Conservatism, Liberalism, and Ethics

Krista Tippett interviews Jonathan Haidt (Jewish-background, non-religious sociologist) about these issues, the full transcript and link for audio found here. Here is the opening paragraph snippet pulled from inside the interview:

Jonathan Haidt: It’s as though these giant electromagnets got turned on in the ’60s, and they’ve been cranking up ever since, and anything that has the vaguest left-right charge gets pulled to one side. Everything gets purified. Psychologically, what we find empirically is that people who identify as conservative tend to like order and predictability, whereas people who identify as liberal, they like variety and diversity. I have one study where we have dots moving around on a screen. Conservatives like the images where the dots are moving around more in lockstep with each other. Liberals like it when it’s all chaotic and random.

It is an interesting exercise to read this interview and think of places where we (as individuals) cross over or blend the stereotypes, and how that might be helpful for bridge building. There were other things too I found provocative, from a religious believer perspective and hope to kick around a bit here. Enjoy this.

edit: [I guess he’s actually a social-psychologist instead of a sociologist for all those who parse those terms with more knowledge and accuracy than I do.]


I look forward to giving this a listen next time I’m on laundry or dishes detail (i.e., soon :slight_smile: ).

Just reading this dots-on-the-screen metaphor, this certainly seems to resonate with the way conservative vs. progressive Christians talk about the canon of scripture, for instance.

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And I will look forward to your reactions!

Regarding the order / disorder trend, I would think science is very much on the “order” side of that, discussions of chaos and randomness notwithstanding. So in that sense science and conservatism go very much hand-in-hand if you take Haidt’s studies at face value.

Here is another snippet for reaction:

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. So let’s just talk about your basic premises. So one of them, we kind of have had this illusion that we were primarily rational creatures. And your first premise would be that moral judgment is based mostly on intuitions, rather than conscious reasoning. I mean here is the one way you said this: “When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.”

Mr. Haidt: Exactly. And if you don’t believe that about yourself, just note how true it is of everybody else.

I’m reading his book The Righteous Mind now. It’s a very interesting read.

I haven’t listened to this yet, but please realize that there is a middle ground between conservative and progressive Christians.


This article brings up some problems that I think are very important.

First is view are only two possible positions, liberal and conservative. This follows the view of Western dualism which seems to be at the center of these issues. There is left and right and no center, which is not true. Even so if we keep talking in this way, it perpetuates the myth.

Second, to say that conservatives prefer order and predictability, while liberals prefer variety and diversity may be true, but worldview should not be based on preferences. Order and variety are both good, and so are diversity and predictability.

God does not call us to act based on preferences. God calls us to act on love and truth. Jesus attacked the Sadducees and the Pharisees who were certainly in favor of order and predictability, but were wrong on love and truth.

Third, the problem with both liberals and conservatives is that they often become legalistic. They take a good rule and make it absolute so it becomes no longer good. Moderates need to be non-ideological and thus not legalistic. They need to act in the spirit and not in the law, whether it be liberal legalisms or conservative legalisms. Many conservative Christians have become very legalistic and believe that the Bible justifies this point of view, while many non-liberals have the view that Christianity is a very legalistic faith which justifies their legalistic positions.

Fourth, the subject of this interview is a secular Jew. Clearly Jews play an important role in the intellectual life of our nation and world on both the liberal and conservative side. I would expect Jews to be legalistic, but I know that this is not true of all. Martin Buber was the Jewish thinker who made “I and Thou,” which is a personalist understanding of reality popular.

Conservatives have declared war on liberals in the US. This has resulted in Trumpism which may well destroy conservatism and the nation. We must do better.

I think Haidt makes a compelling claim that our situation isn’t resolved by simply trying to find or make a “moderate” by melding two needed opposite poles together. Nor do I think there can be any such animal as “non-ideological”.

We must do better … we probably all agree on that. As to who declared war on whom, I think you’ll find it hotly contested as to who “fired the first shots”. But rather than trying to trace that useless (and probably infinite) regression back, I do think we have much other potential for productive focus.

