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On Moral Issues, Liberals Ponder and Conservatives Pounce

New research suggests people on the left and right make ethical decisions in very different ways.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

As the current election campaign has made unnervingly clear, liberals and conservatives largely operate in different moral universes. Those on the left prioritize fairness and caring for others; those on the right emphasize respect for authority and solidarity with one’s group.

It’s widely believed these predispositions are ingrained and intuitive. But newly published research suggests they may, in fact, reflect the fundamentally different ways we settle on such beliefs.

Australian psychologists Dylan Lane and Danielle Sulikowski present evidence that conservatives decide ethical issues in an intuitive, automatic way. In contrast, they argue, liberals are more likely to give such questions serious thought before arriving at an opinion.

This difference between snap judgments and reason-based conclusions “may be a fundamental aspect of left-right political orientation,” the researchers, from Charles Sturt University, write in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Their study is based on the distinction between System One and System Two thinking, which was popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “System One is fast, intuitive, and emotionally driven, but can be subsequently overridden by reasoned judgments made by System Two, which is slow and effortful,” the researchers explain.

To find out which of these complementary systems people use in making moral judgments, the researchers conducted an online study featuring 119 participants (the vast majority of whom were Australians). Each was presented with a series of 19 ethical dilemmas. After reading about each, they were given 30 seconds to respond with what they considered the “right” answer.

For example, one was the “submarine dilemma,” in which “an onboard explosion has injured a crew member and left the rest of the crew with insufficient oxygen. The participant is then asked whether it is morally permissible to kill the injured crew member, who would not survive anyway, to preserve oxygen for the remaining crew.”

This research allows us to put the growing influence of tribalism on the right into an interesting perspective.

While considering roughly half of these cases, participants were placed under “cognitive load,” in that they were asked to keep one eye on a set of digits flashing on the corner of their computer screen, and press a button every time a “5” appeared.

Tellingly, self-described liberals took significantly longer to respond when their mental focus was split in this way. In contrast, “cognitive load had no effect on conservatives’ response time.”

“These findings suggest that political orientation is associated with the degree to which a person relies on either emotional/intuitive or logically reasoned processes while making moral judgments,” the researchers conclude.

It’s important to remember that there is a long history of conservative intellectualism, which continues to this day. But it’s also worth noting that, this year at least, a majority of Republican voters have been more than willing to ignore the party’s well-thought-out doctrine in favor of the more simplistic, and emotionally satisfying, exhortations of Donald Trump.

Much research over the years has found conservatives have greater need for certainty than liberals (something Trump provides, so long as you don’t give his ideas much scrutiny). Perhaps that distaste for ambiguity drives those on the right to rely on their moral instincts to make quick, final decisions on troubling issues.

Interestingly, Lane and Sulikowski note that liberals and conservatives largely came to the same conclusions regarding the ethical dilemmas presented in the study. They conclude there is no evidence one group is “more adept at, or better suited to, arriving at accurate or appropriate moral judgments.”

That said, this research allows us to put the growing influence of tribalism on the right (in Europe as well as the United States) into an interesting perspective. Due to mental habits formed in humans’ early history, it’s highly plausible that we all instinctually defend our group, and are suspicious of perceived outsiders.

Could it be that, while conservatives instinctively embrace this impulse, liberals are more likely to analyze it, and ultimately reject it as unsuited to today’s world?