Why liberals need conservatives, and vice versa

Indiana Jones and Darth Vader, smoking
Your basic liberal (left) and your basic conservative (right), as portrayed by my imagination

Here’s a distressing fact, for a liberal. Liberals, on one small but extremely important metric, are wrong far more often than conservatives.

Jonathan Haidt, the moral psychologist, shows as much in his book “The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion“, which I’ve mentioned before and which my colleague Ed West and I have been reading from our differing political perspectives. The measure is a simple one: how well do they understand their political opponents?

They asked two thousand Americans to describe their political leanings (liberal, moderate, conservative) and fill out a questionnaire about morality, one-third of the time as themselves, one-third of the time as a “typical liberal”, and one-third of the time as a “typical conservative”. The clear answer was: self-described conservatives and moderates were much better at predicting what other people would believe. Liberals, especially the “very liberal”, were by far the worst at guessing what people would say, and especially bad at guessing what conservatives would say about issues of care or fairness. For example, most thought that conservatives would disagree with statements like “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal” or “Justice is the most important requirement for a society”.

Where does this come from? Why do a significant number of liberals think that conservatives are animal-torturing thugs who don’t care about anyone but themselves? (Admittedly a number of conservatives think that liberals are crypto-Stalinists bent on world domination, or something, but according to Haidt that’s not the majority position.) For Haidt, it’s because our morality is not based on reason, as we fondly imagine, but on intuition – an instant, unreasoned response more akin to our taste in food than to our rational thoughts. He argues convincingly that our reasoned arguments are post-hoc justifications for gut reactions; our ability to construct such arguments does not exist to get us to the truth, “truth” rather than usefulness being of limited survival value, but instead to justify to others why we act the way we do, like an on-board press secretary. We’re social creatures, and have evolved extraordinarily good systems for making ourselves look good to other members of society.

The trouble is that liberals, in general, base their morality almost exclusively on three “flavours” – care for others, liberty from oppression, and fairness – whereas conservatives use those three plus another three: loyalty to one’s group, sanctity and sacredness, and respect for authority. So conservatives can understand the morality of liberals, but much of conservative morality is alien to their opponents.

His findings about what is behind our moral decisions are unsettling. For example, we unconsciously seek out arguments that support our intuitive beliefs, and subtly ignore or discredit those that don’t: as Haidt puts it, we ask of things that support them “Can I believe this?”, and of things that don’t “Must I believe this?” Our brains literally reward us when we find arguments that support our positions – which, says Haidt, explains the stubbornness of partisan belief, even, or especially, extreme conspiratorial beliefs like the US government being in contact with aliens. Partisanship is addictive, he says. And nowadays, with the internet and the sheer breadth of modern scientific research, it is very easy to find things that support your views: a Google search on global warming, or on whether or not foetuses can feel pain, provides those who want it with a “smorgasbord” of information which can back either position.

There’s lots more in Haidt’s book, and some things to criticise – for example, he gets to page 272 before he acknowledges that there is a difference between describing what drives us to moral decisions and creating a reasoned moral framework, and since he talks in terms of things being right and wrong I don’t think he rejects the idea of a rational morality altogether. But it’s an eye-opening read. The most important message is the one in the subtitle – our political opponents are not evil people. My fellow liberals, in particular, should remember that conservativism is not necessarily cruel and selfish, or dogmatically anti-Enlightenment, but an alternative theory about the best way to provide the best for society. It believes that some institutions are worth keeping in place, because institutions (including religions and nation states) build social cohesion; that people require some constraints and accountability to prevent them acting badly; that we should emphasise what is similar about people, not what is different, if we want our group to rub along. Whether or not those statements are correct, they are not evil.

Furthermore, we probably need each other. As John Stuart Mill said: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” I doubt many people below the line will agree with that. But if we can at least make the basic assumption that neither side of the debate is actively trying to screw things up, then that’s a start.


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