The “information asymmetry” Haidt identifies fascinates me. Apparently conservatives have a much better understanding how liberals think than liberals do about how conservatives think. Why are conservatives so much better about “getting into” liberal heads than vice versa? That may seem a bit counter-intuitive given that liberals are supposed to be the experts at reaching out to understand other points of view. But if we accept Haidt’s observation that both the academy and popular media (except for small enclaves in both cases) are largely liberal strongholds, then I suggest that due to cultural saturation it is very clear why conservatives know and can rehearse the liberal agenda so well: they’ve been steeped in it … even if over their objections. Whereas compare how many situations in academia and popular media you see robust and sympathetic treatment of conservative views (i.e. without mocking caricature or obligatory opprobrium)? I’ll wager you have to think harder to make that list. On that count it may be little wonder that liberals are so ignorant of the conservative sensibilities to the legitimate roles of authority or tribal loyalty. In fact do this little test on yourself (not just you, Roger --this is for any readers here): when it comes to “authority” or “group loyalty” on the topic of ethics is the phrase “legitimate role” an oxymoron for you --and irretrievably so? If so, then that may reveal how far into your own liberal echo chamber you’ve withdrawn. Haidt makes an interesting case as to why we should all be paying attention to these things. He’s not claiming that we all need to agree; but is it too much to ask that we at least try to understand those with whom we have cultivated deep disagreement?

Added afterthought edit: Yes, I know many here will insist they know perfectly well all the conservative sensibilities as they see themselves as having emerged from some of those things to a liberal point of view that they now have. Those many anecdotes will exist to be sure --Haidt only offers a generality backed by polling data. If you are a liberal with intimate acquaintance of conservative sensibilities, then you are one of the many exceptions to a wider trend, if Haidt is correct about this.

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Well yes, absolutely! I would think this ought to be fairly obvious on a Forum where most folks camp out somewhere on that middle ground, if only by virtue of being in a conversation about evangelicals accepting evolutionary theory. At least, that middle ground is where I am! In fact, despite my initial comment here, I’m not generally terribly comfortable with there even being camps of Christians who align with worldly labels like “conservative” and “progressive.” That feels a bit like the world colonizing and dividing the Church.

My point was this, and I probably should have been clearer. Merv shared about “order” among “conservatives” and “diversity” among “liberals.” That seemed to me to fit with a couple different broad approaches to seeing Scripture. Those who lean more toward the conservative side tend to see the Bible as monolithic and completely harmonious, using primarily the analogy of faith to interpret Scripture by Scripture. In my experience, those who lean more toward the progressive side, meanwhile, tend to see more of a dialogue going on in the Bible, with multiple Biblical voices in counterpoint.

Of course (not to leave them out) those in the middle combine the two in some way, e.g. seeing the Holy Spirit’s authoritative, inspired voice through it all, with Christ as the focal point — even when the four gospels are written from different perspectives, and even if the Pentateuch really might have undergone an editing process. (Who says the Holy Spirit can’t inspire editors??)

Anyway, all this being said, I still have to listen to the podcast… Looking forward to it!

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When analyzed according to the moral foundations theory proposed by Haidt and others, liberals seem to focus on several “foundations” while being less concerned about others. Conservatives on the other hand seem to be more equally concerned with all of them. This would tend to make it easier for conservatives to understand the liberal mindset, as they do have a feeling for the “foundations” of concern to liberals.


Mervin, our context is not Haidt, but the Bible as I tried to point out. Jesus came into a world that was deeply divided between two cultures, the Jews and the Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians. One of His roles was to try to reconcile these two great cultures through the founding of the Church which was not Greek or Jewish, but the best of both.

If you look at the reconciliation as the union of the intellectual (Greek) and faith as the emotional (Jewish) then you see this reconciliation coming apart in the USA today as conservatives use fear to discredit the ideas of liberals. This is exactly what they have done in terms of evolution. This is what they have done in terms of immigration, defense, gun control, and taxation.

Jesus made the Kingdom of God beyond ideology. Conservatives in the USA have made the church a part of the Republican Party. They attack the Catholic Church in as far as it disagrees with them.

I do not know about you, but my family is a politically conservative Protestant family. They believe in trickle down economics, think that they have a responsibility to outlaw abortion, and fear that “others” are going to destroy their way of life. There is nothing criminal in this point of view, but neither is it Christian or intellectually sustainable, while it can be emotionally comfortable.

Jesus attacked the Jewish leaders because they used their faith to benefit themselves instead of serving God. Jesus is judging the religious leaders of our day who are doing the same thing. Conservatives have retreated into Fox News and fake news instead of trying to deal with the real world. They are rejecting the Biblical injunction to beware of those who tell us what we want to hear.

