Conservatives have a lot of science in their favor these days. Bookshelves are bowed down with the studies of social science researchers, development psychologists, and neuroscientists that largely confirm the instincts of social conservatives. This research has so thoroughly overturned the tables that a liberal think tank fellow (the Brookings Institute's Isabel Sawhill) recently praised Dan Quayle's condemnation of Murphy Brown becoming a single parent on the 1992 sitcom.
The latest of these books is Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). While many books implicitly affirm general evangelical views of morality, social relationships, and how healthy societies should be constructed, Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, explicitly compares liberal and conservative views of morality. Conservatives, he says, have a moral outlook that more fully accords with human nature.
Haidt splits his book into three parts. The first is an explanation of human moral tendencies. The big idea here is that our moral instincts come before our rationalization of them. Morality is based on "automatic processes" that guide our gut reactions to behaviors. Morality is innate, as Haidt says, "organized in advance of experience."
Part two discusses the palate of human moral instincts. Here, Haidt begins to address the differences between conservative and liberal morality. Westerners, mostly liberal ones, have studied morality by examining the views of Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) individuals. Yet the moral tastes of these research subjects are extremely limited.
Through his research outside of WEIRD cultures, Haidt came up with a moral matrix that generally fits societies around the world. This matrix includes six core values: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. This matrix exists in all cultures—except the WEIRD ones.
Haidt chronicles how he learned to appreciate this broader moral palate while conducting interviews in a town in India. After three months, Haidt writes, "I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasized self-control, resistance to temptation, cultivation of one's higher, nobler self, and negation of the self's desires." While these virtues sometimes conflicted with Haidt's own emphasis on personal autonomy, he recognized that they served other moral goods and that it was Haidt who was deficient.
This explained why Haidt had previously discovered that liberals were unable to condemn morally repugnant behavior. Westerners, except social conservatives, exclusively valued Care as a moral category. As a result, they were unable to label behavior such as incest, cannibalism, or sex with a corpse as immoral. While these things might elicit disgust, unless they caused harm to a person, liberal interview subjects failed to find any grounds on which to condemn them. (It is easy to see that once activists are able to overcome the "ick factor" of a taboo—a stigma once attached to homosexual behavior—Western cultural values have no further ground to oppose it.)