harm or Fairness/Cheating is taking place. Heuristics are, by definition, simplistic, and prone to error. Neither Care/Harm nor Fairness/Cheating require these for their definitions.

In my first post on this topic, I described the work I did in my dissertation, and noted that I had not included Liberty/Oppression (aka Freedom) as this was a later addition by Haidt. Haidt’s addition of freedom supported my general thesis that Haidt’s model failed to fully represent liberal morality, before I had even started. In a later post I noted that the primary value that drove differences between liberals and conservatives was Authority.


Fig. 1: Correlations between Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion or Sanctity/Degradation.

I suspect that Freedom/Oppression, had it been included, would also swing on the individual’s relationship to authority – whether freedom from authority, or because the authority defines what freedom is.

What Figure 1 illustrates with regard to my above questions, is that the individual’s ability to define the five (or six) values comes down to their relationship with authority. Authority defines the in-group, and the in-group defines what constitutes a “legitimate” authority. This is obviously circular, and thus problematic, as it is at the heart of much Conservative thought. Authority also defines Purity (Sanctity/Degradation). Which authority you cleave to defines whether you eat pork or not, your relationship with your own body, and thus whether masturbation is a source of guilt, etc., etc. If you follow a given authority, the In-Group and Sanctity values are mutually (self)reinforcing, no questioning, or thought, required.

But liberals only believe in harm and fairness

Haidt, in his TED-Talk (to which the article links), raises the point of purity, with regard to the food we put in our bodies, as being a case of liberal “purity”. Of course, in one fell swoop this does two things. First, and most simply, it puts paid to the idea that liberals don’t rely on purity as a moral heuristic. A slightly more complex second point is that toxins in our food are demonstrably harmful, where masturbation (for example) is demonstrably not. Yes, the hippier end of the liberal spectrum might go overboard with organics, “pure” food, and such (and this bleeds over into the anti-vaxx movement), but as I said above, heuristics are simplistic and prone to error. I would hasten to add that buying your food from Wholefoods is significantly less harmful to society than banning masturbation, making sex education abstinence only, or forcing priests to be celibate. The anti-vaxx movement is relatively small compared to Christianity in the US (and there is a degree of overlap).

Let us not forget that the authority you cleave to is often an accident of birth – most people remain in the religion of their parents, all be it that the trend is to be more liberal than one’s parents (Altemeyer, 2006). To misquote Christopher Hitchens, were it to be the case that the decision as to which religion to follow, or what politics to have, was left to the adult who had critical faculties with which to make the decision, the world would be a different place.

It may seem that I am focusing more on religion than politics here, but religion is far more a feature of the right. The politics that underlies any given state religion (whether official or implied) impacts upon the politics of the state.

In Fairness

Haidt establishes that the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives are not just different, they are dramatically unequal. The liberal moral matrix rests essentially entirely on the left-most foundations; the conservative moral foundation—though slanted to the right—rests upon all six.

As I have just shown, this is incorrect. To consider Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion or Sanctity/Degradation to be on a par with Care/Harm or Fairness/Cheating is to misunderstand that the first moral flavors mentioned rely on the latter two for their very definition. All an authority does is hand you the decision about whether something is moral (which is to say fair or harmful) without handing you the reasoning to come to your own conclusion. For example, why is knowledge of good and evil so harmful that God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden? Why does that harm trump the unfairness of their punishment?

In my first post on this topic, I also noted that secular and left-leaning participants in my study had more complex definitions of fairness than right-leaning and religious participants did. Using the ten “types” of Fairness that George Lakoff (2002) proposed in ‘Moral Politics’, I showed that left-leaning participants and secularists used eight or nine types of fairness, whereas centrists, right-leaning participants, and the religious, used between four and six (see table 2, below).

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Table 1: Which of these would you use in order to decide if something was fair or not? With a relatively small number of participants (n=119) this can only be considered indicative, but it’s unlikely that the stark difference between the left and the right, or secular and religious/monotheistic are going to shift much – what will happen is the number of fairnesses in each segment is likely to go up, such that left/secular moves closer to all 10, where the right and religious approach five or six.
Note: The bolded fairnesses were agreed upon by all political orientations, the bold/italic fairnesses were agreed upon by all religious orientiations, and the bold/underlined fairness was agreed upon by all.


The level of agreement ranged from approaching acceptable (α>.7) to good (α>.8) (see Gliem & Gliem, 2003[1]). It may come as no surprise that the widest differences in agreement came between those on the left (α>.653) and those on the right (α>.813). This, however, could simply be a product of the number of permutations brought about by broadly agreeing on eight types of fairness (left) as opposed to four (right). By comparison, the different religious persuasions (secular/religious/monotheistic) all achieved alphas of .7-.75.

Having more ways of defining fairness is not inherently better, but it does take the sting out of the accusation that Liberals “only” rely on two moral flavours, or that “the conservative moral foundation—though slanted to the right—rests upon all six.”

Justice, Equity, and Institutions

Liberals seek to create justice and equity; whether doing so harms core institutions simply doesn’t enter into their moral reasoning. Conservatives, in contrast to their typical caricature, do care about justice and fairness, they merely cherish vital institutions relatively more. If there’s a conflict, conservatives will err toward protecting institutions.

A rhetorical question: What is the point of a moral institution if it fails to perpetuate “justice and equity”?

