The Science of Libertarian Morality: A Social Psychology Study Explores the Formation of the Libertarian Personality

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, February 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Science of Libertarian Morality: A Social Psychology Study Explores the Formation of the Libertarian Personality


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


LIBERTARIANS are often cast as amoral calculating rationalists with an unseemly hedonistic bent. Now new social science research upends that caricature. Libertarians are quite moral, the researchers argue--just not in the same way that conservatives and liberals are.

The University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of work in the past probing the different moral attitudes of American liberals and conservatives. With time he realized that a significant proportion of Americans did not fit the simplistic left/right ideological dichotomy that dominates our social discourse. Instead of ignoring the outliers, Haidt and his colleagues chose to dig deeper.

The result: a fascinating new study, "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology," that is currently under review at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In probing libertarians' moral thinking, Haidt and his colleagues--Ravi Iyer and Jesse Graham at the University of Southern California and Spassena Koleva and Peter Ditto at the University of California at Irvine--used the "largest dataset of psychological measures ever compiled on libertarians": surveys of more than 10,000 self-identified libertarians gathered online at the website yourmorals.org.

In his earlier work, Haidt surveyed the attitudes of conservatives and liberals using what he calls the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, which measures how much a person relies on each of five different moral foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/ respect, and purity/sanctity. Typically, conservatives scored lower than liberals on the harm and fairness scales--that is, they gave those issues less weight when making moral judgments--and scored much higher on ingroup, authority, and purity.

In the new study, Haidt and his colleagues note that libertarians score low on all five of these moral dimensions. "Libertarians share with liberals a distaste for the morality of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity characteristic of social conservatives, particularly those on the religious right," Haidt et al. write. Libertarians scored slightly below conservatives on harm and slightly above on fairness. These results suggest that libertarians are "likely to be less responsive than liberals to moral appeals from groups who claim to be victimized, oppressed, or treated unfairly."

Another survey, the Schwartz Value Scale, measures the degree to which participants regard 10 values as guiding principles for their lives. Libertarians put higher value on hedonism, self-direction, and stimulation than either liberals or conservatives, and they put less value than either on benevolence, conformity, security, and tradition. Like liberals, libertarians put less value on power, but like conservatives they have less esteem for universalism. Taking these results into account, Haidt concludes that "libertarians appear to live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g., respect for authority, personal sanctity) are not assigned much importance."

Haidt and his colleagues eventually recognized that their Moral Foundations Questionnaire was blinkered by liberal academic bias, failing to include a sixth moral foundation, liberty. They developed a liberty scale to probe this moral dimension. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that libertarians dramatically outscored liberals and conservatives when it came to putting a high value on both economic and lifestyle liberty. Haidt and his colleagues conclude, "Libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights--libertarians' sacred value."

Next the researchers wondered, "Might libertarians generally be dispositionally more rational and less emotional?" On the standard inventory of personality, libertarians scored lower than conservatives and liberals on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion.

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