A Liberal Mind

Liberal vs. Conservative

My two prior columns discussing the Liberal Mind have focused on how the liberal mind adds value to both the creative and project management aspects of the remodeling process. I have discussed how differences in the brain can make liberals more comfortable processing conflicting information, while conservatives are more sensitive to the threat or anxiety in the face of conflicting information. Today, I want to pull back from looking at how these differences affect my work. As the daily news details how polarized we have become, I would like to take a look at why it is so hard for liberals and conservatives to understand each other.

First let’s look at the definition of “liberal”:

  1. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
  2. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.

This definition expresses values that I wholly embrace but if the polls are to be believed, many of my countrymen do not. I struggle to understand that.

On the July 25, 2005 episode of The Daily Show, liberal host Jon Stewart tried in vain to convince conservative U. S. Senator Rick Santorum that banning gay marriage was an injustice. Quickly realizing the futility of this effort, Stewart remarked,

It is so funny; you know what’s so interesting about this is ultimately you end up getting to this point, this crazy stopping point, where literally we can’t get any further. I don’t think you’re a bad dude, I don’t think I’m a bad dude, but I literally can’t convince you. The stopping point Stewart felt was the invisible wall separating liberal and conservative moralities. Santorum’s anti-gay-marriage views were based on concerns for traditional family structures, Biblical authority, and moral disgust for homosexual acts (which he had previously likened to incest and bestiality). To Stewart these concerns made about as much sense as the fear of theta waves; it was impossible to see why a decent, moral person (or at least not a bad dude) would want to violate the rights of a group of people who weren’t hurting anyone.

Some insight to this dichotomy of understanding can be found in the work of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia (see Haidt theorizes that the foundations of our sense of right and wrong emanate from “five innate and universally available psychological systems”, summarized as follows:

  1. Harm/care: Evolved mammalian attachment systems mean we can feel the pain of others, giving rise to the virtues of kindness, gentleness and nurturance.
  2. Fairness/reciprocity: Evolved reciprocal altruism generates a sense of justice.
  3. Ingroup/loyalty: Evolved in-group tribalism leads to patriotism.
  4. Authority/respect: Evolved hierarchical social structures translate to respect for authority and tradition.
  5. Purity/sanctity: Evolved emotion of disgust related to disease and contamination underlies our sense of bodily purity.

Haidt and his colleague Jesse Graham have surveyed the moral opinions of more than 110,000 people from dozens of countries and have found this consistent difference: self-reported liberals are high on 1 and 2 (harm/ care and fairness/reciprocity) but are low on 3, 4 and 5 (in-group loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity), whereas self-reported conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although they place slightly less emphasis on 1 and 2 than liberals do. (Take the survey yourself at”

If all 5 moral dimensions have equal weight, on any given decision it is a 3 to 2 vote and the dimensions that liberals value lose. Right wingers swing over to the three foundations of morality that liberals don’t emphasize, and ignore the ones that they share, and liberals don’t understand how conservatives could think the way they do because the other moral foundations are not relevant to liberals. How have we gotten here?

Again quoting Haidt:

Looking at the entire range of human societies, the statistically normal human society is built upon all five foundations. It is modern liberalism which requires a special explanation. Why is it that in a minority of human cultures the moral domain has shrunk? How did it come to pass that in much of Europe, and in some parts of the United States, moral concerns have been restricted to issues related to harm/welfare/care and justice/rights/fairness?

We believe that a team of historians and sociologists could easily tell such a story, probably involving references to the growth of free markets, social mobility, science, material wealth, and ethnic and religious diversity. Mobility and diversity make a morality based on shared valuation of traditions and institutions quite difficult (Whose traditions? Which institutions?). These factors help explain the electoral map of the United States in the 2004 presidential election. When viewed at the county level, the great majority of counties that voted for John Kerry are near major waterways, where ports and cities are usually located and where mobility and diversity are greatest. Areas with less mobility and less diversity generally have the more traditional five-foundation morality, and therefore were more likely to vote for George W. Bush-and to tell pollsters that their reason was moral values…

If social justice researchers and activists want to make progress and be consistent with their own values, they will have to understand, respect and work with the moral concerns of people with whom they disagree.

Share these thoughts with someone outside your in-group and see if it is possible to open dialog.

Let me know how it goes.