Are You Really Conservative or Liberal?

When I read about clashes around the world – political clashes, economic clashes, cultural clashes – I am reminded that it is within our power to build a bridge to be crossed. Even if my neighbor doesn’t understand my religion or understand my politics, he can understand my story. If he can understand my story, then he’s never too far from me. It is always within my power to build a bridge. There is always a chance for reconciliation, a chance that one day he and I will sit around a table together and put an end to our history of clashes. And on this day, he will tell me his story and I will tell him mine.
— Paulo Coelho

Humanity is a polarity existence and we exist in a polarized world, but we all contain an imperfect balance within ourselves of seemingly opposing forces. The most contentious of forces that divides humanity is morality.

Our personal moral foundations cause the greatest struggles for balance between individual liberty and social order. There are three factors that determine our moral foundations and why we are, or think we are, either conservative or liberal: biology, psychology, and our worldview.

A Divided Brain

Why is the brain divided? This is what psychiatrist Dr. Iain McGilchrist has sought to understand in over twenty years of research. He aims to prove there is a growing imbalance in our brains and help us understand how this makes us increasingly unable to grapple with critical economic, environmental and social issues; ones that shape our very future as a species. He believes that one half of our brain – the left hemisphere – is slowly taking power, and we in the Western world are simultaneously feeding its ambitions. This half of the brain is very proficient at creating technologies, procedures and systems, but it cannot understand the implications of these on the people and the world around it.

The right hemisphere understands the world. It sees the big picture of an interconnected world, understands relationships and body language. It is sustained, broad, open, vigilant, and alert, and creates art, intuition, interest, and imagination. The left hemisphere manipulates the world. It cannot make connections and sees the world as separate parts where details are important but not relationships, things and people are not unique and individual, and groups can organize the world into rules and bureaucracy. It is narrow, sharply focused, attention to detail, and sorts and files things into a system, perceiving people as body parts and can’t see how it all fits together. As human beings, we could not exist independently of either hemisphere, we need both perspectives through which to view and understand the world.

Dr. Helen Fisher’s research led her to understand how brain chemistry determines our personality and politics. Serotonin is more abundant in conservatives with traits including familiarity, being cautious but not fearful, calm and controlled, structured and orderly, fact-oriented and precise, having more close friends, networks, community, and an importance of belonging, being respectful, following the rules, conscientiousness, loyalty, and dependability. Dopamine is more abundant in liberals with novelty seeking and risk-taking behaviour, curiosity, restlessness, independence and self-reliance, impulsiveness, spontaneous decisions, physical and mental exploration, idea generation, mental flexibility and open-mindedness. Estrogen is the liberal with economic regulation and personal freedom, where Testosterone is the conservative with economic freedom and personal regulation. As we know, we all have these hormones in our bodies and imbalances create physical, mental, and emotional health issues.

 

Five Moral Foundations

Dr. Jonathan Haidt and a group of social and cultural psychologists sought to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. Their theory, the five moral foundations, proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.

  1. Care/Harm: our mammalian evolution for empathy, attachment, kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

  2. Fairness/Cheating: the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism, justice, rights, autonomy, and proportionality.

  3. Loyalty/Betrayal: our tribal history in forming shifting coalitions, patriotism, and self-sacrifice.

  4. Authority/Subversion: our primate history of hierarchical social interactions, leadership, followership, deference to legitimate authority, and respect for traditions.

  5. Sanctity/Degradation: shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination, underlying religious notions of living in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way, the body is a temple that can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.

Dr. Haidt and his colleagues’ research applied this theory to political "cultures" of liberals and conservatives. They discovered the current American culture war can be viewed as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/Harm foundation supported by the Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, determine morality using all six foundations.

 

Your Worldview

In his 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, economist Thomas Sowell argues that the opposing moral values of conservatives and liberals are intimately linked to the vision a person holds about human nature, either as constrained (conservative) or unconstrained (liberal). Sowell argues that controversies over seemingly unrelated social issues such as taxes, welfare, social security, health care, criminal justice, and war repeatedly reveal a consistent ideological dividing line along these two conflicting visions, the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision. Depending on which view of human nature you believe to be true will largely determine how you believe issues should be addressed:

If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanation—and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized… In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.

Balance in a Complex World

Essentially, we are born predisposed to being either liberal or conservative at an intuitive and instinctual level, with our moral values predetermined by our brain structure, mix of hormones, moral emotions and reactions, and temperament. This explains why people can be predictably partisan about a range of issues that are seemingly unconnected. Yet both sides of the equation are valid, necessary, and true and can complement and balance out the negative extremes of the other.

As human beings, we have far more in common than what differentiates and divides us. We are all somewhat liberal and somewhat conservative and a person must no longer be both an economic and social liberal or conservative. All humans hold multiple contradictory beliefs and opinions at once, even when we recognize this inherent hypocrisy within ourselves.

Traditional partisan lines are changing in an increasingly polarized political arena. Most people, and likewise most Millennials, are broadly libertarian-minded progressive conservatives, where they do not necessarily feel compelled to hold others to the same value system they hold for themselves, they just want to live their lives and allow others to live theirs so long as harm does not cross the bough. When we can understand where the other person is coming from with respect to consideration of moral foundations, we are more likely to find a path forward that is more effective in dealing with the issues in a fact-based manner that can actually lead to positive developments and results.