Liberal vs. Conservative Narratives

Luke Johnson | SIPA 2018

Before we start, proper credit is due: the first two segments summarize the main findings in the following book: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt.

The words “America is more divided than ever” has been heard a lot recently, including The Toronto Sun, The Week, PBS, The Atlantic, NBC , among others. Why? According to Jonathan Haidt, it has to do with our differing “moral foundations”; or, to phrase it another way, differing set of values across different groups of people. Haidt and his team have found moral commonalities and differences among people comprising Liberals and Conservatives.

Understanding Your Moral Foundation

Haidt has narrowed down the most primal morals into six different categories. They are each described below:


Moral Foundation 1: Care / Harm 

careThis foundation is triggered when an innocent person or animal is harmed. If we are to look from a cold-calculating utilitarian point of view, it makes no sense for us to be repulsed or offended other living things suffer when they are completely removed from our lives, and yet, people almost unanimously do (sociopaths do not).



Moral Foundation 2: Liberty / Oppression

libertyThis foundation is triggered when bullying is witnessed, or if someone is striving to dominate another group. There is an urge to oppose this. Liberals feel this as anti-authoritarian and anti-dictatorship, whereas conservatives view this as ‘give me liberty’ and are opposed to the government impeding on their right to choose how to live their lives.

Moral Foundation 3: Fairness / Cheating

This foundation is triggered when you see something as ‘unfair’. However, conservatives and liberals feel this is slightly different ways.

fairnessConservatives view fairness as equality of proportionality / opportunity. Conservatives would maintain that people should start from the same starting point (access to education, non-discrimination), but how far you get in life depends on how much you work proportionally. Liberals, by contrast, view fairness more as equality of outcomes, and would maintain that it is unfair for the wealthy and powerful to exploit the poor and weak without paying fair taxes; this is more about social justice and fair wealth distribution.

Moral Foundation 4: Loyalty / Betrayal

loyaltyThis foundation is triggered when someone on your team defects or betrays someone else. Haidt also makes a distinction between the kind of loyalty more strongly felt by women: loyalty to another individual; compared to that more strongly felt by men: loyalty to the group.


Moral Foundation 5: Authority / Subversion

authorityThis foundation is triggered by witnessing disrespect towards someone in authority: a parent, senior, teacher, politician, or the police. Different cultures have a wide-ranging view of how important authority should play. Should the child be free-thinking, or respectful and obedient to their parents?


Moral Foundation 6: Sanctity / Degradation

sanctityThis is not necessarily religion — sanctity of life, body, mind are all under this category. This foundation is triggered with cannibalism, incest, swear words, harmful drugs, etc.. Would you sleep with your sibling even if you practiced safe sex and there was no chance of getting pregnant? No one is hurt, but, regardless, we are all repulsed. That is the sanctity foundation at work.

Values and Political Alignment

It is important to note that everyone feels all of these, just to varying degrees of strength or sensitivity. As such, one can reasonably predict which political party they belong to depending on how the varying ‘strength’ of each moral foundation.

For instance, Liberals typically feel the Care / Harm most strongly, followed by liberty and fairness. Conservatives, meanwhile, feel all six relatively evenly. Libertarians feel liberty most strongly.

Below is a visual representation of a standard moral foundation for both liberals and conservatives. The more bars above each foundation, the more sensitive someone with that political identity, on average, feels it. In this sense, it is easy to see that both liberals and conservatives are ‘moral’ and ‘good people’, just with a different set of moral inclinations (note that the number of bars is equal in both).

Liberals —


Conservatives —


The author and his team also made a test to determine your own moral foundation. Try it and see where you fall!

Now, getting to the debate: we can apply this line of thought to different issues to understand each sides narrative a bit better.

Understanding Bipartisanship and Issues

A popular topic under discussion now is immigration, so let’s start there.

Conservative moral foundations triggered on this topic include respect for authority (in this case, the law) and equality. The conservative narrative goes something like:

We support legal immigration, but not illegal immigration. Those who have broken the law by entering into our country against the law should not be allowed to stay here. Other countries have similar laws and we, as Americans, require documents to live there — we respect that. Why do other nations not respect this universal law? Additionally, not prosecuting people for illegally entering into the country sets a bad precedent, since this inaction would essentially mean complete open boarders with all countries.

The liberal moral foundations triggered are care and fairness. The liberal narrative goes something like:

We support legal and illegal immigration, at least for those who have already built a life here. All people, including undocumented immigrants, have a right to education, a good life, health benefits, regardless of legal status. It is wrong to force people out of the country when all they were trying to do is make a better life for themselves and their family.


Another very contentious topic is health care.

Conservative morals triggered include liberty and fairness. The conservative narrative goes something like this:

It is not the government’s job to control healthcare or, by levying more taxes from working Americans, pay for the coverage of people who are unwilling to work. Big government is inefficient, expensive, and too many people take advantage of it. People should be able to choose if they want coverage and, if they do not have access via a job, then it is their personal responsibility to try and find one. The government should not help people who are unwilling to help themselves.

Liberal morals values triggered are care and fairness.

Everyone, whether they can afford it or not, has a basic right to health care and it is the government’s job to make sure that people are covered. There are too many tragic instances of someone getting into an accident only to be turned down from care because of an inability to pay for the excessive costs. These tragedies are completely avoidable in a modern society and should have been rid of them a long time ago.

On a personal note, one thing I learned was that it is wrong to think of people as immoral. Everyone thinks that their views are what is ‘best’ for the country, society, etc. The country is politically divided, but there is no reason that, with some tolerance and understanding, the people have to be as well.


One thought on “Liberal vs. Conservative Narratives

  1. When values are involved there is little room for tolerance and understanding. Therein lies the problem. Is it really a problem? Having different values promotes strong debate but rarely does anyone’s mind ever change. And it shouldn’t if they are centered on their values.

    In politics the same is true. The only time I get nervous is when we don’t have political gridlock. I’m probably the only citizen in this country who likes gridlock. Gridlock insured one parties ideology is held in check. It insures strong debate and compromise in order to get BIG complex legislation passed.

    Today we have one party in power with limited checks and balances. Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for changes to the Senate cloture rule which is why everyone is nervous – things might actually get done in DC.

    Great summary and thought provoking post.


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