Do the politically conservative have more moral might than the politically liberal?

Fiona Kate Barlow, University of Queensland

Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, New York, Pantheon, 2012 (448 pp). ISBN 9-78030737-790-6 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, is an ambitious book that tackles morality, politics, and evolution. Haidt aims to examine how we make moral decisions, and how political liberals and conservatives take different factors into consideration when deciding whether a thing is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. He takes an evolutionary perspective to argue that we have evolved to take morality seriously. By extension, he says, as morality is important and innate, and it can divide those with differing moral compasses (the political right and left) dramatically. He concludes by suggesting how political opponents can learn to take one another’s moral perspective, to the end of communicating, and co-operating, more effectively.

Politically (small ‘l’) liberal people make moral judgments in response to how we, as humans, treat our fellow men and women. They also place particular emphasis on how we treat those who, through societal discrimination, lack of power, status or wealth, cannot insist on fair treatment themselves. In short, when asking whether something is ‘good’, or ‘bad’, politically liberal people ask, ‘is this hurting someone?’, and ‘is this helping someone?’, and especially ‘is harm being down to someone who is powerless?’ But is this focus on care and fairness sound? Or is it an immature and incomplete foundation upon which to build one’s sense of the moral? In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that morality extends far beyond preventing human suffering. Instead, he states, moral decisions are made with reference to liberty, sanctity, authority, and loyalty, as well as fairness and care (versus harm). Unlike the morally limited liberals, who primarily think of care and fairness (and a bit about oppression) when deciding on the ‘rightness’ of a person, action or situation, Haidt proposes that political conservatives refer to all six dimensions when making moral decisions. This gives, according to Haidt, politically conservative people a moral advantage. The conservative advantage in moral reasoning is a core thesis of The Righteous Mind, but the book does extend beyond this, with Haidt explaining his understanding of how morality develops, and for lack of a better word, works. He also turns to evolutionary theory to make a case for how morality evolved (and why it is important to the survival of the species), to conclude by calling for an increase in cohesion, and at least, understanding and constructive communication, between the political left and right.

The book comprises three sections, with four chapters in each. Part I is titled ‘Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second’; Part II argues ‘There is more to morality than harm and fairness’; and Part III takes an evolutionary spin to propose that ‘Morality binds and blinds’. Part I of the book is undoubtedly my favourite—while I do not agree with all of Haidt’s conclusions in this section, one very compelling point is made throughout: we, as humans, don’t just experience moral anger, disgust and disdain in response to a logical analysis of the situation and potential violation. Rather, more often than not we have knee-jerk reactions to transgressions, and it is to justify our anger, disgust and disdain that we struggle (sometimes uphill) to develop logical narratives that explain how we feel.

According to Haidt, politically conservative people have a moral advantage.

Haidt’s pet analogy is that of elephant and rider. Think of an elephant, large, powerful and muscular (elephantine!). The rider, in contrast, is tiny, and is struggling to stay astride the elephant, let alone direct its passage. When the elephant is ambivalent the rider may direct it (‘veer left, now right’), but in contrast, if the elephant is determined to go and drink at a watering hole, or go and fraternise with like-minded elephants, it has the strength to do so without reference to the rider. The rider is carried along, left to salvage his or her remaining self-esteem by creating (post-hoc) a justification of why he or she wanted to go the same direction as the elephant in the first place. If you haven’t guessed it by now, the elephant is intuition (automatic processes), and the rider is strategic reasoning (controlled processes). And in the battle between intuition and strategic reasoning, the title of Haidt’s third chapter says it all: ‘Elephants rule’.

The divide between logic and passion, between cerebral and refined reason, and base, unbridled tempers, has long fascinated philosophers. In Chapter 2, ‘The intuitive dog and its rational tail’, Haidt calls upon Plato, Socrates, Hume, Kant and others to illustrate this point. Plato, and those trained in his school of thought, value logic above all else. For them, logic should always guide behaviour, and only those who manage to reason, coldly and dispassionately, will be able to come to sensible and well-grounded conclusions. Haidt describes this attitude towards logic as ‘worshipful’ (p. 28), and refers to it as ‘the rationalist delusion’. On this point, I am in complete sympathy with Haidt.

