Panel: The Moral Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives

by Erin Kelly

When George W. Bush was elected, many liberals scratched their heads and assumed that 51 percent of the population was either blinded by religion or ignorance. But such an approach to the opposing political faction not only does little to illustrate open-mindedness, it is likely an inaccurate generalization, according to the viewpoint of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.


Panelists, from left: Associate Professor of Anthropology Farha Ghannam, Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger, Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff, and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Richard Schuldenfrei.

In his book, Haidt analyzes comprehensive studies of social psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology and philosophy and offers the following concept: If we are to truly engage in productive dialogue with people who don't agree with our worldview, we first have to understand our own worldview and those of the people around us - and not just in an arbitrary way. Haidt's concepts are part of several symposia being held on campus throughout the academic year, including a 7:30 p.m. panel on Sun., Nov. 4, on Moral Differences between Liberals and Conservatives with Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger, Associate Professor of Anthropology Farha Ghannam, Richter Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff, and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Richard Schuldenfrei. The event will be held in Science Center 101.

The panelists will discuss Haidt's belief that there are five sources of intuition at work in the moral mind - the concept of harm/care; fairness/reciprocity; loyalty; authority/respect; and purity/sanctity. Conservatives tend to approach the world with a "five-channel morality," encompassing all areas, while liberals, who tend to place the most value on harm and fairness, are less concerned with authority and purity, according to Haidt.

"Our righteous minds were designed by evolution to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth," Haidt writes. "So, what should you do? You can't just go charging in, saying you're wrong and I'm right. Everybody thinks they're right. A lot of the problems we have to solve requires us to change other people. To change other people, we first have to understand our own moral psychology, then step out of our moral matrix. It's the essential move to cultivate moral humility."

Below is the schedule for the remaining symposia, which will conclude with a public talk by the author on April 9, 2013:

  • Morality and Evolution, Feb. 12, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. in the Scheuer Room. With Professor of Psychology Frank Durgin, Assistant Professor of Biology Vince Formica, Schneiderman Professor of Biology Scott Gilbert, and Turner Professor of Philosophy Hans Oberdiek.
  • Religion and Social Cohesion, March 5, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. in the Scheuer Room. With Associate Professor of Religion Tariq al-Jamil, Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp, Claude Smith Professor Emeritus of Political Science James Kurth, and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Christy Schuetze.

The events around the symposia have been made possible with funding and administrative support from the Swarthmore College Institute for the Liberal Arts. The Institute serves as a framework for the College to explore the liberal arts model and the sector's relevance to the wider community. The Institute also hosts the Second Tuesday Science Café, geared toward individuals who have no formal science background but have a curiosity about sicence and a willingness to learn about new concepts.