Why Liberal Values Really Are Better

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Liberal definition
Liberals and conservatives don’t just disagree about specific issues — we disagree about core ethical values. Can a case be made that liberal values really are better?

You may have heard about this. It’s been in the news and the blogosphere, and has been making the rounds at the nerdier water coolers and cocktail parties. A number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that ethics and values aren’t entirely relative, and aren’t solely derived from particular cultures. Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species. Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty, authority, and purity. (Some think there may be one or two others, including liberty and honesty; but those aren’t yet as well-substantiated, or as well-studied.)

Different people prioritize different values over others, of course. And of course, different individuals and different cultures come to different conclusions about the right ethical choice in any particular situation: based on our cultural biases, as well as on our own personal observations and experiences. But according to this research, these basic values — fairness, harm, loyalty, authority, and purity — exist in all of us, at least to some degree, in every non-sociopathic human being.

“Fascinating,” I hear you cry. “But what does that have to do with politics?” Well, what researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values — while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty, and purity.

Liberal conspiracy
As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the offspring of a union organizer and an early-adopter feminist, taken to peace marches and McGovern rallies at a tender age — this idea instantly made sense to me. It illuminates a lot of weird dark corners about politics… particularly the rancorous and apparently unsolvable nature of many political conflicts. When liberals and conservatives debate the burning issues of the day — whether it’s immigration or marriage equality, global warming or health care reform — we often wind up talking at cross-purposes, and the conversations go around in increasingly belligerent circles… because we’re not starting with the same ethical foundations. We assume that we have the same core values, and are simply debating the best way to apply those values in the world. We’re not. We’re debating — not very effectively or coherently most of the time — the core values themselves.

And of course, when I heard about this research, my instant reaction was to say, “But fairness and harm ARE more important! We were right all along! This proves it — liberal values ARE better!”

But — being someone who places a strong ethical value on fairness — I realize that of course I’m going to say that. After all… those are my values. Of course I think they’re better. And — again, being someone who highly values fairness — I realize that conservatives are going to say the exact same thing. “But authority and loyalty ARE more important! This proves it! Conservative values ARE better!”

So I’ve been asking myself: Is there a way to distinguish between these values?

If these are core values, fundamental axioms of human ethics… how do we distinguish between them? I mean — they’re axioms. They’re our ethical starting points. When they come into conflict, as they often do, how do we step back from them, and decide which ones we should prioritize?

Betraying spinoza
I’ve been chewing over this question ever since I heard about this research. In other words, for at least a couple of years. And then, at an atheist conference I spoke at recently, the answer was dropped into my lap, so clearly and succinctly that I kicked myself for not having thought of it myself, by the conference’s keynote speaker, philosopher and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein. (From whom I am stealing this idea shamelessly. Hey, I’m an ethical person, with the good liberal value of fairness. When I steal an idea, I give credit.)

Here’s the idea.

Fairness and harm are better values — because they can be universalized.

Goldstein’s argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values — fairness and harm — are universalizable.

In fact, it’s inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable.

Fairness is the most obvious example of this. I mean, the whole freaking idea of fairness is that it be ought to be applied universally. Tit for tat. What’s sauce for the goose is what’s sauce for the gander. Yada, yada, yada. The whole idea of fairness is that everyone ought to be treated, not identically, but as if they matter equally.

And the value of harm, and the avoidance thereof, can easily be universalized as well. It can be applied to everybody. In fact, the history of the evolution of human ethics can be seen as the history of this principle being expanded to a wider and wider population: to people from other countries, to people of color, to women, etc. etc. etc. It can even be universalized further, and applied to non-humans. (It may well be that, in 200 years, people will look back on the way we treat animals with the same bewildered, “How on earth could they do that?” horror that we now view slavery with.) There’s nothing in the principle of avoiding harm that prevents it from being applied to any creature with the capacity to experience suffering. It is an easily universalizable value.

