Morality In Liberals And Conservatives

There’s a very interesting TED Talk about what makes someone liberal or conservative on social (as opposed to economic) issues. It turns out that once five components that make up morality are measured, conservatives care about all five, whereas liberals only care about two. The five are:

  • Harm
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Purity

When asked if an action is right or wrong, conservatives tend to give the same, somewhat above mediocre, importance to all five of those factors. Liberals, on the other hand, give somewhat higher importance to harm and fairness, but significantly lower importance to loyalty, authority and purity.

For example, if Bob beats up Joe for touching his wife, conservatives would say that’s ok because they value loyalty (to the wife), authority (of the social institutions that recognize their relationship), the sexual purity of the couple, the fairness in Joe getting punished for violating that purity, and while they value people not getting harmed (for example, torturing Joe would be out of line), the harm is acceptable in this case. Liberals, on the other hand, place more value on harm and fairness and would probably say that harming Joe is going too far and that he should be restrained and/or fined instead — he still has to be punished for the harm he caused, out of fairness. And while they would care about the other three values — loyalty, authority, and purity — the harm and fairness factors would make up the bulk of the factors in their decision on whether or not the beat down was moral.


Besides the moral factors, liberals and conservatives also differ on the Openness domain of the Five Factor Model of human psychology: liberals are more open to new experiences than conservatives. This fact can be used as a neat trick when meeting new people: while talking to them, look over to the side, as if something is going on there; conservatives are less likely to look there to find out what you’re looking at, both because they’re less interested in new things and because they don’t like being virtually told what to do.

The TED Talk also points out that liberals and conservatives are like yin and yang, and both are necessary in a healthy society: one promotes stability, while the other promotes change, and with it progress. Without liberals, society would become stagnant; without conservatives and their three additional restraints (loyalty, authority and purity), large societies would not develop. As such, they are balancing forces in human civilization.

To find out how you stand on the five components of morality, there’s a test on the researchers’ website.

One thing worth noting is that the same person often does not stay conservative or liberal their entire life. In fact, while young, people tend to be more liberal, perhaps because they want to make their mark on the world, but as they get older and used to the way things are, they become more conservative and want to see the world stay the same way. NPR has a great article about a Pew study on this subject that shows how young people are liberal and full of hope, while older people are more conservative and think things are changing for the worse.

From TED


  1. Loyalty Matters A Lot; Facts, Not So Much | Apt46 - pingback on May 21, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: