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Character  &  Context

Making Sense of Moral Disagreement: Liberals, Conservatives and the Harm-Based Template they Share

Image of Gay Pride flag with barbed wire superimposed on top of it

By: Chelsea Schein & Kurt Gray

Debates about Obamacare and gay marriage reveal an obvious truth: there is a plurality of moral beliefs, with liberals and conservatives often disagreeing.  The important question for psychologists is whether descriptive differences in moral judgments reflect deep differences in moral cognition.  Do liberals and conservatives rely upon fundamentally different mechanisms when making moral judgments?  One popular theory—moral foundations theory (MFT)—says “yes,” and argues that disagreements about sex and religion stem from differentially activated moral modules (e.g., a purity module, a loyalty module).  In contrast, the new theory of Dyadic Morality says “no,” and argues that—despite disagreement—liberals and conservatives share the same moral template.  This common moral template is grounded in perceptions of harm, which means that moral disagreements can be understood with one simple question: “What do liberals and conservatives see as harmful?”

Imagine two forms of torment: being denied the one you love, or burning forever in a pit of fire.  The first occurs when gay couples are forbidden to marry, and the second occurs when gay couples are permitted to marry.  Of course, as an educated liberal, you may scoff at the idea of hell or that gay marriage will send you there, but many conservatives do believe in hell, and legitimately see homosexuality as harmful.  Dyadic morality embraces recent discussions in social and personality psychology to take seriously the experience of conservatives.  While MFT has acknowledged the legitimacy of conservative moral judgments, it rejects the legitimacy of conservative perceived harm.  In contrast, dyadic morality endorses harm pluralism to complement moral pluralism, suggesting that there are as many varieties of perceived harm—to self, soul, society, family—as immorality. 

The plurality of harm obviates the need for different moral modules, allowing moral cognition to be both parsimonious and diverse.  In the words of eminent anthropologist and moral pluralist, Richard Shweder, dyadic morality allows for “universality without the uniformity,” (2012) by explaining moral differences with different assumptions about sources of harm.

The previously neglected diversity of harm suggests that MFT is built around a fundamental misunderstanding.  Liberal researchers see sexual and religious taboos as harmless, and so wonder what non-harm mechanisms give rise to these judgments.  However, conservative participants see sex and religion as sources of harm, and so moralize them accordingly—without requiring a separate “purity” mechanism.  As anecdotal evidence, after we published an op-ed in the NY Times arguing this point, we received a grateful email from a Southern Baptist preacher, who thanked us for finally recognizing that his congregation’s opposition to gay marriage was rooted in its (perceived) harmfulness.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, recent publications from our lab have revealed evidence for a harm-based template.  These papers systematically test the competing predictions of distinct moral modules (MFT) versus a common harm-based moral template (dyadic morality), including distinctness (are judgments of harm different from other judgments?;Schein & Gray, 2015), harmlessness (are “harmless” taboos actually seen as harmless?; Gray, Schein, & Ward, 2014), political differences (are liberals blind to loyalty and purity?; Schein & Gray, 2015), cognitive differences (are harm and purity processed differently?; Gray & Keeney, 2015a), and emotional differences (do harm and purity map onto different emotions?; Cameron, Lindquist, & Gray, 2015).  Because these papers use the moral stimuli, definitions and theory developed by MFT—and reveal evidence for dyadic morality—we have suggested that we have “disconfirmed moral foundations theory on its own terms.” (Gray & Keeney, 2015b)

Specifically, our studies suggest that moral judgment proceeds by comparing counter-normative acts with a prototype (i.e., template) of harm, with closer matches yielding more robust moral judgments (Schein & Gray, 2015).  Because harm typically combines two people—an intentional agent and a suffering patient—this template is dyadic (hence the name “dyadic morality.”)  Template matching is how categorization judgments occur across many domains (is x a bird?), and it makes sense that moral judgment proceeds the same way (is x immoral?).  Obvious harm (e.g., murder) is quickly and universally judged as immoral, whereas more ambiguous harm (e.g., masturbation) is less robustly judged as immoral—allowing for variable perceptions and therefore moral disagreement.

