CPBD 049: Jesse Graham – The Morality of Liberals and Conservatives

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 23, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview moral psychologist Jesse Graham. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Foundational moral values and how they are different in liberals and conservatives
  • How religion binds people into moral communities
  • What ideology is and how it functions
  • Ideologies of “coolness”

Download CPBD episode 049 with Jesse Graham. Total time is 50:47.

Jesse GrahamĀ links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Atheist.pig June 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Good interview, just a couple of points though. The first point I’d make is the way their getting their data with the online surveys and so on. I’ve always felt that surveys or questionnaires are a terrible way of getting accurate information, especially when the results are being used to construct a scientific/psychological theory of morality.

Another point I’d make is that different people could mean quite different things when they think of things like fairness and so on.


lukeprog June 23, 2010 at 1:47 pm




wellhmm June 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm


What do you propose as a better way of getting accurate information about how people reason about morality? Surveys and questionnaires are some of the best instruments social scientists have access to.

Different questions about fairness, etc. may mean different things to different people, but in the end – it cancels out. When you’re looking at the differences between liberals and conservatives, for instance, the two groups are identical (in the sense that many things are controlled for), except for their political perspectives. Any differences in interpretation should be attributable to their distinct(liberal or conservative) worldviews.


Atheist.pig June 24, 2010 at 4:49 am


I just don’t think surveys or questionnaires will get to what people “really” think or feel, and how they act in the real world. Social scientists have shown that you can manipulate the answers people give on questionnaires using various techniques.


wellhmm June 24, 2010 at 8:41 am

That much is clear – surveys or questionnaires can’t get a precise tap on what people are “really” thinking. But what can? Written-out self-reports? They’re prone to more types of error – in terms of coding answers, and in terms of how people answer them (e.g., more educated people may give more full and elaborate answers, while less people would do the opposite). How about interviewing people in-person? Again, more issues – coding issues and differences in response (again), it’s prohibitively expensive, and there’s a strong demand characteristic. For the type of research that they’re currently doing, surveys/questionnaires from a large online sample are the best fit.

It’s true that social scientists can manipulate the answers on questionnaires through a variety of methods, but that’s not what’s happening in these studies. Admittedly, you can make a claim that the individual survey/questionnaire may be worded wrongly or administered incorrectly, in a way that a more precise or valid survey/questionnaire would not. I, for example, do think that one limitation of the online survey format is that one can not administer as many questions as a lab study (due to shorter attention spans and higher attrition rates). Would the results come out differently if a longer-form version of the moral foundations questionnaire was administered? Certainly. But again, as with all shifts in methodology, there are tradeoffs- you’d get a much more limited sample, and the number of participants would be much smaller.

Now, I would like to backtrack and bit and stress that surveys/questionnaires shouldn’t be the *only* way of measuring liberal/conservative moral differences. No methodology is perfect, and the best answers are found from a triangulation of different methodologies. McAdams et al. (2008) recently contributed to a more triangulated understanding of moral foundations by conducting qualitative life-narrative interviews with liberals/conservatives, where they found similar differences in moral foundations (greater concern about harm/fairness for liberals, authority/ingroup/purity for conservatives).

NOTE: I am not Jesse Graham, or any one of his close colleagues. I haven’t even done research in moral or political psychology (well, as of now).


Sabio Lantz June 24, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Luke, you interviews are fantastic.
It would be nice if you could give us a bit more on the bio of these folks including: their career and publication and websites and major philosophical/religious positions.


David June 24, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Great interview.

An aside: The Craig Joseph link is to the wrong Craig Joseph. (I don’t believe the Craig that Jesse is referring to has a website).


Atheist.pig June 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm

There are good online surveys and questionnaires like “Project Implicit” that ask the questions more indirectly so I think there are ways of getting good data. Plus I totally agree with the differences between liberals/conservatives (harm/fairness for liberals, authority/ingroup/purity for conservatives) but I think most of us already knew this.


Sabio Lantz June 24, 2010 at 3:35 pm

The over-simple classification of liberal vs conservative is well illustrate by the mix of traits in those with libertarian tendencies.


Jeff H June 24, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Atheist.pig, I completely agree with you that research has shown questionnaires not always lining up with actual behaviours. There are ways of minimizing this (for example, trying to disguise the hypotheses of the study, phrasing some questions in the negative form, including questions that can suggest the person is not being truthful, etc.), but it’s also a matter of what the intent of the study is. From what Graham is saying, it seems like much of his research is to answer the question, “What do people mean when they talk about morality?” In this sense, a questionnaire is perfect. Questions about “Does what they say they believe match up with what they do?” would need to be done in a different manner, perhaps with observations of concrete behaviour (donating to charity, for example). But again, it’s a matter of using the appropriate methodology for the question you’re trying to answer.

