3.5 Relation with Haidt’s moral theory

Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist studying morality and emotion. And he as analyzed the key difference between extreme conservatives and extreme liberals. These are outlined in Haidt’s TED-talk on the moral mind. Haidt start as follows.

Suppose that two American friends are traveling together in Italy. They go to see Michelangelo’s “David,” and when they finally come face to face with the statue, they both freeze dead in their tracks. The first guy – we’ll call him Adam – is transfixed by the beauty of the perfect human form. The second guy – we’ll call him Bill – is transfixed by embarrassment, at staring at the thing there in the center. So here’s my question for you: which one of these two guys was more likely to have voted for George Bush, which for Al Gore?


I don’t need a show of hands because we all have the same political stereotypes. We all know that it’s Bill. And in this case, the stereotype corresponds to reality. It really is a fact that liberals are much higher than conservatives on a major personality trait called openness to experience. People who are high in openness to experience just crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable.

Note for later reference that the liberal is interested in the whole of the statue, while the conservative has a moral issue with a (center) part of the statue. (This is suggestive of the breadth of focus of the [two hemispheres] of the brain.)

Moral virtues according to Haidt
Moral virtues according to Haidt

Haidt identifies five sets of ‘virtues’ and he {Haidt:2007gu} suggests that liberal use only two virtues — harm and fairness — while conservatives balance three more — ingroup, authority, and purity. The conservative’s virtue ‘ingroup’ and ‘authority’ are suggestive of a link with with authoritarianism. But Haidt also identifies ‘openness to experience’ as key difference between liberals and conservatives. This was also the defining difference between libertarians and authoritarians. So the question is whether in his case extreme liberals correspond to Stenner’s libertarians and extreme conservatives to Stenner’s authoritarians. If so the difference between the two opposites in both studies should boil comply with Stenner’s definition of authoritarians:

authoritarianism is an individual predisposition concerned with the appropriate balance between group authority and uniformity, on the one hand, and individual authority and diversity, on the other.

If an (extreme) conservative is indeed an authoritarian then norm-adherence, obedience, and active suppression of diversity should be a key strategy to keep life within the bound of adequate coping.

Authoritarian and libertarian morals repeated
Good Bad
Authoritarian Support of authorities in all their efforts. Subtle self-imposed limits on exploration and self-expression. In times of fear: Actively curtailing individual autonomy; Suppression of diversity; Norm compliant behavior Norm violating behavior. Challenging, questioning, or ignoring authorities. In times of fear: increasing individual autonomy and diversity; Independence of thought, opinions, and activities. Freedom of self-initiated activities; Unsupported authorities.
Libertarian Increasing individual autonomy and diversity; Independence of thought, opinions, and activities. Freedom of self-initiated activities. Freedom from oppressive authority. Actively curtailing individual autonomy; Suppression of diversity; Norm compliant behavior with adverse consequences

The virtues listed by Haidt relate in predictably to the authoritarian and libertarian values. The prevention of harm and caring for all and the fairness/recopricity virtues are the key Libertarian virtues that allow them to self-decide on the appropriateness of their behavior and the behavior of others. The three other virtues are of potential relevance to libertarians, but because of the higher self-deciding and self-steering capacity of libertarians these three values are only applied when they do not interfere with the first two virtues. So these three virtues have a reluctance associated with them that the first two virtues do not.

Authoritarians, who according to Stenner’s definition never learned to understand the world at the abstraction level of libertarians, use a wider range of distinct virtues, that they apply, especially in times of fear, to ingroups and in a more literal form. In table form this leads to the following proposed opinion of authoritarians and libertarians on the importance of each of Haidt’s virtues [Haidt, 2009]:

Haidt’s moral values compared to authoritarian/libertarian morals
Virtue {Haidt:2009gn} Authoritarian Libertarian
1. Harm/care: basic concerns for the suffering of others, including virtues of caring and compassion. Valued, but typically more for ingroups and on short and medium time-scales, not a virtue extended to outgroups in times of conflict Highly valued libertarian key virtue, extended to unknown others, even in times of conflict
2. Fairness/reciprocity: concerns about unfair treatment, inequality, and more abstract notions of justice. Typically valued to prevent problems with unfair treatment of self or ingroup if not adequately justified. Not relevant for outgroups in time of conflict. Highly valued libertarian key value, basis of mutual cooperation, extended to unknown others, even in times of conflict
3. Ingroup/loyalty: concerns related to obligations of group membership, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice and vigilance against betrayal. Valued because the ingroup is the the only environment in which one is adequate, protecting and safeguarding the group is a form of complexity curtailment. Somewhat valued, however the (in)groups are not sacred and to be protected at all costs
4. Authority/respect: concerns related to social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and proper role fulfillment. Valued since authorities are the ones who are responsible for a personal feeling adequacy and social complexity management Somewhat valued, however the need for authority is indicative of an unnecessary dependency (a weakness).
5. Purity/sanctity: concerns about physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness and control of desires. Valued virtue associated with norm adherence and especially resistance to temptations to violate norms. Somewhat valued virtue, however it should not prevent opportunity exploration and growth.

Haidt, {Haidt:2007gu} with full justification warns for ignoring authoritarian values by libertarians.

p.110: Our point is merely that the morality studied and discussed in academic journals such as this one represents only a subset of human morality. We in psychology, and in academe more generally, have a tendency to reject conservative concerns related to ingroup, authority, and purity as “bad” on the grounds that they often conflict with the “good” moralities of harm and fairness. We dismiss the conservative outgroup’s morality as “motivated social cognition” driven by non-moral concerns such as fear of change. Doing so makes us feel good, but it should not, for it is a violation of our values (we become “politicocentric”), and it is a route to irrelevance (we cannot persuade the electorate, because we do not have an accurate picture of their moral motivations). Recognizing ingroup, authority, and purity as moral concerns — even if they are not your moral concerns — is crucial both for scientific accuracy and for the application of social justice research beyond the walls of the academy.


Crimes against morality

Most of the population is authoritarian and this part of the population is not very sensitive to abstract and individualized applications of the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity virtues when they can clearly see that it violates any of the other virtues. For example:

Those who seem ruled by carnal passions (lust, gluttony, greed, and anger) are seen as debased, impure, and less than human, while those who live so that the soul is in charge of the body (chaste, spiritually minded, pious) are seen as elevated and sanctified. From this point of view, a philosophy that says “if it feels good, do it” is the philosophy of the devil.

This type of reasoning underlies both the 10-year probation all alcohol in US and the current war on drugs that started during Nixon. While the responsible use of alcohol and drugs, especially when fully legalized, is an example of a victimless activity, it is also an example of “if its feels good do it” and therefore in violation of the purity/sanctity moral value. The prohibition in the US (1922–1933) was an enormous stimulant for illegal activities associated with drug-running that stimulated both crime and police activities and made many people rich[5]. Simply prohibiting something may lead to new forms of crime. And a few years of prohibition lead to a new generation of wealthy gangsters who corrupted police-forces and politicians alike. The same holds, very predictably for the current war on drugs waged since 1973.

In fact the use of these two sets of morals, in combination with the fact that libertarians and authoritarians do not understand each other’s sets of morals, allows for [very powerful social control systems][Though policing].

  1. Apart from Al Capone’s fortune, elite families fortunes like the Kennedy’s may also be in part based on it source.  ↩


  • Haidt, J., Graham, J., & Joseph, C. (2009). Above and Below Left–Right: Ideological Narratives and Moral Foundations. Psychological Inquiry, 20(2–3), 110–119. doi:10.1080/10478400903028573