Morals | Liberal vs Conservative

right-way-wrong-way1Consider the following moral foundations that guide the decisions people make. How would you rank them in terms of their importance to you? Which one is top on your list? Which is least important to you?

Take your time. Order them from most to least in how important they are as guides to your moral decisions.

Care/Harm: This foundation is related to our ability to feel the pain of others and underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

Fairness/Cheating: This foundation underlies the ideas of justice, rights, proportionality, and independence.

Liberty/Oppression: This foundation relates our feelings toward those who dominate and restrict our liberty. Tension with authority can bring people together in attempts to remove the oppressor.

Loyalty/Betrayal: Evolved from our tribal history and the formation of coalition groups with others. Patriotism and sacrifice for our group are two ways this foundation is expressed.

Authority/Subversion: Related to the hierarchy of social interactions within our coalition groups. Emergence of leaders, followers, acceptance of authority, and respect for traditions form from this foundation.

Sanctity/Degradation: Feelings of disgust and contamination guide our attempts to live in a more pure and less carnal way. This foundation underlies the idea that immorality and contaminants can desecrate the temple of the body. It is often part of religious practice.


Source of Moral Foundations

The foundations listed above were identified and tested across cultures by They found that people have innate feelings in these categories which intuitively guide them as they make decisions. Each culture builds upon these foundations a set of institutions, stories, and particular virtues valued by that culture. What each culture builds is unique to the others yet they are all based upon the same set of foundations. Each culture builds different religions and moral codes to reflect those values. The religions and codes are used to draw people in that culture together. And, they are used as justification for violence and war between cultures.

Those who consider themselves liberal in their thinking tend to value the first two moral foundations of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating higher than the other foundations. 

Those who consider themselves conservative in their thinking, especially the religious, tend to value all of the moral foundations more equally in their thinking and decisions.

The growth of the culture wars in recent decades has centered strongly on the last three of the moral foundations of Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. These three foundations are held in high regard by most conservatives and less so by most liberals. The psychology of those differing value systems is manifested today in the deepening divide we feel in society. We wonder how the other side can be thinking the way they do. It leaves us wondering how can we be so different?

These are not new behaviors for we humans in our societies. What is new is the ease with which we can express our state of mind to large numbers of people, both those in agreement and in opposition. There is less time for cooling of tensions. Rhetoric is hot. Reactions are almost instant. Is our #comment trending? Tempers flare on both sides of even the smallest issues.

We are all paying the price for our intolerance. It is a sad state of affairs.


My Results

In 2012, I was quite involved locally as a volunteer and precinct captain for the Democratic party campaign. I encountered people whose moral compass pointed very liberal and some very conservative with most people in the middle. What I found difficult to understand was the rationale of those who favored the most conservative path. Why was their thinking so different from mine?

Soon after that campaign I followed the link to and found questionnaires which allowed me to evaluate my moral decisions in a number of situations. My results were plotted with others who had answered the same questionnaires. The results confirmed I was mostly a liberal in my thinking. But, I also had some conservative values I felt were important.

If you are curious about the details of what I found, go to this post from 2013. My results are about halfway down the post. Follow this link if you wish to test yourself.


34 thoughts on “Morals | Liberal vs Conservative

  1. I value fairness most, and care next. I think care stems in some regards from fairness. The least important to me is sanctity. Often we “sanctify” symbols. The word is not the thing. The flag is not the country, or the ideals for which “the country” might strive. Many conservatives I know seem to value the symbols, whether patriotic or religious, more than the ideas for which those symbols stand.

    Thanks for posting this again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • If you cant respect the flag you cant respect the country. They go hand in hand. The flag is just a symbol but it is a symbol of freedom. If you dilute the value of it you dilute America.


      • Flags are important symbols to many. I think it is wrong to imply one values and respects their country less because they don’t have a certain amount of respect for its flag. The way we act and treat other citizens of our country is the most important measure of a person. The flag is a banner used by many who claim the high ground of patriotism but treat others with disrespect.

        Thanks for your comments.


      • One should respect their fellow citizens always but one must understand boarders. There are reasons we have many flags in this world. The show us differences of people. They set us aside instead of a one world dictator ship


  2. Hmm – ok for me – a New Zealander – 1. Care/Harm. 2. Sanctity/Degradation 3. Fairness/Cheating. 4. Liberty/Oppression 5. Authority/Subversion.

    Though my 3 and 4 were difficult as I feel they are equally important.

    However I also do not like to be labelled or lumped in with any specific group of thinkers as I do tend to shilly shally about. So I won’t go any further with the quiz.

    Be the best you can be and do no harm are my mantras but sometimes you need to do harm to BE the best you can be. You see? It is very hard for these things to be cut and dried – impossible to pigeon hole a group of people and in fact I think some of the groups I see emerging (in Global politics lately) are positively tribal, feral and primal. Not thoughtful at all – reactionary in a way. My reading points to this being a Global trend, not necessarily an influence in the USA alone, it is all through Europe – this running for the castle gates and pulling up the moat before lining up on the ramparts with lances and arrows and boiling oil. Of course the problem with locking yourself in behind the castle gates is that you can no longer Get OUT.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Those are excellent comments. I agree very much about being labelled. The results of my answers to the questionnaire indicated I could identify strongly with both groups.

      ‘Be the best…BE the best’ I think I see the point. Some walk over others to BE what they want. Am I close?

      The global trend does seem more divisive and caustic. I don’t read a lot of foreign news. What I do see from trusted sources is disturbing and reinforces your comments.

      Thank you for those remarks.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is definitely tribal and not thoughtful in Europe now. Here in Italy we have an upcoming Referendum that is dividing the country into extreme factions, vocally aggressive camps that have nothing to do with the actual issues that are being voted on.


  3. 1 Fairness/Cheating
    2 Loyalty/Betrayal
    3 Care/Harm
    4 Sanctity/Degradation
    5 Liberty/Oppression
    6 Authority/Subversion

    Every time I look at this, I change my mind. This is my latest idea of the order I’d put them in. Although I suspect nomenclature has to do with it too. The word “Liberty” is fraught with right-wing tendencies in my book, although I suspect in the next 4 years I will be using it more.

    Thanks for this interesting exercise; and thank Melanie for reblogging it, which is how I found it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know what you mean about the order jumping around. It does for me, too.
      I’m still working out my feelings about the election.
      I’m glad you visited and took the time to offer your thoughtful comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Intolerance is definitely a sad state of affairs … and more than one side of the aisle is responsible. Nonetheless, for true problem solving to occur, participants must leave their sacred cows at the door and being will to listen and learn … and right now, that ain’t happenin’ … and it hasn’t been for some time. Sad … very sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Moral Foundations sounds like an excellent starting point to look within and understand how to better deal with others…. whose opinions we can have a very hard time understanding in these days of extreme polarisation

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve seen that viewpoint of human nature described before. Perhaps it coincides with the results of the morals surveys by the group in the post. It would be interesting to know their views on it.

      Thank you for your comments.


  6. I guess I showed up a bit late but here are some thoughts:

    1) Over 80% of social scientists define themselves as liberal/progressives (see Jonathan Haidt), which gives them about the same credibility as a cop in a black neighborhood. They may be wonderful people and have the best of intentions – but they will never understand the place. They write about conservatives issues about as well as men do about women’s issues.

    2) A substantial number of people who once self-identify as liberals, now self-identify as conservatives. Have they changed their values or have they merely changed what they view as viable solutions?

    3) After moving from a very progressive urban environment to a very conservative rural area, I have noticed a sharp difference in how people view social justice and charity. In progressive urban areas, people are extremely aware and vocal about issues of race, gender and social justice and while they strongly support social charities and institutions, this support is not well integrated into their daily lives.

    In rural areas and conservative urban neighborhoods, social institutions are extremely strong, with the Lions, Eagles, VFW, Shriner’s and Knights of Columbus being the center of daily social life. In predominantly liberal areas, giving is something that you have to go out of your way to do – and they do it. In conservative areas, it is impossible to avoid because it is tightly integrated into social life – therefore few people even think about it.

    In short, in a conservative environment, there is little distinction between care and loyalty. This confuses social scientists and skews their surveys.


    • Late is ok. I have a few questions.
      The 80% number seems high. Where’d you get that figure?
      Do you mean all cops in black neighborhoods? There surely are ones doing a good job.
      Of those substantial numbers of former liberals, that trend has escaped me. Where is that source of info?
      In my urban neighborhood, support of social institutions is strong and well integrated. It’s been true in every place I’ve lived. I grew up and live in rural as well as urban. I don’t think conservatives get to own that trait. No doubt it is a strong feature for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The 80% number seems high. Where’d you get that figure?

        I cited Jonathan Haidt. He recently published a paper on the subject, you can find it here and here is a brief summary by Lee Jussim.

        Jussim puts the figure at 90%.

        Do you mean all cops in black neighborhoods? There surely are ones doing a good job.

        We are not really talking about “good” versus “bad” job. What we are speaking of is the ability of an outsider to understand a community. It is the rational for seeking gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the departments.

        It raises the question, if it is vital to have gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the professions, why is it not just as vital to have political and cultural diversity as well?

        It is the argument that Prof. Haidt makes and for the reasons he states.