The more research that we do on the link between our very physical bodies, and our supposedly rational minds, the more we find that the two are inextricably linked. For example, researchers have demonstrated that conversations about sensitive topics between romantic partners go better when the chemical oxytocin (the ‘love drug’ released during sex, cuddling, breastfeeding, and many other pleasurable social experiences) is administered (Ditzen et al. 2009). Little changes in our bodies woo our elephant, and make us feel as though conversations are more logical, positive and productive. Likewise, research from behavioural genetics finds that many of the political ideologies and attitudes we hold dear are at least in part heritable (Alford, Funk & Hibbing 2005). We do not make a choice about who we vote for and what we believe with a cool head, on the basis of argument and experience. Rather, our elephant is already predisposed to lean one way or the other without even the most rudimentary conversation with our rider.

The more Haidt examined the topic of morality, the more disillusioned he became with Plato’s deification of logic. Logic, he found, was primarily employed to justify and explain moral judgments, rather than give rise to them. He found himself agreeing with another famous philosopher, David Hume, who in 1739 wrote ‘reason is, and out only to be the slave of passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’ (Hume, 1739, cited in Haidt, p. 25). Haidt prefers the term ‘servant’, rather than ‘slave’, however. He believes that logic, like a servant, can have some (albeit very little) say in how what we believe is good and evil.

Haidt’s pet analogy
is that of elephant
and rider.

In order to demonstrate the fact that we make moral judgments through more than reason, Haidt outlines several of his own studies, and those of other moral psychologists. For example, he refers to Alex Jordan’s work (p. 60). Jordan found that people made harsher judgments about controversial issues (for example, first cousins marrying) when they were standing next to a bin that had recently been sprayed with a pungent ‘fart’ odour, than when their nasal passages were comparatively un-assailed. The disgust participants felt at the foul smell made their elephants angry, and their riders fell into line, being more severe with transgressors. Likewise, social psychologist Chengbo Zhong (see p. 61) conducted an experiment in which he had half of the participants wash their hands with soap prior to filling out a questionnaire about issues related to moral purity. Those who had washed their hands were more judgmental about issues ranging from drug use to pornography. The elephant, having ‘out damn spotted’, wanted to keep clean. And so the rider had to follow along, and keep his answers morally hygienic.

Among the most famous of Haidt’s own research in this domain presented people with stories that are disgusting, or seem intuitively wrong, and yet in which nobody is harmed. In one fictitious scenario, a man buys a chicken from a supermarket, takes it home, has sex with it, and then cooks and eats it. In another, a brother and sister, equivalent in age, status and power, both over the legal age of consent, decide to have sex. The sister is on birth control, and they use a condom for extra protection. Both enjoy it, and while they decide not to have sex again, agree that it made them feel closer to one another. Moving away from the sexual domain, in the American context, a person cuts up an American flag and uses it to clean the house (again, no one sees, and no one is hurt by the act). Educated and politically left-wing Westerners typically give similar responses to stories such as this. They don’t like them, they find them unpleasant, but do not believe that any moral violation has occurred. If they’re not hurting anyone, people have the right to do what they want. Among people who are not liberal Westerners, however, Haidt has found that many of these stories are perceived as morally wrong. As Haidt states, to many non-Western non-liberals, ‘Some actions are wrong even though they don’t hurt anyone’ (p. 4).

In his cross-cultural research (pp. 21–22) Haidt finds that education, more than nationality predicts how people respond to these stories. Highly educated people, irrespective of cultural differences, find that, protagonists in the stories violate social conventions, but not moral codes. People who are not as well-educated, however, are more likely to feel that people in the stories did something ‘bad’, something morally wrong. To Haidt, this was a first clue that people’s moral judgments are made taking more things into consideration than harm and fairness. And so, Haidt’s research on types or ‘flavours’ of moral decision-making was born, and he and I begin to diverge in opinion.

Part II of The Righteous Mind concerns the divide between political liberals and conservatives. In Chapter 5, ‘Beyond WEIRD morality’ (WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), Haidt describes his own personal journey from a politically liberal undergraduate, to what he considers himself now, a man who has stepped outside the political game. He tells the reader about his journey to India in 1993, during which visit he began to experience and respect different ‘flavours’ of morality—a respect for authority, for a higher power, and for tradition. He began to examine his own research in a new light.

Conservatives are
not concerned about the oppression of underdogs.