Conservative values, on the other hand, are not universalizable.

Quite the contrary.

It is in the very nature of conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others.

The conservative value of authority has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., authority figures — ought to be respected and obeyed more than others, and ought to have the right to tell other people what to do, and ought to have the power to enforce those dictums. The conservative value of loyalty has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people inside the in-group, the family or country or faith or what have you — ought to be valued more than others. And the conservative value of purity… well, purity is a weird one, since it applies more to how people treat their own bodies, and less to how people treat one another. (Making it a pretty baffling ethical principle, in my opinion.) But when it does apply to how people treat other people (the notion of “untouchables,” for instance), it has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people who are considered pure — ought to be treated as fully human… and that people who are considered impure need not be.

Conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — can’t be universalized. They actively resist universalization.

So if you accept the idea that the philosophical foundation of ethics is that other people matter as much as we ourselves do, and that any principles of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves, then that makes liberal values… well, better. Closer to that philosophical foundation.

I will say very quickly here: I’m not arguing that liberals, as people, are inherently the moral superiors of conservatives. Again, I’m a good liberal/ progressive/ whatever, and my innate sense of fairness makes me flinch in revulsion from saying anything of that nature.

Wedding vows
And I’m not going to say that the conservative values of loyalty and authority and purity are irrelevant. Loyalty especially. Prioritizing the people we love over total strangers… that’s a huge part of what it means to love people in the first place. If someone had such a powerful sense of fairness that they didn’t prioritize the people they loved, I’d think there was something profoundly wrong with them.

As for authority… well even Little Miss Dyed-in-the-Wool Pinko can’t imagine a world entirely governed by consensus. The thought of a world population of almost seven billion being operated as a consensus collective makes me shudder with dread and want to move to the Moon immediately. I’ve been in consensus collectives. The meetings alone would take a lifetime. As much as I hate to admit it, some sort of authority — assigned democratically and with the consent of the governed and with some seriously powerful checks and balances and oversight, obviously — is probably necessary for human society to function smoothly, or indeed at all. Even the most progressive pinko societies (I’m looking at you, Sweden) haven’t abandoned the idea of authority and law. We probably need to have laws against murder and theft and running red lights and so on… and we probably need people whose job it is to enforce those laws. (If for no other reason, our wonderful universal liberal values of fairness and harm don’t mean a lot if there aren’t any consequences to violating them.) As I always say to libertarian extremists who want a world with no government: Move to Somalia. That’s what a world with no functioning government looks like.

And as for purity… well, while I find the idea of purity as a moral value rather baffling, it certainly makes sense from a practical viewpoint. The principle of purity has to do with the idea that the body ought to be pure and holy, not desecrated by that which is contaminated or evil… and among other things, an innate revulsion over that which is impure is what keeps us from eating things that can kill us.

So I’m not saying that typically conservative values have no place in a human ethical system, or that thoughtful, non-teabag-loony conservatives don’t have a valid voice in conversations and decisions about ethics, and how ethics should be applied in policy and law.

I’m saying that, when we debate political issues, we can do more than just go around in circles, assuming that we’re talking about the same values when we’re clearly not. I think that, when we debate political issues, it will be much more productive to look, not only at the specific issue, but at the broader differences in our core values, and how we’re applying them to the issue at hand. And I’m saying that we can actually distinguish between different core values, and prioritize some over others — and that, unless there’s a specific compelling reason to prioritize the “some animals are more equal than others” values of authority or loyalty or purity, we ought to prioritize the universalizable values of fairness and the avoidance of harm.

And you know what? I’ll go even further.

I’m saying that any moral progress humanity has made over the centuries and millennia has been made, not in the direction of greater adherence to authority or purity or tribal/group loyalty, but in the direction of expanding our understanding and application of fairness and the avoidance of harm. I’m saying that, in every example I can think of where our morality is a clear improvement over the morality of the past — democracy, banning slavery, religious freedom, women’s suffrage, etc. etc. etc. — the core values being strengthened have been the values of fairness and the avoidance of harm: the liberal values, the ones that can be applied to everyone.

