Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Science of Libertarian Morality

by Ronald Bailey

November 2, 2010

When it comes to morality, libertarians are often typecast as immoral calculating rationalists who also have a somewhat unseemly hedonistic bent. Now new social science research shows that libertarians are quite moral, just not in the same way that conservatives and liberals are.

University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done considerable previous work probing the moral differences between American liberals and conservatives, but came to recognize that a significant proportion of Americans did not fit the simplistic left/right ideological dichotomy that dominates so much of our political and social discourse. Instead of ignoring outliers, Haidt and his colleagues chose instead to dig deeper. The result: A fascinating new study, “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist morality ideology.” that is currently under review at The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In probing the moral thinking of libertarians, the study uses the “largest dataset of psychological measures ever compiled on libertarians,” involving moral surveys of more than 10,000 self-identified libertarians gathered online at the website, used by 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, Irvine.

So what did the study find to be the basis of libertarian moral thinking? It will not surprise Reason readers that the study found that libertarians show (1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle and correspondingly weaker endorsement of other moral principles, (2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional intellectual style, and (3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.