On his return back to America, Haidt began examining morality with zeal—trying to find out how people made moral decisions without an a priori expectation that morality was solely about justice and fairness. He presented many thousands of people with moral dilemmas, and asked them ‘When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?’ (‘The Moral Foundations Questionnaire’ 2010). He included potential responses about care/harm (for example, ‘Whether or not someone suffered emotionally’) and fairness (for example, ‘Whether or not some people were treated differently than others’), as well as other considerations that he found people referenced, like national loyalty (for example, ‘Whether or not someone’s actions showed love for his or her country’), respect for authority (for example, ‘Whether or not someone showed a lack of respect for authority’), and sanctity (for example, ‘Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency’, and ‘Whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve of’). He found that political conservatives, in particular, felt moral violations could occur in the absence of harm and inequality (Haidt & Graham 2007). He writes that many people who read his moral dilemmas felt that: ‘Even if it does no harm and violates nobody’s rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass, he still shouldn’t do it because it degrades him, dishonours his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe … (to) Many societies … the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts’ (p. 100).

Haidt proposes that moral decisions are based on six foundations, some of which are measured through the example items listed above. His moral foundations are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. Politically liberal people, Haidt finds, typically make moral decisions with regard to whether someone is hurt by a particular action, whether they are oppressed, and whether they are treated fairly. Conservatives consider these things too, although they are not concerned about the oppression of underdogs, victims, or powerless groups (p. 175). Instead, when it comes to oppression they are wary of being oppressed themselves (primarily through taxes that they feel are going to people whom they consider lazy and undeserving, such as single mothers and people on welfare). While liberals are morally sated by care, fairness and oppression, however, Haidt states that conservatives have more adventurous ethical palates. When making moral decisions, conservatives also ask whether people behaved with due deference to authority (respecting parents, bosses, religious leaders etcetera), whether they displayed loyalty (for example, to the flag, their nation, their ideology), and whether or not they degraded themselves (for example, through lack of piety, or lascivious and unorthodox sexual behavior). He has good empirical basis for this assertion. Along with his colleagues he has found that conservatives refer to all moral foundations relatively equally, while political liberals rely on care, fairness and oppression while effectively disregarding sanctity, authority and loyalty (Graham, Haidt & Nosek 2009). While not directly speaking to the issue of how ‘moral’ the moral foundations are, Haidt does seem to assume that morality begins and ends with his six moral dimensions and that all of his moral dimensions should hold equal weight.

If we accept that moral decision-making is founded on these six dimensions, and that all are equally weighted, then Haidt is right. Conservatives do have the moral advantage. The problem is that I, and I presume many other readers, do not accept that Haidt is right. The book provides clear evidence that Haidt has not stepped outside the political game—rather, he has just stepped a little to the right, and weighted the dice in favour of political conservatives from the beginning. Haidt has designed and tested moral dimensions that are more clearly, and with greater numerical weight, aligned with conservative ideologies. It is not surprising that he finds political conservatives have the moral advantage—in a test favoring conservative ideas of morality conservatives will undoubtedly come out ahead. Oddly, bias in the science of morality is something that Haidt writes on extensively. He is highly critical of liberal academics to whom morality is defined down leftist lines (focusing on care and harm, and protecting victims and minorities). He is skeptical about their focus on explaining the irrationality or immorality of political conservatism (for example, racism and sexism). But to my mind, re-biasing the tests so that they favour conservatives does not solve the problem any more than examining morality from a left-wing perspective does.

The benefits associated with being religious are clearly outlined.

Part II of the book raises existential questions that I am not sure can be answered. What is ‘real’ morality, what is the nature of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’? Something that I am sure of, however, is that I could design a series of moral dimensions with a liberal bent. I could measure core moral dimensions of, let’s say, respect for difference, protection of the weak, and courage in the face of authoritarian suppression, and triumphantly claim a liberal advantage. This would, of course, simply reflect my ideological outlook, not the moral maturity and superiority of political liberals. I adore Haidt’s elephant and rider analogy, but Part II just makes me want to apply it to him. His elephant clearly voted Republican (even if his rider pretended to like Obama), and it shows in his research on morality.

In final section of the book (‘Part III: Morality binds and blinds’), Haidt takes an evolutionary perspective to argue that humans have systematically developed to be moral. In doing so (see Chapters 9 and 10) he enters a heated debate. Haidt takes on evolutionary theorists, such as Richard Dawkins and George Williams, who believe that humans are innately selfish—focused exclusively on passing on their own genetic material. Through this lens, Haidt says: ‘Genes are selfish, selfish genes create people with various mental modules, and some of these mental modules make us strategically altruistic, not reliably or universally altruistic. Our righteous minds were shaped by kin selection plus reciprocal altruism’ (p. 190). From this perspective, altruism is a by-product of the fact that we have evolved to protect and aid our kin (those blood relations who carry with them our genetic material). In hunter-gatherer societies we would most likely have a kin relationship with almost everyone in our group (to differing degrees), and as such, altruism within the group would be a sensible was in which to help our own genetic material along. In modern times, with extended social networks and globalisation these moral and altruistic urges ‘misfire’, and thus we are kind, helpful (and judgmental) towards non-kin as well as kin (think about sponsoring a child in Africa). Haidt is strongly opposed to this school of thought, and states, rather incoherently, that: ‘Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. We’re one-of-a-kind freaks of nature who occasionally—even if rarely—can be as selfless and team-spirited as bees’ (p. 198).