I’ve been a proud liberal since I was old enough to make a choice. And now I’m prouder than ever. Because humanity’s moral evolution has, in every instance I can think of, been in the direction of humanity becoming more liberal.

Why Liberal Values Really Are Better

29 thoughts on “Why Liberal Values Really Are Better

  1. 1

    Wow! Excellent post Greta. Totally illuminating. I’d like to say ‘paradigm-changing’ but that sounds too pretentious. But that’s what I mean.
    Thank you!

  2. 2

    Your diatribe is so poorly reasoned and your straining of logic (if that’s what it can be called) so offensive that instead I will comment on your photo.
    Are you trying to hide a third chin or something?
    This is stupid. You are stupid. Stupid is as stupid does, and your stupid done did something really stupid.

  3. 3

    I’d compare it to Jesus vs. the Scribes. Conservative logic is pointedly anti Christian- they refuse Jesus’ teachings totally. The Old Testament is the core of conservative reasoning- rules taken out of context and rigidly applied, authoritarian and feudal. As the post by Fagnus so brilliantly shows, conservatives cannot have a rational discussion, and cannot stick to logic and facts, because they can only think in dogma- rules they have taken as truth from those who exploit them. Note his typically conservative response- nothing but elementary school level personal attacks and rants. Nothing to support his dogma, nothing of value to contribute, nothing to demonstrate that his point of view is better or more workable. Just, dumb attacks on another’s appearance. Very anti Christian. This is how a conservative (does not) think. I call it reptile reaction – no reason, no thought just attacks, as if attacking somebody will prove their point.
    Jesus recognized this and His teachings, as best described in the Sermon on the Mount, are introspective, and are humanistic- help your fellow man, the sick the afflicted and, don’t go round criticizing others until you are without sin. Jesus was about salvation by works, while, as usual, conservatives like to take the easy way out and think they can get to heaven just by believing, without changing how they act.

  4. 4

    Fagnus von Goobenstankass | June 23, 2010 at 06:50 AM:

    Are you trying to hide a third chin or something?

    And there we have it. The ultimate in internet refutations. “U R FAT!!!!” How can any position possibly withstand an ad hominem argument?

  5. 5

    I think liberalism is superior because it’s so broad as to contain within it the belief in the right to be a consternative; that definitely doesn’t work both ways.

  6. 6

    Wow, this is a great argument for liberal values. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to frame this argument for awhile. Thanks for the excellent post.

  7. 7

    Fairness and harm are universal human values.
    Authority, loyalty, and purity are junvenile values, which adults have outgrown. You are comparing maturity with arrested development.

  8. 8

    Excellent points. I’ve always believed that conservatives are less evolved, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. We need them, just as women need men, to provide an opposing viewpoint, a yang for a yin. Doesn’t mean they’re right. Lately they’ve become more desperate as we’ve seen just how wrong they can be.

  9. 10

    This whole nonsense of liberal vs. conservative is the reason why we have so many problems in this country.
    Loyalty can be universalized on the basis of caring for others, and not stabbing them in the back at the first chance. Authority can also be universalized, such as putting authority in reason and empirical evidence. Finally purity can be universalized as you mentioned on the basis of maintaining your body free from toxins as well as hateful thoughts and ideas.
    Consequently, the so called liberal values of fairness harm avoidance can also be applied to a specific group, as has been done in the past.
    The point is that you are trying to justify your political positions by saying liberal values are universal and conservative ones are not. The fact is though, that values and morality in general are what is important, and a genuinely good person will not seek to hurt people, will probably try to be fair, will respect people in authority so long as they are not evil, will be loyal to their friends and family, and will try to be as pure as possible.
    ANYONE, whether they call themselves liberal conservative, or whatever, who tries to separate those essential values of humanity will find that they are missing the big picture.
    Being a COMPLETE human being requires all the values mentioned, guided by conscience, empathy, and compassion. The great moral leaders who have walked the Earth have all understood that

