Liberals and conservatives approach moral judgments in fundamentally different ways

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the Oval Office by Pete SouzaWhen it comes to topics like abortion or assisted suicide, there seems to be no common ground between conservatives and liberals. Why is there such a noticeable rift between the two political orientations?

Research published June in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that religious individuals and political conservatives think about moral issues in a fundamentally different way than liberals.

The study by Jared Piazza of the University of Pennsylvania and Paulo Sousa of Queen’s University Belfast, which included a total of 688 participants, found religious individuals and political conservatives consistently invoked deontological ethics. In other words, they judged the morality of actions based on a universal rule such as, “You should not kill.” Political liberals, on the other hand, consistently invoked consequentialist ethics, meaning they judged the morality of actions based on their positive or negative outcomes.

“Does being religious or being conservative promote a rule-based ethic or does having a rule-based ethic promote religiosity and/or conservatism?” Piazza told PsyPost. “This question is difficult to answer definitively without running a longitudinal study, since you cannot really manipulate religious orientation, or being in possession of a deontological orientation, and then look at the consequences.”

The study’s cross-sectional methodology makes it impossible to say anything more than religion and conservativism are associated with deontological ethics. However, Piazza said prior research suggested that being religious underlies the adherence to deontological ethics

“I think it is more likely that being religious — and being religious in a particular way — is what promotes deontological commitments, and not the other way around,” he told PsyPost. “In a recent unpublished study I conducted with my colleague Justin Landy at Penn, we found that it is a particular sub-class of religious individuals that are strongly opposed to consequentialist thinking. Specifically, it was religious individuals who believe that morality is founded upon divine authority or divine commands, and that moral truths are not obtained via human intuition or reason, who were strong deontologists (i.e., they refused to find various rule violations as permissible even when the consequences were better as a result).”

“This suggests that not all religious individuals are non-consequentialists; that is, religion does not necessarily promote a deontological ethic, though many religious institutions do promote such an orientation,” Piazza added. “Instead, it may be that people who are skeptical about the capacity for human beings to know right from wrong in the absence of divine revelation that tend towards a rule-based morality. Though this begs the question of why some religious individuals tend to see morality in terms of honoring divine commands, while others accept that human intuition or reason may be an equally, if not more reliable, foundation. This is an interesting and complex psychological question which we don’t currently have an answer to.”

The participants in the study provided their moral position on killing, assisted suicide, torture, incest, cannibalism, malicious gossip, stealing, lying, deception, betrayal, breaking a promise, breaking the law, and treason. The researchers discovered that religious individuals and political conservatives showed a “general insensitivity to consequences.”

For instance, religious individuals and political conservatives tended to say that lying was never acceptable under any circumstances, while political liberals tended to say that lying was permissible or even obligatory if it resulted in greater good than bad.

There was a notable exception. When it came to torture, Piazza described American conservatives as “full-blown consequentialists.” But the same could not be said of religious individuals.

“In other words, political conservatives found torture acceptable when it brought about a greater good, but religious individuals found torture less acceptable even when it was a means to a greater good,” he told PsyPost. “Past research by Kevin Carlsmith and Avani Sood have shown that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to view torture in the context of military interrogation as a form of retributive justice (i.e., the detainee ‘deserves’ to be punished because of their involvement in previous criminal activity), which may promote their more permissive stance towards torture, at least in this context. So one possibility is that conservatives in our study conceived of torture in the context of harsh military interrogations (i.e., it was the primary form of torture that came readily to mind), and this is what explains their consequentialist stance towards it.”


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    Digital vs. Analog. Black and White vs. Gray Areas. Rigidity vs. Flexibility. Very interesting study. I think we knew this already though.

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    Tom Bergbusch on

    Must have been a pretty narrow definition of “religious individuals” — among Christians, there is a huge consequentialist group, for instance all those who strive to follow the rule that we are “to love our neighbours as ourselves” …

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      Right. It sounds like they talked to a number of fundamentalists. Early Christianity rejected the legalism of Jewish law: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

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        Tom Bergbusch on

        Agreed. Or how about “let he who has no sin cast the first stone” “Go and sin no more…”

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          Tom Bergbusch on

          And of course, there were any number of pre-Christian jewish traditions which rejected narrow legalism as well (and who certainly did not opt for literal interpretations of scripture).

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            As a Chabad Jew, all the laws except very few have exceptions if it comes to the protection of a greater good. For instance, although I am prohibited to drive on Shabbas, if someone in the Shul has a heart attack– I can rush him to the hospital in my car no matter how many incidental rules that I break.

            Christianity wasn’t a reject of Jewish legalism, in fact Yeshua even says in the book of Matthew, that he came to be a perfect example of the law (fulfill in the text means to be an expression of a filling up of something, not complete like a task).

            Now Modern Christianity is certainly less legalistic than many of the religious ideologies, however; among Jews and Muslims, which are more of the legalistic of the religions, they tend towards community and liberal based ethics.

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    On the subject of torture – why wasn’t the question posed about why democrats generally do not support it? Seems that cosequentualists would. And I think more thought should be given to the definition of “good”. A cosequentualists behavior is totally justified by what they have personally defined as good. ie Moral Licensing.