        In my urban neighborhood, support of social institutions is strong and well integrated.

        While that maybe true, most progressive urban neighborhoods do not have a high degree of social maturity. I do not use the word maturity in a derogatory sense, merely to suggest the degree of social cohesion. Rural and established urban neighborhood have long and multi-generational relationships and institutions. This break-down in urban areas was described well by Robert Putman’s in “Bowling Alone”.

        I don’t think conservatives get to own that trait

        “Owned” is too exclusionary of a word, but the trait is much stronger in mature social groups, it is what defines social maturity.


  7. This brings up an issue that has bothered me for some time.

    I am a devoted fan of PBS. Other than reading sites like Bloomberg, The Economist, The Federalist and The Atlantic, NEWSHOUR is my primary source of information.

    It was on PBS that I watched the election night coverage and it bothered me that every one of their commentators, even David Brooks and a Republican congressman were downright depressed at the results. You could see it on their faces and in their tone.

    Flipping through the channels, not one commentator outside of FOX was happy about Trump’s election. Now, one could make a snide or partisan comments about that nature of Donald Trump – yet still, not one commentator that I could see, hailed his election – yet how many million Americans did?

    That says something.

    It bothers me that public broadcasting does not represent the public. While it is true that they put on excellent high-quality programs – there is an alienation, an under-lying apartness that has come to dominate not only public radio and television but the arts as well.

    A number of my family, friends and acquaintances work in the arts and non-profits and are well aware that it is career suicide to hold or express any view that is out of line with liberal (and often progressive) sensibilities.

    I do not see this as particularly healthy.


    • Most of the commentators at the networks were surprised by the outcome. Polling led them to expect a very different outcome. It didn’t bother me to see commentators showing how they felt. It happens on all the networks.

      Public broadcasting doesn’t have to represent the public in any particular way. There are many ways that stations qualify. Their support comes from membership, government funds, and corporate sponsorship. It has a long and varied history in the U.S. and other countries.


      • It wasn’t surprise, it was displeasure.

        While Public Broadcasting is not bound to represent all tastes, it still takes public money therefore has a statutory obligation to avoid bias and partisanship. While most public news programs like NEWSHOUR (PBS) and All Things Considered (NPR) tilt left, others like Democracy Now! wholeheartedly embrace the extremes of the alt-left. There is no counter-balance of conservative views.

        This is not healthy.

        A public service should allow their audience to hear voices that they are not used to hearing. Again it is the rational for including more women, minorities and gay people in the public forum but PBS and NPR clearly lack political and cultural diversity.


      • Reasonable people of all political persuasions were dismayed to see him elected. He is a bigot supported by the KKK, a sexist who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, an ignorant and arrogant man who thinks he is smarter and knows better than expert in almost every field. A public service should be for the good of the public, and that is not always in presenting “both sides” of an argument, when one side is clearly wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. A public service should be for the good of the public, and that is not always in presenting “both sides” of an argument, when one side is clearly wrong.

    Melanie, I have worked in criminal justice for three decades and in our business, even the clearly guilty have the right to present their side of the story.

    It is never in the public interest to suppress a voice, not to mention 59.4 million voices. The very definition of a reasonable person understands that all voices need to be heard, and all people need to be understood.

    When the media, especially public media, becomes the arbitrator of not only who is right and who is wrong but of what can and cannot be heard, democracy is at greater risk than having an oddball president.


    • And that oddball president has threatened to quash the press, who would report truths about him and his campaign and his administration. He has threatened the New York Times with lawsuits. He routinely banned reporters from specific news outlets from his rallies. If there is risk of “arbitration” about what can and cannot be heard, he is bringing the risk, not the media.

      You can say what you want about this or any other subject. You have already hijacked the comment thread on this post with many comments that have nothing to do with the post. It seems your entire objection to the post is that the research it cites *might* have been performed by liberals. Horrors! How do you know that they are? Did you even look at the research? Do you know that the research questionnaire asks subjects to self-identify that they are conservative or liberal? The assignments of the values are based on their self-identification, not on a label imposed on them.

      And really, if scientists are more likely to be liberals, I am not surprised. After all, scientists tend to believe in facts, and they are analytical by nature, as well as open-minded.

      No need to respond.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting piece. I was a bit surprised that liberals scored high on the fair/cheating metric. It seems that a lot of liberal positions are heavy on the care at the expense of fairness and cheating. Look at liberal positions on refugees, illegal immigrants, and police brutality. Here are examples, I think, of people letting their compassion override their common sense. A country has to have immigration policies for the sake of safety and also to protect its resources. We can’t take in everybody. We also need a strong police force to be able to live in peace.


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