  10. 11

    excellent article
    I think there’s also a disagreement in what the values mean in the liberal or conservative context
    and disputes around values are the most strident and difficult to resolve without a common frame of reference
    you can’t move forward on anything when you can’t agree on the starting point or basis of the action
    I think a major difference is liberals seek to control/regulate the overlap between people – what we do in public
    and conservatives seek to control more what we do in private

  11. 12

    A consequence based concept of morality is a pre-adolescent stage of moral development. You also don’t take into account a definition of what it means to be civilized or how behavior can be qualified as uncivilized or behavior befitting an animal rather than a civilized moral agent. You really only make the argument for moral relativism rather than a concept of morality that takes into account the greater good.

  12. 13

    It occurs to me that another word for ‘purity’ might be ‘sacred.’ There are ideas, symbols, objects or people which are not to be mocked, questioned, violated, or contaminated, for they are set apart. They have authority, because they are sacred; one remains loyal to them, for they are holy.

  13. AYY

    Greta Christina, I have to wonder how many conservatives you’ve encountered.
    You’re confusing values held by some conservatives with conservative values. If you read conservative literature, the better conservative blogs or talk to any half way knowledgeable conservative, you’ll find that while we value loyalty, we also value fair procedures and avoidance of harm. In fact avoidance of harm is why we point out how governmental programs can have unintended harmful consequencess.
    We’re also not particularly hung up on authority, although we realize that you need authority to have stability so that you can have fairness and avoidance of harm. We value autonomy and freedom, and under your argument they would be universal values. So you can plug them into your argument with only some minor modifications and show how conservative values are better than liberal values.
    As for purity, I have no idea what that means in this context, and wouldn’t even hazard a guess. I can’t remember reading much about it in the National Review or the Weekly Standard. Sastra’s definition of “purity” can be applied to liberals as well as conservatives
    BTW, libertarians don’t want a world with no government. You’re confusing them with anarchists.
    And many countries in Progressive Europe not only have laws against murder and theft but they also have lawa covering “hate speech,” which means you can’t discuss anything that might offend a politcally favored group. If this is what liberals have in mind by fairness and avoidance of harm, then there’s something to be said for conservative values.

  14. 15

    I agree, Greta. I saw you speak at the S.F. Atheists meeting last month and I was really impressed by how intelligent and articulate you were and how much I liked your ideas.

  15. 17

    When I took the test I was surprised to find how highly the self-identified conservative test subjects before me had scored on fairness and harm; I guess that their greater observance of loyalty, purity and authority tend to obscure this.
    AYY: if you take the test yourself you will find that these values have not been arbitrarily assigned to conservatives by the test designers: when you take the test you are asked, before hand, to identify yourself as liberal, conservative or neither, and no indication is given at that point that this will be relevant in any specific way to the test itself.
    The test does not ask the candidates to estimate the importance they grant to the 5 moral values currently under consideration; rather, it poses moral dilemmas and asks the candidate how they should be resolved. This avoids the problem that would be caused by different interpretations of the meaning of the word “purity”, for example.
    Therefore, this split arises spontaneously, and it does so along the lines drawn by people’s own estimation of their political beliefs, rather than what any one of us may unilaterally decide to label them with. So, unless all the conservatives you bring up as a counter-example and others who hold similar opinions have decided to abstain en-masse from this test your argument is simply orthogonal to what is being discussed.

