Do conservatives have stronger moral palates?

  • Article by: KEVIN HORRIGAN , St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • Updated: June 26, 2012 - 1:21 PM

Liberals get hung up on fairness and caring for people, like a teenager who eats nothing but delicious Doritos Locos Tacos.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Photo: Ross Taylor, Virginian-Pilot via AP

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In the June 5 edition of the British newspaper The Guardian, American psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggested that political conservatives "have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the United States).

"Think about it this way," Haidt continued. "Our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

"In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavors."

Haidt goes on to say that he and his colleagues have identified six moral "taste buds." On the "sweet vs. sour" scale, a liberal's "moral palate" is more sensitive to issues of "care vs. harm" than a conservative's. That is, liberals care more than conservatives about whether people are being cared for or harmed.

But care/harm is only one of the six moral taste buds, Haidt says. On other issues-fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation-conservatives tend to have more sophisticated palates.

"(O)n matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral 'cuisine' makes less use of them," Haidt wrote.

Since reading this, I have been desperately worried about my moral palate. Did I ruin it by worrying too much about poor people and not enough about terrible encroachments upon my personal liberty, such as red-light cameras, or the degradation caused by the booze-soaked hook-up culture?

I've already ruined my regular palate, destroying its appreciation for subtle flavors by pounding down le cuisine du QuikTrip. So when I read a restaurant review that said, "When he blends bergamot with grapefruit and other citrus for lobster, or jalapeo with lime for fluke sashimi, the nip of acidity will touch down precisely on this spot of your tongue, and nowhere else," I think, huh?

That precise spot of my tongue no longer exists.

And wine! Oh, the swill I've swilled. Though, to read Jonah Lehrer's piece in the May 24 edition of The New Yorker, it probably didn't hurt. In a recent blind tasting, some of the finest vintages from France only barely outscored cheap wines from ... New Jersey. When it comes to wine, the most important predictor of quality ratings is label and price, not necessarily the taste.

Which, come to think of it, is precisely what Jonathan Haidt, Mr. Moral Palate, says about people's assessments of just about everything: "One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe," he wrote in The Guardian.

Haidt says that conservatives, even those who have been savaged by predatory plutocrats, have plenty of perfectly good reasons to vote Republican. Their moral palates are more finely attuned, he says, enabling them to get past the facts that their net worth has plummeted, that children are going hungry and that 93 percent of the new wealth created in 2010 went to the richest 1 percent of Americans.

Liberals get hung up on fairness and caring for people, like a teenager who eats nothing but delicious Doritos Locos Tacos. Meanwhile, conservatives who fear the collapse of society "want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government."

Thus, even though a conservative may be struggling to pay his bills, his refined palate helps him appreciate the subtle flavors of throwing immigrant children out of the country, closing strip clubs and making sure everyone who wants a dozen AK-47s can buy them without a bunch of nanny-state intrusion.

"In focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address - and sometimes violates - other moral needs, hopes and concerns," Haidt says.

Haidt has been teaching at the University of Virginia, but he recently moved to New York University's Stern School of Business. It will not surprise you to learn that he's also selling a book, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," which explores his ideas in detail.

He and some colleagues also have a website, YourMorals.org, where you can fill out a survey and test your own morality. I discovered I'm less interested in caring/harm than most liberals and only slightly more interested than most conservatives.

Compared to both liberals and conservatives, I'm way more interested in fairness, less interested in loyalty and more respectful of authority. On the sanctity/degradation taste bud, my palate is slightly more pure than conservatives', but twice as pure as liberals'.

Now, if you'll step back, I need to rinse out my mouth and spit.

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