God made the intellect and the emotions. Neither of them is evil, but God gave us a mind and Jesus Christ to try to determine what is right because it is true, not just because it suits us. God gave us fear to help us recognize danger, but love to overcome all sin and evil. Fear never must never guide our lives, because we are people of faith, who trust in God, not members of the liberal or conservative tribe.

In skimming through the transcript, I tend to disagree with Haidt on a few things.

“And in one study that I did with my former graduate student, Jesse Graham, we asked liberals and conservatives to fill out our main surveys, pretending to be the other, and also as themselves, for different people. What we found is that conservatives and moderates were very accurate at filling it out as though they were liberals. But liberals were not accurate filling it out as though they were conservatives, because they just couldn’t get their mind into the idea that authority is somehow related to morality; they think it’s just oppression. So that’s one reason why there’s a difficulty, an asymmetric difficulty.”

Perhaps it is just me, but I see many conservatives speaking out against authority. For example, many conservatives refuse to accept the authority of the Supreme Court in their rulings. On top of that, modern conservatives have talked endlessly about not trusting the federal government. Right-wing groups even talk about stock piling weapons in case they need to “fight back against authority”.

I tend to think that both liberals and conservatives expect authority to adhere to what they view as morality, and not the other way around. Am I wrong in this?

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Actually, the context of this thread is Haidt – or what he wrote, rather; since … that is what I made it about, though we can certainly branch the topic out to conservatism and liberalism in general. I agree with you that Christianity shouldn’t be made to fit those categories, but the fact remains that they are very real categories often shoved into a Christian context (or vice versa) by many people in the U.S. It’s okay if you don’t want to discuss those things, but if so then maybe this thread won’t be for you. But as far as overall context goes, I pretty much agree with everything you wrote. The one difference might be … instead of just decrying our political inclinations and polarizations, I would like to follow Haidt’s lead in trying to take an insightful look into those things.

I think you are exactly right. In fact, conservatives who have set themselves up as anti-evolution are selectively dismissing any [most] scientific authorities that do not adhere to that ideology. I also think it’s wrong to overgeneralize that liberals “like chaos and diversity” while conservatives do not. There are plenty of liberal scientific thinkers who very much adhere to a concept of scientific order and would themselves decry the diversity of “alternate realities” and “alternate facts”. In fact, I think Haidt said that liberals seem to be all for diversity until it comes to thought. Our thoughts and world-views are the one place liberals can’t stand diversity. The scientific-minded among them are offended at the suggestion that reality is a matter of personal preference. They are fine throwing morals, ethics, or subjective opinions into relativistic oblivion, but science (reality) is a sacred cow not to be trifled with. If you like the saying “you are not entitled to your own facts” – that well reflects a sentiment that tramples right through these liberal/conservative categories on both sides. And even the conservatives that do stand accused of falling prey to fake news or alternative facts would probably not own that charge at all and would insist that it’s everybody else who are the victims. So even they still give lip service to one ordered truth even if they are busy denying large consensus about it.

Evangelicals have set themselves up as obedient to the Bible and not any other authority. Of course they interpret the Bible is a particular manner to suit their preferences, just as the Sadducees and Pharisees did so they claim to be obedient to God when they are not. Jesus said, “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”

Evangelicals mistake their traditional order for God’s order. While I can sympathize with them because America and the world have changed a great deal during my life time, and it is hard to adjust to significant changes in thinking. Nonetheless 1) God has the power to enable people to adjust to changes, if they allow God to guide their lives, and 2) Conservatives are not making that reasonable excuse, but are insisting that their moral order is God’s moral order.

This quote seems to reveal a deep bias against “liberals.” You are right, while religious and other conservatives adhere to “traditional values,” liberals adhere to scientific thinking. This does give them a basis for order because science is based on God’s Creation. Also because it is subject to academic review and discipline. Sadly many evangelicals have become very individualistic.

The fact is that the Bible is a good basis for morality when understood in a relational manner as is science when done properly. The problem is when one side rejects the other because it thinks its side is the only way.

Can we please dispense with the stereotype that Jews are mostly legalistic?


It seems to me that Haidt wants to take a self-critical poke at a highly liberal academy even as he self-consciously writes from within it. I think he sees value in some of the things conservatives have traditionally valued, and mourns (at least in part) the marginalization of many conservative values in so much of the intellectual world. He sees it as the yin losing its yang and taking things to a place seriously out of balance.