Luke, can I just say that I absolutely loved this episode? a) I am in psychology with a great interest in social psychology, b) I am in the process of determining schools to apply to for grad school, so some of the name-dropping was excellent, and c) I want to study issues surrounding religion, morality, worldviews, system justification, etc. This was like the perfect storm of awesomeness. Pleeeease tell me you’ll be interviewing more psychologists in the future :)


lukeprog June 24, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Thanks, David!


wellhmm June 25, 2010 at 9:51 am

Sabio Lantz,

The majority of people tend to fit relatively well into the liberal-conservative spectrum. However, it is true that it doesn’t capture everyone(as variations in the relationships between social and economic ideologies show). As such, Haidt et al. 2009 (http://www.informaworld.com/index/913737277.pdf) recently looked at how the moral foundations of libertarians and the religious left differ from secular liberals and social conservatives.


Sabio Lantz June 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Curious what “majority” means and if the spread does not have an unexpected affect. Wish I could have read the link — but you have to pay.


wellhmm June 25, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Sabio Lantz,

It appears I overstated my point – about 13-15% of voters have political perspectives that indicate they are libertarian, although considerably less actually identify themselves as such (preferring to identify themselves as conservative, moderate, or liberal). As a social scientific measure however, the liberal-conservative spectrum has been successful in capturing much of the variance in political and moral beliefs.

My mistake on the link – visit Jesse Graham’s site for a link to the paper (Haidt, J., Graham, J., & Joseph, C. (2009). Above and below left-right: Ideological narratives and moral foundations. Psychological Inquiry, 20, 110-119.), as well as any other papers if you’re interested. To sum up the findings about libertarians – they were found to score lower on all five foundations (which has contributed to an investigation of a liberty/constraint foundation).


dgsinclair June 30, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Luke, another fanstastic and informative interview. My comments below.

1. Moral Foundationalism

This was a great framework. I find it interesting that his research shows that liberals only focus on Harm and Fairness, where Conservatives also value Authority, Purity, and Group Loyalty.

While his research is only quantitative, I would offer some interpretations of this.

The first obvious one is, what is the best combination and emphasis /weighting of morals from these five foundational categories? He already said that if you focus myopically on one category, you seem to get a negative outcome asociated with fanatacism.

I would like to propose that ignoring any of the five categories might be bad, so the conservative emphasis on all five might actually, other things aside, be more healthy and balanced.

2. Discussion of the five foundational moral categories

I’d like to define how I perceive these categories, and how they might be postively understood, or abused.

a. Harm / Care

This seems one of the most easily experieinced and measured qualities, and seem an obvious way to evaluate an idea without appeal to authority.

But for instance, liberals typically don’t care about harm to the fetus – at least, not in comparison to the emotional harm to mothers or their own consciences. The question is, why?

Perhaps, since this value pertains more to individuals than a group, they more heavily weight individual autonomy (like Libertarians, paradoxically) in questions of conscience where the ethic is in the ‘gray zone.’ And, I would agree with that IF I beleived the fetus wasn’t a person with human rights after a certain point in gestation.

But which moral foundation am I emphasizing? I would say harm/care, not authority, as some liberals might accuse (religious conviction).

Perhaps I have some other world view perspective (sanctity of human life) that changes my calculus within the same foundational area as the liberal – that is, we BOTH value harm/care, but for some reason, they don’t ‘care’ about the harm done to the fetus.

My point is that even though liberals seem to heavily weight harm/care, they don’t apply it to the fetus, not for other moral reasons, but due to some outside world view. And conservatives are applying the same moral foundation (harm/care) when they OPPOSE abortion.

b. Fairness / Reciprocity

I think the same world view affect can be seen in this arena. Even though liberals highly regard fairness and reciprocity, they don’t seem to feel that racial quotas in hiring and education (“affirmative action”) are unfair. In fact, they somehow think this approach is fair.

A conservative would OBJECT to AA for fairness reasons, claiming that the means are unjust, even if the ends are worthy.

c. Authority

I think this category can be viewed in two ways – healthy and unhealthy, or moderate and extreme.

First, there is a healthy respect for authority. Respect for the office of president comes to mind. Respect for the rule of law even when an injustice is temporarily allowed until the law is fixed (think peaceful demonstrations).

The abuse is when we justify our positions based on an appeal to authority, or tradition.

Respectful disagreement is an important Christian concept, even to the point of obedience to a ‘master’ who is unjust.

