Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations

The forthcoming article Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12448) by Peter K. Hatemi, Charles Crabtree, and Kevin B. Smith is summarized by the authors below.

Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) suggests that political differences are rooted in instinctual right/wrong value judgments. According to this argument, a key difference between liberals and conservatives is that members of each group employ a set of evolved psychological mechanisms that weight individual versus group values differently. This seems to offer a reasonable explanation of why political differences are so persistent and often so difficult to reconcile. The idea here is that these differences are not just produced by reasoned consideration, but reflect deeper differences springing from emotionally-rooted, reflexive judgments of right and wrong. In this way, MFT seems to offer a fairly comprehensive theoretical explanation of ideology and the psychology that underlies partisan divides. Specifically, the key difference between liberals and conservatives is that in making right/wrong evaluations, liberals instinctually over-weight the concerns of the individual (whether someone is harmed and/or treated fairly), while conservatives instinctually place comparably more weight on group concerns such as loyalty, authority, and deference to group norms or taboos.

However, a recent AJPS article co-authored by two of us raised questions about MFT’s explanation of individual-level political orientations. Using survey data from Moral Foundations Questionnaires (MFQs), we found, to our own considerable surprise, that moral foundations are less temporally stable than political attitudes and show little evidence of genetic influence. This contradicts MFT’s description of moral foundations – the psychological modules held to underpin instinctual right/wrong evaluations – as stable, dispositional traits that are products of Darwinian selection pressures. Our study also provided some evidence that moral decisions may be more a product of political beliefs than vice versa. This raised, but did not directly test, the possibility that political beliefs are at least in part justifying judgments of right and wrong.

In our current study we sought to directly address this key causal question while also accounting for the measurement and methods concerns that were raised in response to the earlier paper. Using survey data from three panel data sets taken from samples in two different countries, we find no support for the argument that instrumentation issues explain the results of the earlier study. More importantly, we find consistent evidence that political attitudes are temporally stable and some evidence that they are a better predictor of moral foundations than vice versa.

The key takeaway of the current study, then, is that political beliefs and loyalties might drive moral evaluations (at least as measured by MFQs), rather than vice versa. While this upends the causal story of MFT, it increases rather than decreases the importance of the study of moral decision making to political science.  A good deal of research already suggests that it is ideology that has the key characteristics ascribed to moral foundations – i.e. that political judgments are intuitive, products of implicit, emotionally anchored and genetically influenced psychological mechanisms. If that is indeed the case, the psychological mechanisms underpinning ideology may drive not just individual-level policy preferences but individual-level moral choices that have little direct connection to politics.

About the Authors: Peter K. Hatemi is Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at The Pennsylvania State University, Charles Crabtree is Visiting Scholar in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and Senior Data Scientist at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, and Kevin B. Smith is Leland J. and Dorothy H. Chair of Political Science at the Department of Political Science of University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Their researchIdeology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12448) is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Politics Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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