Why Most Liberals Are Intellectually Incapable of Understanding Conservatives
They're a bit morally limited
Jonathan Haidt is a center-left social psychologist who has been doing fascinating work on the differences between liberals and conservatives for over a decade (His work on social media is really good as well). Haidt has said publicly that when he started studying the differences between liberals and conservatives, he was just looking for ways to help Democrats get elected, but when he dug into the way both sides saw the world, he realized that he had stumbled on to something much bigger.
This is a very basic explanation of Haidt’s “Moral Foundation Theory” that explains those differences.
It starts with the idea that none of us are born as a blank slate. Not only do we have different genetics (which is uncontroversial), but we have built-in programming that leads us to look at the world a certain way. Like genetics, it’s not an absolute determination, but it predisposes us to look at certain ideas in a more positive or negative light. Initially, there were 5 areas people were measured on (they’ve considered adding others). Here’s how they break it down:
The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives.]
3) Loyalty/betrayal (Ingroup): This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation (Purity): This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Here’s the really interesting thing about how conservatives and liberals score when they’re tested in these areas. Liberal scores tend to be very high in the first two areas (Care/Harm & Fairness/Cheating), but low in the other areas. On the other hand, conservative scores tend to be roughly comparable across the board, albeit slightly lower than liberal scores on Care/Harm & Fairness/Cheating. Here’s an example of what that looks like from a Jonathan Haidt Ted Talk:
Liberals have a lot of trouble understanding conservatives because conservatives pay a great deal of attention to moral areas that liberals don’t care much about or may even see as a negative. Because of this, liberals have a great deal of trouble intellectually understanding the conservative view of the world. Haidt has discussed this as well: