It goes without saying that liberals and conservatives disagree on many, many issues. But new research suggests these clashes of opinion are not based in radically different views of right and wrong.
A new study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, casts doubt on claims that liberals and conservatives vehemently disagree because they rely on different sets of moral foundations. The research by University of North Carolina psychologists Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray suggests the morality of both liberals and conservatives is rooted in a harm-based template.
“Despite ubiquitous moral disagreement, each of us seems to share a common cognitive template,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Inside the moral minds of both liberals and conservatives beats the heart of harm.”
The study runs counter to research based on the Moral Foundations Theory, which has found that liberals and conservatives tend to use different aspects of morality to judge the rightness or wrongness of a situation.
Moral Foundations Theory posits five main moral foundations: Harm – caring for and not hurting others, Fairness – equality and reciprocity, Ingroup – being loyal to one’s group, Authority – respect for leadership, and Purity – the sanctity of social norms and customs. Liberals have been described as having a “two foundation morality” as they tend to focus more the domains of harm and fairness, while being much less focused on ingroup loyalty, authority, and purity than conservatives.
Moral Foundations Theory seeks to explain why some actions that are purportedly harmless are still viewed as immoral. But Schein and Gray think this view of morality and harm is wrong. Harm, they argue, is a subjective concept.
“We argue against the very idea of ‘objective’ harm. Harm, like morality, is in the eye of the beholder,” they wrote in the study. “The subjective nature of harm means that bizarre ‘harmless’ scenarios concocted by liberal researchers (e.g., masturbating with a dead chicken) may not seem harmless to their more conservative participants.”
Moral disagreements are driven by differences in worldviews, Schein and Gray argued.
“Atheists deny the existence of souls and so scoff at the idea of religious sin, whereas believers see the soul as legitimately vulnerable and so guard against disobeying God,” they explained in their study. “Those who see the poor as incapable of suffering will judge redistribution of wealth to be immoral, and those who see fetuses as babies rather than mere cells will judge abortion to be immoral. If conservatives do have a wider moral domain (a premise argued against by the current data), this may stem simply from the fact that conservatives see relatively more threat in the world.”
Schein and Gray conducted seven experiments with more than 700 participants in total to examine the moral judgements of liberals and conservatives. Political orientation appeared to have little influence throughout the experiments. The findings “suggest that harm is central in moral cognition,” the researchers said.
They found both liberals and conservatives who were asked to recall an example of an immoral act mostly recalled an action that they described as harmful. Liberals and conservatives rated harmful actions as more wrong than actions described as unfair, disloyal, disobedient, or impure. The participants were also quicker to categorize harmful actions as immoral, and associated purity and loyalty violations with harm.
“To put these findings in context, there were more than 25 analyses across seven studies that compared liberals and conservatives on disloyalty, disobedience, and purity. Of these, only 12% found any differences between liberals and conservatives. Compared with the overwhelming power of harm, these other differences were minor, with no results supporting past claims that liberals have only a ‘two-foundation’ morality,” Schein and Gray wrote.