Conservatism and liberalism are mistakenly viewed as purely political expressions when, upon reflection, they reveal fundamental, biologically based moral outlooks that we apply to all situations. We are conservative or liberal parents, conservative or liberal employers, conservative or liberal spenders, and even conservative or liberal drinkers.
In the past 50 years, psychologists and philosophers have increasingly concluded that conservatism and liberalism are not just political factions; they are distinct moral patterns of viewing right and wrong. The polarity has been characterized in various ways:
- In his 1962 book, Affect Imagery Consciousness, Silvan Tomkins argues that the individual is either considered intrinsically valuable or his value depends upon how well he conforms to external standards.
- In his 1970 paper, ‘A Dimension of Moral Judgment,’ Robert Hogan argues that liberalism is an ethic of personal conscience while conservatism is an ethic of social responsibility.
- In his 1994 book, Moral Politics, George Lakoff argues that political distinctions can be identified based on different prototypes of the family: liberals adopt the “nurturing parent” model while conservatives favor the “strict father” model.
- In a 2011 paper, Alan S. Gerber and colleagues identify correlations between political orientation and certain personality traits of the “Big Five” (e.g., liberalism and openness to experience vs. conservatism and conscientiousness).
- In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt set out his Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes that liberals and conservatives assign different priorities to the innate and universally available psychological systems underlying our moral judgments—liberals prioritize care and fairness while conservatives appeal to a wider range (care and fairness plus authority, loyalty, and sanctity).
This duality in our moral outlook is not new or something just discovered through modern scientific methods. The Romans called their conservatives the “Optimates” and their liberals the “Populares.” The revolutionary French referred to their left wingers as the Jacobins and their right wingers as the Girondins.
In short, it is clear that liberalism and conservatism are merely the terms given to the political manifestations of a larger moral divide, which we express in all areas of life. This ever-present moral duality within all of us can be better understood by going even further back and exploring the evolutionary origins of human morality. Being social creatures, our survival has always depended not only on our ability to master the natural world, but also on our ability to get along with each other. Morality serves this latter purpose.
The circumstantial basis of our moral duality
Our two patterns of human social outlook evolved as a survival mechanism that allows us to negotiate our social environment. And the great social dilemma that has plagued all human groups since time immemorial is whether there is enough of any particular resource for every member of the group, or there isn’t. During times when there is enough for all, our liberal pattern of understanding right and wrong prevails. When there is not enough for all, our conservative outlook takes over.
How we determine what is right and what is wrong is a function of how we view our circumstances. If we are safe and resources are plentiful, we tend to express a liberal outlook. If we imagine our condition to be one of danger or scarcity, we express a conservative and more constrained outlook.
Even our concepts of “justice” and “fairness” take on this two-sided aspect. For the liberal, approaching the world from the attitude that there is enough for all implies that all should have enough. When we perceive that resources are abundant, we see no need to favor some over others; the problem is not that resources are insufficient, it is that our plentiful resources are not distributed properly. With “equality” and equitable resource distribution as our aims, we begin to tear down old hierarchies. As liberals, fairness and justice are defined by equality.
However, when we face conditions of scarcity or danger, our other moral side takes over. When resources are scarce, they need to be safeguarded and directed to those in the group most capable of protecting it and carrying its traditions forward. Conservatism thus naturally encourages a hierarchical view of people and things. Those most valuable to the group should be protected best and rewarded most. As that old conservative Aristotle contended in Nicomachean Ethics, it is unjust to treat unequals equally. It is right that the school janitor makes less than the school principal. Punishment and reward are merit-based. In a conservative view, fairness and justice are defined by proper inequality.
Of course, concepts such as “abundance” and “scarcity,” as well as “safety” and “danger,” are not defined absolutely; they are relative and vary in their application. In reacting to one’s circumstances, what counts is not determined by some “objective” numerical calculation but rather by how people interpret their condition. The debate in the US over immigration policy is a case in point. What counts is not how many immigrants are crossing the border, but whether the immigration is perceived as a threat to Americans’ sense of identity and security, or whether it is perceived as a welcome advantage to the nation by adding more badly needed workers and greater diversity. The farm hand in North Carolina may perceive immigration quite differently from the deli worker in New York City. Since either a liberal or a conservative outlook is acceptable under certain conditions, our moral debates often involve disputes over the nature of those conditions: Are we well-off and secure? Or are we struggling and vulnerable? Politics is the process of arguing over which perspective is most right, right now.