Human altruism and morality come down to ‘group selection’, says Haidt. The general idea of group selection is that groups who were more co-operative used this to their advantage, and thus like genes fighting for their own survival, groups did the same. Group selection is a contentious issue among evolutionary theorists, to say the least (for commentary see Dawkins 2012) and I will not get into it in depth. Frankly, I wish that Haidt had not done so. I am sure that our moral and altruistic urges have evolved, and how they manifest is shaped by the particular environments, cultures, and societies in which we live. The section on group selection, however, feels jumpy, and discombobulated. To me, it doesn’t get us any farther in the political debate about morality—it simply emphasises humans are group oriented. That Haidt is wedded to the idea of group selection is evident, however. I prefer, conversely, his more general points about the communality and consensual nature of morality—he is right when he states: ‘Humans construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods that, even in the twenty-first century, they fight, kill, and die to defend’ (p. 207).

Haidt is routinely dismissive of the care/harm dimension of morality.

One such institution is, of course, religion, and in the book’s penultimate chapter Haidt moves to argue that ‘Religion is a team sport’. Herein he takes on atheists to argue for the usefulness and benefits of religiosity: ‘If the gods evolve (culturally) to condemn selfish and divisive behaviours, they can be used to promote co-operation and trust within the group’ (p. 256). For atheists like Richard Dawkins, and others, who see religiosity as the main cause of war, sexism and societal discord in general, this chapter will be unconvincing. For more moderate atheists and agnostics, the benefits associated with being religious are clearly outlined. Haidt draws on the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, who along with his colleagues, has found that religious people feel more embedded within, and connected to, their communities, and they donate more time and money to charitable causes (Putnam & Campbell 2012). I do not disagree—while reliosity comes at a cost to those excluded (for example, sexual minorities), it has a raft of benefits for believers. Like the preceding chapters on group selection, however, this chapter does not further our understanding of morality. It is interesting to those who do not know about the benefits of organised religion, but to those looking for further information on morality, it seems redundant, given the earlier section about conservative morality. As an interesting aside, Haidt does seem to prefer a god of fear over a god of love, saying: ‘Angry gods make shame more effective as a means of social control’ (p. 256).

In the final chapter, ‘Can’t we all disagree more constructively’, Haidt pulls together his work to plead for increased communication between the atheists and religious, between the authoritarian and anti-establishmentarian, between the political left and right. He suggests that understanding his six moral dimensions will help here—discussing contentious issues and politics with reference to all moral dimensions would help us to understand one another. In line with the rest of the book, Haidt feels that conservatives have the advantage here too. With their full moral repertoires they will be able to see liberals’ points of view, whereas liberals, with their three (at most) moral dimensions, will be unable to respect or understand the additional moral dimensions that conservatives use when making decisions about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. I like his idea of trying to empathise with people who are ideologically opposed to us, and appreciate his efforts to highlight positive aspects about conservative and liberal ideologies. Ultimately, however, I take issue with his definitive explanation of what morality is, and cannot, like him, place most of the blame for ideological disagreement on liberal shoulders.

In favour of the book, Haidt writes amusingly. Take, for example, his discussion on metaphysical musing as a young adult: ‘I studied philosophy in college, hoping to figure out the meaning of life. After watching too many Woody Allen movies, I had the mistaken impression that philosophy would be of some help’ (p. 4). There are several sections in the book, however, against which my elephant revolts. In particular, the opening sentence, in light of the rest of the book, seems inappropriate. In 1991, Rodney King, an African American man, was brutally bashed by members of the Los Angeles police force. Amateur video footage captured King, immobile on the ground, being repeatedly hit with batons, tasered, and kicked. The police officers’ trials for use of excessive force, and subsequent acquittals in 1992, sparked the Los Angeles riots. The riots were damaging, violent and deadly, spanning six days and demonstrating the depth and severity of racial tensions in the United States at the time.

