Does science prove conservative values right over liberal ones?

The political divide in America is usually articulated in the language of political philosophy, but some important answers to the problems of political philosophy have been answered by science.  We owe a debt of gratitude to Jonathan Haidt for his splendid book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt uses the metaphor of taste buds to explain how the most important human values can be reduced to six flavors or foundations, regardless of history, culture, or socioeconomic status.  Extensive cross-cultural empirical evidence supports his claims.  Our values are like taste buds because they are part of our organism (we have a physical receptor for sweetness), yet our particular circumstances shape how we experience them.  To the dismay of many American tourists, ketchup in Latin America is too sweet.

Here are the six value foundations:

1. Care: This foundation is based on attachment theory and the instinct of mothers to protect their children, but this sentiment can be transferred to strangers as well.  Whereas liberals (supposedly) bestow this on all innocent victims around the world, conservatives bestow this primarily on those who have sacrificed for their group.

2. Fairness: This foundation is based on proportionality and the law of karma, but this sentiment can be transferred to strangers as well.  Whereas liberals equate fairness with rewards and equal outcomes, conservatives equate fairness with proportion, reward, or punishment, even if it guarantees unequal outcomes.

3. Loyalty: This foundation is based on our need to meet the adaptive challenge of forming cohesive coalitions, to include identifying team players and traitors.  Whereas liberals (supposedly) tend toward universalism or globalism, at least in the abstract, conservatives tend toward concrete nationalism.

4. Authority: This foundation is based on the benefits of respecting authority or hierarchical relationships, which includes the burden of responsibility and should not be confused with power.  Whereas liberals often define themselves in opposition to this (unless they are in charge), conservatives tend to embrace it.

5. Sanctity: This foundation is based on a conflict between neophilia (attraction to new things) and neophobia (fear of new things), as it relates to food and sanitation, but extends to people and society.  Whereas liberals sanctify organic food or clean energy, conservatives sanctify religion, guns, and flags.

6. Liberty: This foundation is based on the challenge of avoiding domination in groups and often conflicts with the authority foundation.  Whereas liberals (supposedly) support equality for underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere, conservatives support liberty for their group.

In addition to the evidence-based research on these six value foundations, Haidt's research also reveals how liberals and conservatives view them.  Liberals prioritize care, liberty, and fairness, in that order, but have limited interest in or even disdain for loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  The most sacred value for liberals is care for victims of oppression.  On the other hand, conservatives respect and embrace all six foundations because all six are essential for a meaningful life and a functioning society.  The most sacred value for conservatives is preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community.

The science of value foundations demonstrates that the conservative position is "correct," to the extent that it takes the most holistic approach to human nature and social complexity. Conservatives share the liberal values but have a deeper understanding of the values that make liberal values possible.  To wit, without the right institutions and traditions to sustain a moral community (a nation), caring for the victims of oppression is not possible.

Given the relative common ground on three value foundations, the political divide is most prominent for the other three.  Each value foundation has positive and negative extremes, but the unwillingness of liberals to recognize or embrace the positive side of loyalty, authority, or sanctity leaves them with an incomplete political philosophy, with hints of shame or self-loathing regarding America.  Many liberals seem unable to disentangle the fact that we can celebrate the American flag without dwelling on the fact that slavery was once legal.

Haidt's credibility is enhanced by the fact that he began his research as a liberal who allowed the evidence to shape his beliefs, not the other way, evidenced by the following profound conclusion:

Nonetheless, if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you are asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism.

Conservatives should celebrate the fact that science has vindicated our fundamental intuitions about political philosophy, but with this enlightenment comes the responsibility to hold strong to our convictions while kindly and gently showing liberals the errors of their ways.

Anthony C. Patton studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg University and earned an MBA from Thunderbird — School of Global Management.  He is the founder of ñiño (, the only brand dedicated to honoring fatherhood.

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