Since most of history was lived in conditions of want and danger, virtually all societies were organized hierarchically, and the notion of many levels of “inequality” was accepted by all. In tough times, our conservative outlook holds sway. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that enough wealth was generated to allow a liberal mentality—with its ideals of equality and individual rights—to prevail. With ever-expanding material production and international trade, Western societies have been moving further and further leftward ever since.
This leftward movement means that liberalism and conservatism do not represent absolutely “fixed” positions on any specific issue, but are instead relative to each other. Thus, what was once considered to be radically left, can, if adopted and practiced over time by a significant portion of the population, become “traditional,” and thereby acceptable to conservatives. One need only consider the changing attitudes towards divorce to realize that, while conservatives promote “family values,” divorce is no longer perceived by most of them as the threat it was a century ago; gay marriage—something inconceivable in 1900—became the more pressing object of concern, but that too is rapidly gaining acceptance among former opponents.
How we judge ourselves
Conservatives and liberals even disagree over how we should view ourselves. For the right-winger, America is the shining city on the hill, and American exceptionalism defines the patriot. American conservatives feel that everyone everywhere would be better off if they were in America, and record-setting immigration proves to them that the world agrees. The conservative will admit that not everything is rosy, but the proper attitude toward American culture is one of appreciation and even awe.
For liberals, on the other hand, while society may have made some progress, there are still monumental problems to be solved and widespread inequality to be addressed. Now is no time to be resting on our laurels. We need to do better, and progress means change.
The liberal impulse will always be part of who we are. Regardless of how threatened we are and how scarce resources may be (the perfect formula for justifying conservatism), there will always be liberals among us. While a conservative mentality may dominate society as a whole, this does not preclude the existence of a few individuals in the group who are “outliers”—we need only think of characters like St. Francis of Assisi, or Jesus, or the renowned women’s rights activist of the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft—all characters who were out-of-step with their times.
The conservative impulse will also always be part of who we are. No matter how plentiful our resources, or how safe and overfed we all are (the perfect formula for justifying liberalism), there will still be conservatives among us who will be alarmed at what they see as profligate social spending and the coddling of miscreants. For conservatives, allegations by liberals that society is infected by “systemic racism” and discrimination against women come at a time in American history when racism and sexism have never been so widely condemned, as evidenced by the election of a black president in 2008 and a black female vice-president in 2020. The traditionalist regards such allegations as baseless, serving only to sow social discord and advocate for reform of a current situation that needs little improvement
Understanding conservatism and liberalism as competing moral outlooks battling each other to help society achieve the best resolution to its social problems also suggests that social discord, far from being the blight on society that it is portrayed, is actually a public good. Politics is merely the stage upon which our moral battles are waged, options weighed, and courses of action determined. Democracy is government by debate. Our representatives argue because there is more than one point of view. When political conditions demand we all agree on everything and when there is no room for dissent, we have dictatorship.
How we judge the past
Conservatives and liberals not only argue about current events; they are also at odds with each other over how to remember yesterday. History for both groups is recalled primarily to support some current moral priority. For the conservative, history is remembered for examples of how we should act today. For liberals, history is often looked back on to be denounced, scanned for examples of what we did wrong then, and used as a starting point for what we might do better now.
In our conservative mode, we recall the past with affection. It is because of our grandparents and forebears that we live better lives today. For the traditionalist, history is a collection of ancestral advances—in philosophy by the Greeks, in art during the Renaissance, and in technology during the Industrial Revolution. Our predecessors’ actions guaranteed their success, and our conservative outlook informs us that by following their lead, we may succeed too. For the conservative, the past is usually remembered to be praised.