Haidt’s epigram for the book’s opening is King’s oft quoted plea of unity ‘Can we all get along?’, followed by the lesser known, ‘Please, we can get along here. We can all get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for while. Let’s try to work it out’ (p. xi). This seemed appropriate to Haidt—after all, his book too calls for ‘getting along’—a political bipartisanship based around conservative morality (or as he calls it, complete morality). What Haidt didn’t know at the time, however, is that King wouldn’t be ‘stuck here’ for much longer. In July 2012 he was found drowned in his swimming pool, following a 20-year period of protracted legal battles, substance abuse, and repeated run-ins with the police. To me, King’s story is particularly tragic; his personal battle through discrimination, and experience of social inequality wasn’t resolved by the LA riots, any more than the LA riots ended racial discrimination.

Haidt’s elephant, not his rider, has claimed moral victory for
the right.

The research, not on King, but rather minority group members (such as African Americans, Aboriginal Australians, non-White immigrants in Western nations) is general, is clear. For members of minority groups, chronic and persistent discrimination is linked to poor physical and mental health, and drug and alcohol abuse (Paradies 2006). Discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or religion is immoral (to a lot of people, anyway). It hurts people—it harms them. Haidt is routinely dismissive of the care/harm dimension of morality, and human suffering (in particular that of minority groups). Instead, he focuses heavily on problems that Democrats and Republicans (liberals and conservatives) have in talking to one another, and bemoans the increasing divide between the two parties over the last 60 years or so. But why is the divide so large? The answer, according to Haidt, comes largely back to race. He states: ‘the increase in (political) polarization was unavoidable. It was the natural result of the political realignment that took place after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conservative southern states, which had been solidly democratic since the Civil War (because Lincoln was a Republican) then began to leave the Democrat Party’ (p. 310).

If care and harm are relatively unimportant (and at the most, only one-sixth of a full moral repertoire), then maybe civil rights could have been sacrificed to the end of more cross-party co-operation (note here that this is not something Haidt suggests). For those of us, however, to whom care and harm, fairness and oppression matter deeply, civil rights are a moral issue. Put together with sections of the book that rail against morally immature lefties and their blind support of racial minorities, Haidt’s use of King’s quote seems like a cynical and insincere attempt to charm politically liberal elephants.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt aims to convince us all to do something good—co-operate and communicate across the political divide. Even more usefully, he tells us, he knows just how to do it. Well, we probably all feel this—that we can see clearly when others can’t, and if only everyone would just do as we say, then everything would be all right. Haidt’s solution is for conservatives and liberals to engage with all six moral dimensions when talking to each other. I feel strongly that this would not work. I do not think, for example, that an atheist invoking a sanctity argument (‘this is what God would want!’) would convince a religious conservative any more than a conservative’s nod to the Civil Rights movement (and the care and fairness foundations) would win over a leftist. I think that instead of thinking clearly on this issue, Haidt is under the spell of his own intuition. Beautifully, and ironically, this is the exact point that Haidt makes throughout his book. Our elephants are strong, and boisterous, and our riders spend most of their time justifying the elephant’s direction rather than guiding it. Haidt sees this clearly, and yet I am left feeling that it is Haidt’s elephant, and not his rider, that has claimed moral victory for the right and developed a conservative biased solution for breaking down ideological barriers. In his words:

Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something to say (p. 313).

Haidt sounds like a good person, with something interesting to say. But still … morality binds and blinds.


Alford, J.R., Funk, C.L., & Hibbing, J.R. 2005, ‘Are political orientations genetically transmitted?’, American Political Science Review, vol. 99, no. 2, pp. 153–167.

Dawkins, R. 2012, ‘The descent of Edward Wilson’, Prospect, 24 May [Online], Available: [2012, Aug 21].

Ditzen, B., Schaer, M., Gabriel, B., Bodenmann, G., Ehlert, U., & Heinrichs, M. 2009, ‘Intranasal oxytocin increases positive communication and reduces cortisol levels during couple conflict’, Biological Psychiatry, vol. 65, no. 9, pp.728–731.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. 2007, ‘When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognise’, Social Justice Research, vol. 20, no.1, pp. 98–116.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B.A. 2009, ‘Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 96, no. 5, pp. 1029–1046.

Paradies Y. 2006, ‘A systematic review of empirical research on self-reported racism and health’, International Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 888–901.

Putnam, R.D., & Campbell, D.E. 2012, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, New York.

The Moral 2010, The Moral Foundations Questionnaire [Online], Available: [2012, Aug 23].

Dr Fiona Kate Barlow lectures in statistics and social psychology in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her research broadly focuses on intergroup relations. Most recently she has undertaken work looking at how same-sex attracted people respond to discrimination, and how negative contact between members of different racial and cultural groups can increase intergroup tensions.

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