In these days of poisonous politics, The Two Moralities asks us to consider the challenging possibility that both liberalism and conservatism are morally based. Janoff-Bulman, a social psychologist, uses moral psychology as a lens for understanding the roots of our political differences. She distinguishes between two moralities that reflect the most fundamental motivational distinction in psychology—approach and avoidance—and, she claims, respectively underlie the politics of the left and right.
We are motivated to approach the good and avoid the bad. When applied to morality, Janoff-Bulman describes a proscriptive morality that defends against negative outcomes and focuses on what we should not do, and a prescriptive morality that moves us towards positive outcomes and focuses on what we should do. Most generally, proscriptive morality protects others from harm and prescriptive morality provides for their well-being. In our one-on-one interpersonal interactions, these moralities translate into not harming and helping, and both liberals and conservatives believe in the importance of both. Importantly, not harming is not the same as helping. Consider, for example, the behavior of toddlers. Not taking others’ toys (proscriptive morality) is different from sharing their own toys (prescriptive morality), but we would applaud both.
Yet when it comes to the group context, and specifically the greater society, the prescriptive and proscriptive moralities diverge, with one favored by liberals and the other by conservatives. This group-based or collective morality is the domain of politics. Here liberalism is rooted in a prescriptive Social Justice morality focused on providing for the well-being of the nation’s constituents. Conservatism is rooted in a proscriptive Social Order morality focused on protecting against threats, both external and internal, and maintaining societal stability. The moralities of both the left and right reflect a genuine concern for the nation (although those politicians who wield and weaponize them are surely not moral).
Effective political messaging on each side reflects these differences—fear and dystopia on the right versus hope and optimism on the left. The psychological attributes of conservatives and liberals are consistent with these moralities as well—high threat sensitivity on the right and openness on the left. Also reflecting their distinct collective moralities, the left and right typically favor government interventions in very different domains. Liberals, with their Social Justice morality, focus on the economic domain where resource distribution is managed, from regulation of markets to entitlements and expenditures for health, education, and strong safety nets more generally. Conservatives, with their Social Order morality, focus primarily on the social domain (e.g., abortion and same-sex marriage), where an emphasis on traditional roles and strict norms are regarded as bulwarks against personal gratification believed to threaten societal stability. Importantly, the left and right favor limited government in precisely the domain where the other favors intervention. That is, liberals support freedom in the social domain, advocating autonomy over our bodies, lifestyles and social roles. Conservatives support liberty and autonomy in the economic domain, favoring an unfettered free market where people largely succeed or fail on their own.
The moralities that underlie left-right differences by themselves likely do not account for the increased polarization we have witnessed in recent years. We cannot ignore our media silos, our geographical sorting by politics, and the fact that the loudest voices are typically the most extreme. We do not hear usually from the mother sitting in her rural farmhouse or the grandfather sitting in his urban apartment. Yet although the moralities alone probably do not account for our increased polarization, they may contribute when considered in conjunction with other factors. Foremost among these in the U.S. is the current singular alignment of morality and party. In the author’s youth there were liberal Republicans (e.g., Jacob Javitz, Nelson Rockefeller) and conservative Democrats (e.g., Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox), but these are now extinct species. The re-alignment began with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and continued in the decades to follow. We now have a complete realignment of Republican and conservative, and of Democrat and liberal, which exacerbates inter-party dissension and contributes to political polarization.
The Global Party Survey of 2,000+ international experts no longer considers the U.S. Republican Party a mainstream conservative party, although the U.S. Democratic Party remains a mainstream liberal party. To preserve democracy in the U.S., as well as other threatened democracies, liberals and mainstream conservatives will have to work together in the months and years ahead. The aim of The Two Moralities is a new understanding of our political differences. The book is not a practical how-to guide for moving forward. Perhaps, though, in recognizing that, like us, our political opponents are motivated by morality rather than malice, we can begin to detoxify our politics.
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman is professor emerita of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the former editor of the journal Psychological Inquiry. She is the author of Shattered Assumptions: Toward a New Psychology of Trauma. She lives in Amherst, MA.