In our liberal mode, we often look at the past with remorse. Our duty is not to preserve the methods of yesterday, but to improve upon them. We struggle to “progress.” Our progressive outlook begins with the assumption of plentiful resources, enjoyed in an environment where it is safe to experiment—we can take greater risks and do things differently, we can change old habits and traditions in order to improve upon them. In a liberal mindset, we condemn the Romans for their persecution of Christians, and we decry the Middle Ages for their crusades. We castigate the 18th century for its slavery, denounce the 19th for its treatment of women, and disparage the 20th for its industrialization of war. By looking back and highlighting what was worst about our ancestors, liberals hope we may be inspired to do better. For the liberal, the past is often remembered to be condemned.
Together, our conservative and liberal moral views vie with each other as we try to figure out the proper moral attitude to apply to whatever situation we face. We are liberal when we can be, conservative when we must be.
It is riveting to watch how tightly conservatives and liberals hold onto their points of view, as if compromise requires a surrender to evil. The juxtaposition of two current debates—gun control and abortion—clearly highlights this stubborn duality. Both the proponents of stricter gun control and the advocates for tighter abortion laws claim that their motivation is to save innocent lives, particularly those of the most helpless among us. But neither side is willing to save those lives if it means giving up their current moral position.
History, psychology, anthropology, and moral philosophy give us confidence that this same duality will continue into our future. So we have to ask ourselves, “How will we of the 21st century be judged by the liberals and conservatives of tomorrow?”
How future generations will judge us
Tomorrow’s liberals are not likely to judge us any more favorably than they judge the people of the past now, given the on-going and limitless pursuit of equality. Initially, political equality was recognized only for white male property-owners. It expanded to embrace non-property owners, then women, and finally people of all races. There is no reason to believe that the trend toward ever-expanding equality will come to a halt, as long as wealth and safety continue to expand.
Following the 1975 publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, liberals have become increasingly concerned about extending social equality to animals too. The morality of using animals for agricultural and research purposes or as targets for hunters has become a matter of concern. In addition, we have witnessed an increase in the percentage of those who identify as vegetarians, many of whom are motivated by moral as much as by nutritional considerations. As wealth and security are taken to extremes, our liberal outlook expands to extremes as well.
Technological advances may even take us to a point where artificial food will be created in laboratories, and the slaughter of animals will be looked upon as a barbaric practice of the past. Fish, insects, and even plants may also become protected by gaining “rights.” Today’s hunters may be looked back upon as little more than hardscrabble barbarians. In a future where we are able and willing to protect any and all forms of life, protecting the human fetus may become a future liberal concern.
Additionally, it is likely that the same scientific and technological progress that improves our food, transportation, and health will find a more exact method of preventing unwanted pregnancies. The need for abortions may become obsolete. As they look to the past for bad examples to improve upon, the liberal moralists of the 22nd century may recall the practice of state-funded abortions with horror, and describe this part of their history as utterly unnecessary and especially monstrous for a 21st century that could easily have afforded to care for these children-to-be.
As for tomorrow’s conservatives, wisdom informs us that they are likely to look back on us as a stalwart bunch; a society of winners, who developed the electric car, landed spacecraft on Mars, perfected robotics, and created decentralized digital currencies. They will wag their fingers at their contemporaries, labeling them effete weaklings, and telling them that we of the past were more noble and trustworthy—that we were a gun-toting bunch of heroes and heroines who did whatever was necessary to survive. This focus on the generally praiseworthy, meritorious “character” of the people of the past, rather than on any particular action, clues us in on why conservatives judge the people of the past the way they do. With its focus on “strength-of-character,” our conservative nature uses history to motivate us in a way that differs from how our liberal nature uses it.
Although it might seem implausible today, the future may find conservatives looking back and coming to the defense of today’s abortion-seeking mothers. Though they will never support the practice itself—no more than they support the practice of slavery today—they may seek ways to justify its existence in the past; they will explain that it was the social circumstances and scientific limitations of the 21st century that made widespread abortions, though regrettable, unavoidable for the heroic females battling the tribulations of their time.
Our biology guarantees that, like us, the people of the future will be divided into conservative and liberal camps. Tomorrow’s liberals will be struggling to make everyone and everything more equal, in an ongoing battle with tomorrow’s conservatives who will be trying to explain why many of their society’s inequalities are justified. If you are looking into a crystal ball and seeing the future, don’t expect the politics of tomorrow to be any less turbulent than the politics of today. That is how we succeed.
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