I’ve often wondered why there seems to be a universal understanding of what is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ and what is ‘conservative’, why all nations seem to have left- and right-wing parties despite the terms being Franco-centric and how do these inform national party policies. Why in the UK we talk about ‘big C’ and ‘little C’ conservatism? As wikipedia puts it ‘There is general agreement that the Left includes: anarchists, anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, autonomists, communists, democratic-socialists, feminists, greens, left-libertarians, progressives, secularists, socialists, social-democrats and social-liberals. There is also general consensus that the Right includes: capitalists, conservatives, fascists, monarchists, nationalists, neoconservatives, neoliberals, reactionaries, right-libertarians, social-authoritarians, theocrats and traditionalists.’ How did these agreements come about? Why are conservatives usually pro-capitalist in Western nations despite capitalism being progressive by definition? Note I will be using ‘liberal’ as shorthand for all things Left-wing and ‘conservative’ as Right-wing throughout.
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is a book about the psychology of morals but by explaining them he solves my conundrum and explains the relation between psychology, politics and religion at the individual, national and global scales. He does this by introducing his moral foundation theory, the idea that there are six major areas the human brain is wired to care about:
These are the categories of our moral emotions; things pertaining to them trigger our feeling that something is right or wrong. Due to a combination of genes, neurology and environment different people have moral emotions triggered by different things. It’s the combination of what and how strongly these 6 foundations are triggered by that gives rise to all our political dimensions, with the vast majority of people falling into two broad groups based on what causes their sympathies and judgements. The graph below shows how the liberal-conservative spectrum informs the first five of these traits. The foundations hold true across cultures, suggesting they are universal to humankind; we are probably born with a predisposition to be one point on the spectrum based on our personality, with some leeway to change the point as our brains develop in life. They are a definition of liberal and conservative at their most basic psychological level. The political and everyday meanings, at the national or cultural level, (are you ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, Republican or Democrat?) in turn map onto the foundations; a local event impresses upon our psychology producing a moral emotion in us; we then use this to decide policy.
Moral Foundation Scores & Their Relationship to the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum (Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Figure 8.2)