Liberals, Conservatives and Moral Diversity

31 05 2009

Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times about the psychology of liberals and conservatives has been getting some attention this past week. Probably because the research on which it’s based resonates so clearly with so many people. It’s research by Jonathan Haidt, whom regular readers of this blog will recognise as being a great influence upon my own research.

However, Haidt’s exploration of the psychology that underpins the political spectrum – fascinating and illuminating though it is – is not the end of the story. For when you combine Haidt’s research with another intriguing finding that our political views are largely influenced by genes (Alford & Funk & Hibbing, 2005), it raises a big fat question: why does our psychology – and biology – vary in the way it does?

I have a theory. It’s called Moral Diversity. It goes a little something like this:

Within each individual there is tension between various moral sentiments, and within each group there are individuals who will tend towards one sentiment over another, and this diversity enables a greater responsiveness to a wider range of situations and environments than if there was only one moral sentiment favoured by the individual or the group.

Think about it in game theory terms. Morality – like politics – largely concerns moderating interaction between many unrelated people and solving the problem of getting them to cooperate without ripping each other off or killing each other outright. Yet in games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, if you adopt a ‘nice’ strategy and cooperate unconditionally, you leave yourself vulnerable to free riding defectors. But if you adopt a more suspicious strategy, then you lose out on potentially rewarding cooperative ventures.

Let’s call liberals ‘nice’, and conservatives ‘suspicious’ when it comes to cooperation, and extend that to morality and politics. Liberals are more compassionate, forgiving, trusting of human nature and more likely to encourage community and egalitarian measures that encourage open cooperation. Conservatives are more pessimistic about human nature, encouraging self discipline and less forgiving of those who lack discipline. They respect loyalty to a trusted in-group and they are suspicious of outsiders.

The kicker is that both strategies solve the problem of cooperation, but they have their strengths in different circumstances. For example, in a hostile environment, with limited resources and neighbouring tribes that threaten to out-compete or even destroy the tribe in question, a ‘suspicious’ approach might yield greater chances of survival. Consider how during times of war, conservative governments tend to become favoured. However, this strategy yields less rewards from cooperation if other players tend to employ ‘nice’ strategies.

If circumstances are different, resources are more abundant and neighbouring tribes are less inclined to represent an existential threat, a more open, trusting, flexible and diverse tribe might open up more lucrative cooperative ventures with outsiders. In this environment a ‘nice’ tribe might out-compete a more ‘conservative’ tribe, but it is more vulnerable to exploitation by less ‘nice’ strategies.

Thus it the very existence of a diverse range of moral and political intuitions on a spectrum of ‘nice’ to ‘suspicious’ that makes democracies strong, as they are able to adapt to the changing political environment and prevent any one side from dominating.

So, whichever moral or political persuasion you are, keep fighting your good fight, but remember that you must respect your ideological opponents and let them fight there fight too. For it is only through the tension between the two sides that we’ll find the best solutions in a dynamic and changing world.

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2 responses

25 06 2009
Sabio

Where does that put us libertarians who a economically conservative (suspicious) and socially liberal (nice). Maybe we ARE the perfect balance incarnate ! (smile)

4 04 2010
American History Through the Conservative Lens « Ockham’s Beard

[…] I acknowledge the value of some aspects of conservatism and I’m critical of some aspects of (particularly […]

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