Here’s where we get to the bit where conservatives are misrepresented.

Which vital institutions do Conservatives cherish?

Government? No. Make it smaller. Also, don’t tax me to support it. Get rid of institutions within it that I don’t believe in, even though other people do believe in it. (My taxes are solely paying for all of the things.)

Funny how libertarians have inveigled their way into mainstream conservative discourse, in the US at least, apparently without it being noticed.

In the UK, is it liberals dismantling the NHS, privatising everything in sight, and putting tertiary education beyond the reach of most? No.

What of the Family? Punish people for bad judgment or bad luck that leaves them as single parents, thereby guaranteeing that the progeny of these families will go on to create single-parent families themselves:

Single mothers earn significantly less than single fathers, and they’re penalized for each additional child they have even though the income of single fathers remains the same or increases with each added child in their family. Men also make more for every additional year they invest in education, further widening the gender gap, reports a University of Illinois study.

The study of nearly 4,860 partnered and 905 single parents showed single mothers fared considerably worse than single fathers in mental health terms – 16% of single mothers and 9% of single fathers reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. This compared with 6% of partnered mothers and 4% of partnered fathers. Ilka Pelzer – Medical Xpress

Children from poor and working-class homes are now doubly disadvantaged by their parents’ economic meager resources and by the fact that their parents often break up. By contrast, children from more-educated and affluent homes are doubly advantaged by their parents’ substantial economic resources and by the fact that their parents usually get and stay married. W. Bradford Wilcox, Slate

So, in reality, conservative folk-psychological theories about how best to “encourage” people to value institutions such as marriage actually damage those institutions. The same is true for the impact of abstinence-only sex education on teenage pregnancy and single motherhood (Stanger-Hall and Hall, 2011).

Furthermore, in the US, we now have numerous conservatives openly flouting the establishment clause.

What about Healthcare?

Everyone cares about suffering and injustice. But most everyone (except liberals) also believes that maintaining core societal foundations is a legitimate, reasonable moral value.

The repeal and replace movement, vis-a-vis ObamaCare (aka TrumpCare), is set to turf 24 million people off medical insurance. Leading to that awkward moment when Fox and Mother Jones agree. The erosion of the NHS in the UK is the same basic model of making healthcare inaccessible to the bottom 50%. (But this totally isn’t eugenics by the backdoor.)

Can anyone explain to me how any of this is the maintenance of core societal foundations?

How do any of these actions by the GOP (both before and after Trump) relate to this:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Or, given the institution of Christianity, and the Bible, and their supposed centrality to the Republican view of America, what about these?

Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

So, single mothers and the poor (but I repeat myself) should be the focus of Republican governance, if the maintenance of societal foundations is indeed their goal …and taxation should not be the bugbear that it is, either:

Matthew 22:21 Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

I think it clear that the following is therefore incorrect:

Sadly, “The Righteous Mind” proves irrefutably that trying to explain to liberals that their solutions might undermine vital institutions is fruitless. They cannot and will not relate, or even concede that such concerns fall into the realm of moral reasoning.

Which institutions are vital, exactly? Name a single one that is not weakened by conservative policy.

Oh, right, “the church.”

Which is ironic given the number of conservatives (mostly the libertarians) that claim to be atheists.

What it all boils down to

When liberals promote public policies that might help resolve injustices in the short-term while undermining higher-order values (the family, the rule of law, separation of powers, religious liberty), conservatives must thoroughly articulate the long-term consequences to the vast majority of people whose moral foundations span more than the left-most side of the continuum.

This is demonstrably incorrect, and fails (again) to recognise the importance of Harm/Care and Fairness to ALL morality (aka “higher-order values”). I’ve shown (and can show more) support for the fact that conservative policies in the US and UK, as regards social support and education (both sex education and general education), weaken the family by removing access to social mobility.

Every time a Republican politician talks about strengthening the influence of the church (which is often), such as the latest move by Trump to defang the IRS as regards the Johnson Amendment (not that the IRS has used those fangs much), we see a blatant disregard for the rule of law and separation of powers.

Of course, these things are done in the name of religious liberty… but only if that religion is Christianity. The same is true of Cameron’s equating British values to Christian values. It should be obvious, but apparently it is not, that pursuit of religious liberty for one single religion is the opposite of actual religious liberty.

Against this vexing backdrop, the “conservative advantage” provides a modicum of hope and help. The alternative is to stay silent and allow our proverbial bee hives to be weakened into oblivion. As Haidt so thoroughly demonstrates, only the truly liberal few live in blissful indifference toward that eventuality.

The so-called “conservative advantage” is simply the fact that conservatives are sufficiently anchored in the real world that they can see what liberals see. The problem is that they are also anchored in the Christian worldview, as detached from reality as it is (at the very least, because we do not live somewhere in 5th-1st century BCE Palestine, and as such the exigencies of daily life bear little resemblance to that which gave rise to the Bible).

That is not an advantage, but is an encumbrance, if not an outright disability.

That is why Climate Change is not taken seriously, why abortion and homosexuality are still political hot potatoes, and why an incompetent, and usurious male blow-hard is the president of the United States instead of an eminently competent female, or a Socialist secularist.

[1] Gliem, J. A., & Gliem, R. R. (2003). Calculating, interpreting, and reporting Cronbach’s alpha reliability coefficient for Likert-type scales. Midwest Research to Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and Community Education.