The Motivation of Conservatives and Liberals

In Gareth Cook’s article the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, following Romans 1, suggests that there are five inborn ‘instinctive’ virtues that humans recognize, though they do not always live up to, of course.

These are:  i. fairness, ii. not harming others, iii. loyalty to one’s group, iv. respecting authority, and v. purity [I am not sure what this refers to; I suspect it includes sexual morals, while not being by any means confined to them.]

“And in psychological experiments, conservatives value all five of the instincts, yet liberals [sic] tend to put far more weight on the first two – fairness and not doing harm – while discounting the other three.”

Jennifer Wright, a psychologist at the College of Charleston, [I assume South Carolina, not West Virginia] studied a lot of people, ‘liberals’ and conservatives, and found this to be true.  Then she asked the same moral questions of people when they were distracted; “she limited how much people could think about their answers by constantly distracting them, or by giving them an exhausting task to do beforehand.”  In these cases, most of the subjects of either persuasion emphasized the first two virtues and neglected the other three, and answered the questions like ‘liberals’ – progressives.

Wright suggested that the three ‘conservative’ virtues tend to surface under a sense of threat or fear, which focuses our attention.  But other studies [not by Dr. Wright, I assume] say that “conservatives are more`threat sensitive’ – they see the world as a dangerous place, are less open to new experiences, are more fearful of losses.”  The  conclusion of Gareth Cook is “a fascinating possibility:  We are not a nation divided by basic moral values, but by fear.”

I think Mr. Cook has thrown out somewhat of a red herring.  As C. S. Lewis likes to point out, fear is not a sin, cowardice is.  And these ‘conservatives’ are people whose attention is focused by threats real or imaginary.  And the threats are not always imaginary – this is a dangerous world.  One can as easily say that ‘liberals’ – progressives – are those easily distracted!  Maybe too much Internet and cell phones is distracting us so much that it pushes us to neglect the three ‘conservative’ virtues and drift left!  So, if conservatives are motivated by fear, ‘liberals’ are motivated by distraction!

Related: “Some” by Gareth Cook at Boston Globe (via

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