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Why Being Liberal Really Is Better Than Being Conservative

Liberals and conservatives don't just disagree about specific issues -- we disagree about core ethical values. Can a case be made that liberal values really are better?

You may have heard about this. It's been in the news and the blogosphere, and has been making the rounds at the nerdier water coolers and cocktail parties. A number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that ethics and values aren't entirely relative, and aren't solely derived from particular cultures. Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species. Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty, authority and purity. (Some think there may be one or two others, including liberty and honesty; but those aren't yet as well-substantiated, or as well-studied.)

Different people prioritize different values over others, of course. And of course, different individuals and different cultures come to different conclusions about the right ethical choice in any particular situation: based on our cultural biases, as well as on our own personal observations and experiences. But according to this research, these basic values -- fairness, harm, loyalty, authority and purity -- exist in all of us, at least to some degree, in every non-sociopathic human being.

"Fascinating," I hear you cry. "But what does that have to do with politics?" Well, what researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values -- while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty and purity.

As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal -- the offspring of a union organizer and an early-adopter feminist, taken to peace marches and McGovern rallies at a tender age -- this idea instantly made sense to me. It illuminates a lot of weird dark corners about politics, particularly the rancorous and apparently unsolvable nature of many political conflicts. When liberals and conservatives debate the burning issues of the day -- whether it's immigration or marriage equality, global warming or health care reform -- we often wind up talking at cross-purposes, and the conversations go around in increasingly belligerent circles ... because we're not starting with the same ethical foundations. We assume that we have the same core values, and are simply debating the best way to apply those values in the world. We're not. We're debating -- not very effectively or coherently most of the time -- the core values themselves.

And of course, when I heard about this research, my instant reaction was to say, "But fairness and harm are more important! We were right all along! This proves it -- liberal values are better!"

But, being someone who places a strong ethical value on fairness -- I realize that of course I'm going to say that. After all, those are my values. Of course I think they're better. And -- again, being someone who highly values fairness -- I realize that conservatives are going to say the exact same thing. "But authority and loyalty are more important! This proves it! Conservative values are better!"

So I've been asking myself: Is there a way to distinguish between these values?

If these are core values, fundamental axioms of human ethics, how do we distinguish between them? I mean -- they're axioms. They're our ethical starting points. When they come into conflict, as they often do, how do we step back from them, and decide which ones we should prioritize?

I've been chewing over this question ever since I heard about this research. In other words, for at least a couple of years. And then, at an atheist conference I spoke at recently, the answer was dropped into my lap, so clearly and succinctly that I kicked myself for not having thought of it myself, by the conference's keynote speaker, philosopher and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein. (From whom I am stealing this idea shamelessly. Hey, I'm an ethical person, with the good liberal value of fairness. When I steal an idea, I give credit.)

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