  16. 18

    Thanks for this.
    Jonathan Haidt’s work on the 5 principles rally resonated with me. I like his take on respecting each others points of view. I can respect someone being a champion of loyalty for instance.
    I personally think liberals and conservatives need each other for society to function well. Liberals have had the best ideas, democracy for instance. We have also had plenty of bad ideas and our conservative friends have often made us think things through and back off on some of our well intentioned ultimately bad ideas.
    I’m an old school, New Deal liberal and I posted some links to his work on my Facebook account. I thought my conservative friends would like the fact that liberals would want to have a respectful dialog about our core values and respect each other as champions for what is most important to each of us. Was I ever wrong. My conservative friends were insulted. Many of the reactions were as FvG’s response.
    It is a challenge to get past the ad hominem attacks and get to a conversation that will make a difference. Thanks again for trying.

  17. 19

    Great article. I remember reading that same research a few months ago and having a light go off as well. It reconfirmed for me that I’m sort of a leftist by instinct.
    I also liked the argument that liberal values are universalizable and are therefore epistemologically superior. I consider being able to universalize ethical propositions as one of the only sensible ways to determine their truth, but for some reason I never put the two together when reading the research, so thanks for that one.
    Another interesting biological difference between the left and right wing is that the amygdalae produces a greater fear response in right wingers. Something else to think about.

  18. AYY

    Valhar said: “The test does not ask the candidates to estimate the importance they grant to the 5 moral values currently under consideration”
    But you’re assuming the test measures moral values. Just because someone says it measures moral values doesn’t mean that it does.
    Haidt, who has bought into the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” theory (he wrote that he couldn’t figure out why middle class people vote Republican when Democrat policies would be to their advantage–which to my mind is a sign of major cluelessness on his part), puts a gloss on the test questions that he can’t justify. His version of “fairness” isn’t what many people would consider to be fairness. The other values he purports to measure can be subject to the same criticism.
    Haidt’s conclusions might make liberals feel better about themselves, as Hubert’s comment demonstrates, but that doesn’t change the fact that the study doesn’t tell us anything worthwhile about fairness, or purity, or the other values it purports to measure.

  19. Tom

    Great article Greta. I might use this on my family – see if they can get it at least a little bit why I’m the only liberal in the family. BTW cognitive scientist George Lakoff (the “Framing Wars” guy)was talking about this stuff over 10 years ago in his book “Moral Politics.” He says it has much to do with how you were raised as a child – based on whether your parents were more strict or more nurturing. That helps to understand this.

  20. 23

    Although I certainly agree that, in general, liberal values are better than conservative ones, and accept your shades-of-grey caveats, I have some difficulty accepting this argument. On what basis you can say that, just because liberal values are universalizable and conservative ones are not, this means they are superior? That’s surely begging the question. You in turn need a reason that universalizable moral values are better than otherwise. The idea that universalizable moral values are better, is, I think, basically another way of saying that you’re a liberal!

  21. hf

    I feel glad that someone like Goldstein has drawn philosophers’ attention to what I found so obvious. But sadly, I have to agree with David Michael. It does seem like begging the question (albeit in a way that might convince people, because as you’ll see I think they already agree on some level). It seems better to examine liberal and conservative values in isolation, to see if the values themselves have any inherent moral significance.
    First let’s imagine someone who values authority, loyalty and *shudder* “purity” but not the more liberal goals. Such a person seems like a monster. If we avoid the obvious real-world example, we have to go with something like the D&D personification of “Lawful Evil”, the organized devils of the Nine Hells. The more intelligence we picture them having, the more evil and dangerous they seem.
    This does not seem remotely true for someone who values care and fairness but not the other three. At worst we can picture this person as a misguided Robin Hood figure. Adding intelligence doesn’t give you a devil, it gives you the Doctor from Doctor Who.
    Fairness and avoiding harm have moral significance in themselves, while the other “values” do not. And I find it hard to imagine any conservative disputing this. In principle the trick does seem possible, but you’d need a conservative with almost no exposure to literature or popular culture and only selective exposure to (say) the stories in the Bible. Only by looking at the horror of Left Behind can I imagine such a reversal of what constitutes a hero.

