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Left Or Right? How Political Ideology Shapes Your Moral Worldview

by F. Daniel Harbecke Oct 22, 2008
Political parties the world over rarely seem to share anything in common. But the similarities are revealed if you know where to look.

You’ve heard the rhetoric.You’ve seen the ads. You’ve chosen sides, and the other guy has, too. And it’s not your side.

It’s 2008 – election year. And once again, the fate of the world hangs in the balance – as it did four years ago and four years before that.

And here again, the same questions are popping up: Can we afford four years of hopelessness? Can we afford to let it all come crashing down around us, with THAT guy in office?

What drugs are the other guys on, anyway? How much worse can it get?

While they may be the same questions…maybe they’re not the right questions. Maybe we should be asking: why do they believe the way they do? How are we going to work together, if we can’t change each others’ minds? What makes us think so differently, anyway?

And why are these questions the same all over the world?

Contrary to popular belief, politics also happen outside the USA, and for the same reason: there’s a fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives see the world.

Another Country, Another World

Psychologist John Gray became a celebrity overnight when he wrote “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

What values do conservatives, liberals, libertarians and others have in common? How do they differ? Which ones are “right” and “wrong”?

But at least men and women are in the same solar system – sometimes, people whose politics you don’t agree with seem like they’re from another galaxy.

What values do conservatives, liberals, libertarians and others have in common? How do they differ? Which ones are “right” and “wrong”?

Psychologists Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia developed a scale called the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.” After putting it up at their website,, and getting thousands of respondents, they discovered a fundamental difference in how distinct political groups view moral issues.

Even more amazing: the same trends appear in results from all over the world.

Care to find out where you fall on the morality scale? Click here to register, and look for the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire” at the top of the table of studies. Then come back here and see what it all means.

International Morality

Haidt and Graham believe that humans are born with a natural “first draft” of programming – that we’re not, as Rousseau called us, “blank slates.”

We’ve developed certain inborn traits over the millennia – we learn language faster than mathematics, for example, or our automatic fear responses to loud noises and sense of falling as babies.

Haidt and Graham found five moral foundations that all humans seem to possess, in their study of cultures throughout history and around the world:

  • 1. Harm / care. This is the ability to feel the pain or suffering of other living things. It evolved from the maternal caring for one’s offspring to feel for others in the social group. People who score highly in this area are compassionate, sensitive to acts kindness and violence; low scores are quite select in who they care for.
  • 2. Fairness / reciprocity (including issues of rights).This trait is the sense of “justice,” however it’s perceived in your culture. Fairness is necessary for any social group to work together. High scores here show the need to keep group members working together smoothly, and low scores suggest an attitude of “survival of the fittest.”
  • 3. Ingroup / loyalty.Related to an almost instinctive tendency to form “tribes,” this measures the strength of bond with an organization. We see it in patriotism, heroism – and even (or especially) in sports fans. People who score highly in this area view dissent as betrayal or unfaithfulness, while low scores are individualistic.
  • 4. Authority / respect.The tendency to create groups of leaders and followers is yet another ingrained pattern. Parents expect their children to “respect their elders” and obey authority figures – in some cultures, to the point of awe. Low scorers here think a little rebellion is healthy, while high scorers think “questioning authority” is close to treason.
  • 5. Purity / sanctity.A sense of disgust appears in all cultures – some areas reflecting sexual role and behavior, others about cleanliness or what may be eaten, and so on. High scores may feel revulsion regarding sexual license or non-vegan diets; low scores tend toward “if it feels good, do it.”

Right and Left Wing Fly Together

How do political conservatives score, versus liberal mindset? Across the board, from one country to another, the results are strikingly similar.

Liberals tend to rank the first two traits – harm/care and fairness/reciprocity – higher than the other three traits. Conservatives rated each of the five traits almost equally.

What precisely does this mean?

In essence, the points of moral contention between liberals and conservatives reside in which moral bases are emphasized, and which are not. Neither group is more or less moral than the other by definition, but different areas are more pronounced than others.

So who’s right? Apparently, everyone is!

And that’s precisely the problem. We talk over each other because we can’t find the right perspective to understand each other.

The Nature Of Duality

Neither side can exist without the other. Together, they form a balance of philosophies which must work together to accomplish anything beyond partisan argument.

In a video lecture, Jonathan Haidt suggested we can escape the trap of the “moral matrix,” and move to a position where we can view ideas objectively instead of subjectively.

As Haidt says, everyone thinks they’re right – but if we step out of our need to be right, we can see where the other person is coming from. This opens a vastly wider world of potential – where cooperative dialogue can take place instead of pointless bickering.

What life will be like in the years ahead is being framed by a new set of questions. One thing is clear: we can no longer afford to ignore or condescend to people we don’t understand.

In the end, we ARE from the same planet – and it’s facing some pressing issues. We must shed our “self-righteousness” and work together if we’re going to solve them. And we must do this NOW.

This is the essence of inner travel. Anyone can fly thousands of miles, yet never see a thing. And anyone can talk for hours, yet never relate to their audience.

We need to shift our perspective, not just our location. How we approach today’s questions is a question only you can answer.

Real travel occurs when the walls come down.

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