This dyadic template not only serves as a source of comparison, but also exerts a powerful cognitive gravity, shaping perceptions even after moral judgments have been made.  Both liberals and conservatives will automatically and intuitively see harm in ostensibly harmless moral violations, such as necrophilia and masturbation (Gray, Schein & Ward, 2014). 

Both liberals and conservatives also link concerns about impurity to harm.  In fact, correlations between these two constructs are so high that psychometricians would question their distinctness (r = .87; Gray & Keeney, 2015a).  These high-intercorrelations also undermine claims that harm and purity are differentially linked to the different emotions of anger and disgust—which are themselves very overlapping (Cameron, Lindquist & Gray, 2015).

Beyond suggesting conceptual overlap, dyadic morality also suggests that all moral content is processed similarly.  This appears to contradict some past research (Haidt, 2012; Young & Saxe, 2011), but we argue that these apparent processing differences between harm and purity stem from confounds in scenarios used to operationalize this moral content.  Specifically, so-called purity scenarios (e.g., masturbating with a dead chicken; Haidt, 2012) are both weirder and less severe than canonical harm scenarios (e.g., murder).  When these differences are controlled for with more naturalistic scenarios, cognitive differences between harm and impurity disappear (see Gray & Keeney, 2015a for these scenarios).

Even descriptive differences between liberals and conservatives appear to be confounded by specific operationalizations.  If purity is defined as religious blasphemy and sexual permissiveness, then conservatives—long known to be religious and sexually conservative (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003)—will appear more sensitive to this concern.  Conversely, if purity involved judgments about organic foods and anti-vaccinations, liberals would appear more sensitive to this concern.  (If you’ve ever know someone who completed a three-day juice cleanse, chances are it’s a liberal.)  The sensitivity of liberals and conservatives to the same moral concerns is revealed by many recent papers (Janoff-Bulman & Carnes, 2013; Skitka, Morgan, & Wisneski, in press), including one of our own, which found statistically significant differences between liberals and conservatives in only 12% of analyses—and even then they were small (Schein & Gray, 2015).

In sum, compared with the popular MFT, dyadic morality is more parsimonious, more consistent with recent experimental evidence, and more embracing of cultural differences.  Perhaps most importantly, it suggests that moral disagreement between liberals and conservatives isn’t “intractable” (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009) or that we speak fundamentally different languages.  Our work suggests that we all speak the same language of harm—the challenge is understanding that different people see harm in different places.  If you are an atheist without siblings, claims of damaged souls and broken families may seem disingenuous, but to others, these sources of suffering is as plain as day.  Morality may be a matter of disagreement, but it is also a matter of harm.

Kurt Gray is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina who studies mind perception and morality. Along with Dan Wegner, he is the co-author of the forthcoming book The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why it Matters.

Chelsea Schein is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina. She studies moral judgment and the acquisition of moral norms, paying special attention to the importance of perceived harm in condemnations of wrongdoing.

Work Cited

Cameron, C. D., Lindquist, K. A., & Gray, K. (2015). A constructionist review of morality and emotions: No evidence for specific links between moral content and discrete emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Review.  Online ahead of print.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029–1046.

Gray, K., & Keeney, J. E. (2015a). Impure, or just weird? Scenario sampling bias raises questions about the foundation of moral cognition. Social Psychological and Personality Science.  Online ahead of print

Gray, K., & Keeney, J. E. (2015b). Disconfirming Moral Foundations Theory on Its Own Terms: Reply to Graham (2015). Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Gray, K., Schein, C., & Ward, A. F. (2014). The myth of harmless wrongs in moral cognition: Automatic dyadic completion from sin to suffering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(4), 1600–1615.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Janoff-Bulman, R., & Carnes, N. C. (2013). Surveying the moral landscape: Moral motives and group-based moralities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(3), 219–236.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin;Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339–375.

Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2015). The unifying moral dyad: Liberals and conservatives share the same harm-based moral template. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(8), 1147–1163.

Shweder, R. A. (2012). Relativism and Universalism. In D. Fassin (Ed.), A Companion to Moral Anthropology (pp. 85–102). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Skitka, L. J., Morgan, G. S., & Wisneski, D. C. (in press). Political orientation and moral conviction: A conservative advantage or an equal opportunity motivator of political engagement? In Social psychology and politics. New York: Psychology Press.


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