Perhaps when we stop and take note of how all these lines get so blurred in each of us as individuals, we can see that liberals and conservatives really aren’t so different. Haidt has provocatively claimed that the liberal call for diversity fades to silence on the matter of thought. Suddenly authority (as in the authority of scientific consensus and expertise) really does matter and how dare anyone think differently on that! That specific diversity cannot be tolerated; and the liberal momentarily forgets his liberalism.

Not to be outdone, the evolution-hating conservative takes leave of his normal pension for authority and asks “what high authority?” How dare you ask me to respect your scientific authority – I am entitled to my personal choice just like everybody else; I choose the authorities I want, the news outlets I want, the facts and reality I want, the biblical understanding I prefer, the gender I want to be … it’s all about choice now is it not? Such is his perceptive taunt to a liberal audience he knows quite well. And the conservative forgets (if only for a moment) his conservatism.

But here’s the thing: of the two curious “amnesias” I describe above, I do believe it is the conservative’s temporary lapse that is the most fleeting for him – he engages in it the most knowingly and playfully; never really forgetting that he is, underneath all the play, still anchored in the whole concept of authority. The liberal’s lapse seems to be the more enduring condition, and the liberal clings to his dogma with the greater tenacity, internalizing it and even managing to forget that he has it. It is cordoned off by a sacred veil that has yet to be torn.

And if you doubt this comparison of relative persistence, thinking that it is conservatives who have all the power right now, then engage in this little thought experiment: who/what will be around longer: Trump and republican-controlled governance … or liberal-controlled academy? Sure, an administration may leave lasting, maybe even catastrophic legacy, but is anyone under any illusion that they are here to stay? Conservatives sure laugh at any such delusions. Heck, they’re still reeling from the surprise that any of it happened at all. [They’re still talking about Hillary because they don’t know how to talk about anything else.] They see nothing but writing on the wall, and it drives them to scary places.

I write all this as a confessed liberal [as if that even needed saying]. But I try to be one with conservative proclivities – all the best (and largely abandoned) values if I can help it. They do need to be preserved. And we’re already in trouble when such a thing must be raised as a concern.

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Part of the problem, IMHO, is that Republicans are more focused on the Culture Wars than they are on policy. They want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act because it is a system put in place by Democrats. Their replacements for the ACA have demonstrated that they aren’t interested in reducing the cost of health care or making sure that people have coverage, so that can’t be their purpose for repealing and/or replacing the law. If the Republican party was able to produce a better idea for health care I would support it, but we know that won’t happen.

Even as a self confessed liberal, there are still conservative policies that I find attractive. However, things have become so intensified that Republicans are only a shadow of what they once were. A Republican from the Reagan era would be called a liberal in today’s political climate.

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By the same token, would a democrat from the Reagan era look like a conservative to today’s liberals? (Apart from the ‘Reagan Democrats’ even?)

…In other words, are those giant and ever stronger purifying electromagnets still cranking up?

I don’t think Democrats have pushed any farther left (at least at the federal level), but I am more than willing to be proven wrong on the topic. The ACA is a free market based health insurance system which is a centrist approach, as one example. The Democratic party is the party of the Civil Rights Act, and that continues today (especially after the exit of the Dixiecrats).

President Reagan raised taxes during a recession, gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, and many other things that no Republican would do today.

I know this is already a political topic, but lest it go even more in that direction, I want to focus back in again on the actual philosophies of conservatism and liberalism as they relate to how we acquire, handle, and respond to information.

At least one educational institution that I know about [a conservative Christian one] has as part of its mission statement the phrase: “… to educate in truth and train in righteousness…”. I think we see embodied right there a liberal/conservative emphasis held together in the same mission statement. Liberals will be big on the first phrase and dwell less on the second (not that conservatives don’t try to claim the first phrase as well – but they will see the first as needing to be subservient to the second part in ways that liberals would be uncomfortable with.) In short, conservatives like the notion of training and selectively enlisting any truths available to plug into that righteousness mission. Whereas liberals will be more dedicated to the “let’s follow all truth wherever it leads” ideal.

But a conservative institution that has both of these ideals partnered in their mission statement is rightly expecting that neither ideal is pitted against the other; nor are any adherents given leave to use one to dismiss the other. I think those of conservative mindset are actually in the better position to successfully meld the two while those with liberal outlook will struggle with the concept of “training toward righteousness” as they cannot stomach the thought of imposed moral imperative (along typical conservative religious lines anyway.) But as discussed above there is much messy crossover on so many of these generalizations that it would seem we have a plentifully inter-tangled mat we should be able to use to bridge and partner the two. …But how to make that happen at a national discourse level is the question!