Liberals vs Conservatives: Who’s Right?

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by Elizabeth Casey,

from Psychology 1001,

Why exactly is it that liberals and conservatives don’t seem to understand each other? Is one side just deluded? This NY Times article about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion offers up his perspective: they simply have different moral foundations.

In his book, Haidt begins by pointing out that emotions guide most of what we do, since scans of the brain show that we make decisions extremely quickly. With this in mind, Haidt says that there are a few major concepts that underscore different styles of morality: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Clashes result from which ones are emphasized: liberals put a lot of weight on care, fairness, and liberty, while conservatives place more emphasis on loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This can cause fierce battles, but despite the way they fight, neither side is right or wrong, says Haidt – they’re just different.

I think this framework does a decent job at explaining the core differences between liberals and conservatives. Being a liberal person who comes from a traditionally conservative family, I can say that I often do reject reasoning based on loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and that this is often where disagreements – whether on abortion rights, religion, relationships, or any number of issues – tend to stem from.

In a hopeful conclusion, Haidt notes that there is a simple way for these two moral schemes to peacefully coexist: listen, and compromise. Instead of engaging in cutthroat, vicious politics, we should take into account alternate views and settle for a midpoint. I like this idea, although I’m unsure how realistic it is. In a world where sound bytes and stereotyping characterize politics, peaceful consensus is a challenge.

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