By Dr. Richard Rhoda


liberals-conservativesWhy do well-educated, intelligent Liberals and Conservatives disagree so vehemently? Some Conservatives see Liberals as naïve, idealistic, impractical, tree-hugging degenerates. Many Liberals view Conservatives as heartless, backward-looking, self-serving evil-doers.

Professor George Lakoff suggests that the model of the family is appropriate for analyzing political philosophies, because people generally think of the nation as a family. For Liberals, the ideal family or government is one that is run on the nurturing parent model. This model assumes that humans are born good and that goodness must be maintained. For Conservatives, the ideal family or government is run on the stern parent model which assumes that humans are born neutral and must be made good and strengthened through discipline, responsibility, accountability, and self-reliance, so that they can compete on their own in the dangerous world. Liberals may view this model as approaching abusive and stifling self-expression and creativity.

Professor Jonathan Haidt suggests that political philosophies can be understood by analyzing five universal basic moral values. First is avoiding harm to others and caring for those in need of help. This value encompasses compassion, nurturing, empathy, forgiveness, charity, and tolerance of self expression, dissent, and nonconformity. Second is fairness and ensuring that each person is treated equally, especially in matters of law, justice, lifestyle choices, and economic opportunity. This value abhors cheating and taking unfair advantage of weaker individuals. These two values are basic to the nurturing parent model.

These first two moral values appear to explain Liberalism fairly well. Of course, Conservatives are also for fairness and against harming others, but some of their positions, such as opposition to same sex marriage or civil disobedience, cannot be explained using only these two moral concepts. Conservative positions draw upon three additional moral values.

The third moral value is loyalty to one’s group, family, clan, hometown, political party, race, religion, gender, or, perhaps most importantly, country. This covers such things as avoidance of shaming your group, upholding group norms, defending the group, and protecting the honor of the group. Fourth is respect for authority and its laws, rules, and social norms. This leads to conformity, control of self-expression and dissent, as well as adherence to the status quo. The authority respected might be one’s parents, the rule of law, government and its symbols, religious leaders and religious doctrine, as well as bosses, teachers, and judges.

Haidt’s fifth moral value, purity, involves decency, sanctity, sacredness, bodily functions, hygiene, body piercing, tattoos, profanity, drug abuse, and control of carnality including nudity, masturbation, promiscuity, homosexuality, polygamy, and incest.

These last three morale values are consistent with the Conservative stern parent model which focuses on discipline, responsibility, and less tolerance of actions contrary to societal norms and rules, such as political protests, bazaar behavior, civil disobedience, flag burning, teen sex, and same-sex marriage.

A very large on-line survey is revealing that people who identify themselves as “Conservative” tend to weigh the five values about equally in making moral judgments. The “Moderates” give significantly more importance to harm avoidance and fairness than to the other three: loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. The self-identified “Liberals” place even more weight on avoiding harm and fairness, less on loyalty, and almost completely discount respect for authority and purity. However, some vegetarian Liberals condemn meat eating as impure.

Elders appear to be more Conservative than younger people. Younger groups tend to be more tolerant of protest, self expression, and alternative lifestyles. This doesn’t necessarily mean that as people age, they become more Conservative.   However, threatening life experiences, such as the terrorist attack on 9/11, having one’s children bused into an inferior inner city school, or seeing the world change very rapidly, can shift people to a more Conservative perspective. Such experiences can lead to backlashes against change and to adherence to fundamentalist religious positions.

The models based on parental family/governmental style and five basic moral values provide a useful framework for understanding Conservatism and Liberalism. It helps us understand our own political ideology and that of others who may disagree with us. We should all remember that just because they disagree with us, Liberals are not “hopelessly naïve, idealistic degenerates” and Conservatives are not “heartless, self-serving evil-doers.”

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Ojo Del Lago
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