I personally think that liberalism’s low regard for authority is a fault – it showed too little respect, for instance, for President Bush, and has as a mantra from the 1960′s something like “question authority.”

Or, for example, see the difference between the many Tea Party rallies, all peaceful and without incident, despite the fact that many people are avid gun owners, as compared to the G20 riots in Canada this week, or previously in Seatlle. I think these illustrate the difference between the liberal and conservative views on authority. You can become extreme in either direction, but the question is, what is a right, healthy application or derivation of morals in this Foundational area?

d. Purity

I was not happy with the superficial and somewhat pejoritave and narrow use of this word in the interview by Luke (comments made in passing, so perhaps excusable).

We are not just talking about moral purity or breaking moral laws like shellfish laws.

Purity of mind and body are important to health, and have real consequences.

Prohibitions, for example, on adultery or promiscuity have real benefits if followed (arguments about how to promote abstinence aside).

Same for ceremonial washing, to some extent. Even shellfish laws might have had hygenic benefits.

e. Group Loyalty

As your guest mentioned, there may be a positive group loyalty, associated perhaps with fairness, or even harm. That is, you have a moral/ethical responsibility to your group, esp. if you are a leader. That group may include family, neighborhood, or church.

Of course, the unhealthy version of this may be group bias, racism, etc., but those abused don’t invalidate the value or ethic of loyalty.

3. Autonomy / Liberty

Your guest mentioned that Libertarians introduce a new variable, which he called Liberty, but which I think perhaps is better called Autonomy.

I’m not sure if this is a new category or a subset. I think that perhaps we need a grid that has the categories across the top, and various principles/values along the other axis.

So we could say “how is autonomy interpreted or applied within the harm/care category? The fairness category? Authority?”

Perhaps we could do the same with other concerns like handling the dead, food, intoxicants, procreation, pregnancy, end of life issues (euthanasia).

The more I think about it, autonomy doesn’t belong in the ‘issues’ group, so maybe it is a category of its own. Hmm.

4. Homosexuality and fairness / harm

I think that your guest missed the reason that conservatives feel negatively about homosexuals. It’s not about Group Loyalty, nor even an appeal to authority and tradition (bible).

The real objections are:

a. Violating nature (and the resulting moral disgust that unnatural acts or violations produce).

b. Harm to the family and children by removing the prohibitions and warnings about dangerous sexual practices, and norming mental sicknesses or coping mechanisms.

Appeals to scripture are done for different reasons, not necessarily for public policy reasons – they are to confirm to the listener that such things ARE against nature by showing them condemned by scripture.

More later.


dgsinclair June 30, 2010 at 3:26 pm

One more thing – your guest mentioned that conservatives are happier than liberals. This correlation certainly MAY be causal with respect to their value system, though it may be that the hopeful foundation that it gives them in answer to difficulty (a real problem for atheism – it offers little hope for those who suffer) makes the difference.

But assuming that the conservative values and morals ARE the cause of happiness, that would be evidence that their ‘fuller’ moral foundations are better. And I think that they are ;)


lukeprog June 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm


It would not surprise me if in-group morality and authoritarianism promote happiness a bit. Feeling like you’re special could contribute to happiness, and thinking for oneself raises all kinds of doubts and thinking and all kinds of difficult things. :)

Feel free to jab back. :)


dgsinclair July 1, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Actually, that’s not a jab, that’s a valid point. Insecure people really like structure, and certainly, I think most people who convert from a position of insecurity want the security of rules and authorities telling them what to do.

In fact, I think that Kohlberg’s model parallels the Stages of Faith development (see Fowler’s seminal book on the subject, Stages of Faith), esp. in the earlier stage of black and white thinking regarding morality. People who mature in Kohlberg’s model, and likewise in faith, eventually outgrow this simple and safe model. Others stay stuck there.

But despite the false security of being in an authoritarian structure (which might be perfectly justifiable for the immature person, not an abnormality in itself), this does not obviate other real benefits of having respect for, even temporary obedience to authorities.

Beyond simple self preservation, respect for authority and tradition may:
- prevent rash decisions in individuals and society
- prevent unnecessary violence and encourage lawful protest or remediation
- prevent vigilantism
- promote respect for hard work
- promote civility
- promote respect for persons of differing views

I also, again, think that there are real moral and practical wrongs that can come out of a lack of respect for authority and tradition, purity concerns (some, not all), and group loyalty.

And while these may not all have the same weight as harm/care, giving them no weight, IMO, is quite possibly a mistake, and why I sense and propose that the conservative view makes people happy not just for the ‘illegitimate’ reasons you stated, but for legit ones too.



Leave a Comment