  22. 25

    Fairness and harm are the foundational underpinnings of libertarianism, which is generally popularly defined as staunchly conservative by mainstreamers, both so-called liberal and so-called conservative.
    The modern liberal believes in government enforcement of values, not necessarily fairness, on individuals, as does the conservative. Both groups decry the other as destructive, nonproductive, oppressive, and so forth, and both sides have very valid points. “Liberal” comes from the word “liberty”. That means freedom. One either has freedom or does not, and if someone is being influenced in every aspect of life how to behave and believe, then they are not free.
    As a great jurist once said, “You’re right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” That encapsulates the principles of fairness and doing no harm. Modern liberals and conservatives often seem to want to legislate against swinging fists.

  23. 26

    This is the only blog of yours that I’m not quite on board with insofar as I think some of the ideas are not fully explored. I am familiar with Haidt’s work; let me offer a couple of thoughts:
    I agree with one of the above posters that how a person is raised influences the interpretation of these values, but also it depends how how each person is hard-wired. Research shows, and Haidt notes this, that some are hard-wired to prize authority more than others, etc.
    So, on purity, with conservatives, purity is often associated with sexual purity of women (this derives with religion). Virginity is highly valued. That this idea lingers even though women are no longer SUPPOSED to be considered property is appalling.
    Ideological purity is valued by both the right wing of the republican party (and perhaps most of the entire party), but also by the left wing of the democratic party.
    You can see evidence of that latter comment in the criticism of Obama by the left for not being ideologically pure, for moving toward the center. The same occurred with Clinton.
    I would speculate that this derives from people who were hard-wired to prize purity, but were raised in liberal households. If they were raised in liberal Catholic homes, for example, they might prize sexual purity as well, but that is only a guess.
    For more on the conservatives obsession with sexual purity (in women, naturally), I commend Susan Faludi’s “The Terror Dream”, which relates how america’s wild west mythology of the strong male rescuing women from indian “savages” informs our country’s reaction to 9/11 (and I would add, the recent shooting in Arizona).
    Just some thoughts. I’m slowly working my way through all of your blog posts. As a former professional writer of sorts, I agree with your other fans that there is a book lurking within.

  24. 28

    I think the point that AYY brings up, “His version of “fairness” isn’t what many people would consider to be fairness.” is actually a more important root of the problem, though I think that the “many people” means conservatives. I agree: the psychologist has definition of the word “fair” that is liberal-biased (but being a liberal, of course I think it’s a better one).
    Let’s take libertarians, for example. From what I can tell, a lot of their argument against taxation is that taxes are stealing, because it isn’t “fair” to force someone to give their hard-earned money away.
    The liberal view of fair is more along the lines of this: things such as access to food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc. are human rights, and it’s only “fair” that everyone have access to them, not just those born into privilege or with the resources to gain privilege. It looks at the world, and sees those born into poverty dying from lack of resource, while those born into wealth have an overflow, and says “that’s not fair”. Now, taken to an extreme, this isn’t logical, I think everyone would agree that we shouldn’t take away all the excess to redistribute leaving everyone exactly the same amount of wealthy. Any sane liberal who holds this view of fair does still recognize the right to keep a lot of the benefits of your own work (or your parents).
    I can’t really seem to phrase this without bias, so I’m just going to put it out there:
    the conservative version of fair is like the one kid sitting there with a huge lunch, more than he needs, saying it’s not fair to give some of his to a starving child, because it belongs to him.
    The liberal version says that it’s not fair that the starving child can’t eat, and that the fair solution is for the well-off child to share.
    I have come across this fundamental clash many times, and it really does feel to me like the conservatives are little kids stamping their feet and going, “but it’s not FAIR! It’s MINE!” when things like universal health care come up for discussion

  25. 29

    As a philosophy nerd I simply MUST point out that this is an argument from Kantian ethics- the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” No one put as much thought into moral philosophy as Kant! I approve. I never thought of it in relation to liberal vs. conservative values before, but it totally holds.

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