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How do our political views connect to what we consider moral? Could it be that what policies we support result from the type of cooperation we prioritize? These questions were raised by the authors of an article published in the latest issue of Social Psychological Bulletin.
What is morality? What is politics? Are the two phenomena connected, and if yes, how? These questions have long been bugging not only philosophers and social theorists but also politicians, campaign helpers or anyone interested in politics and involved in the life of their community. There are those who, like Jacques Jean Rousseau, argue that politics and morality cannot be separated and that to understand each, they must be considered together. There are others, including Bob Dylan, for example, who argue that morality has little to do with politics. And while the questions posed at the beginning are rather philosophical, that does not mean they have not lived to see empirical answers.

Jonathan Haidt and colleagues proposed one of the most influential social psychology theories linking morality and political views. According to their assumptions, people with conservative and liberal views differ in what they understand as „moral”. They argue that people with different political views differ in what they believe are the most important moral foundations. In a series of empirical studies, Haidt and colleagues showed that of the five foundations they distinguished – care (referring to the issue of hurting others), justice, loyalty, authority and purity (describing what is morally pure) – for liberal people, only the first two are central to morality. Meanwhile, for conservative people, each foundation is considered essential in making moral judgments.

Morality or cooperation
Of course, the cited studies are just one of the proposals of social psychologists and psychologists regarding how morality and politics are connected. Another is the results recently published in the pages of Social Psychological Bulletin. In an article titled “Morality as Cooperation, Politics as Conflict,” Florian van Leeuwen and colleagues suggest that morality and politics may be a product of the type of cooperation within a society we find most important. The authors refer to the theory of morality as cooperation, according to which our moral values are directly related to valued types of cooperation. Why cooperation? According to the theory, cooperation is a key element of a well-functioning society. Without establishing relationships with others and acting together, we would not be able to function as a group, especially as large as the residents of one town, one country, or even all of humanity.

According to the theory, we can distinguish seven moral values relating to seven types of cooperation: love of family, group loyalty, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fairness, and property rights. Interestingly, research shows that the values mentioned above can only combine into higher-order constructs (a kind of moral structure) but can also come into conflict with each other, creating moral dilemmas. An example of this would be, among other things, a situation in which we do not know whether to help a family member cover up a minor crime they have committed or execute justice and inform the relevant services about the incident.

Political views vs. moral values
But what do political views have to do with it? As the authors of the study suggest, it may be that those who benefit most from a certain type of cooperation and, as a result, support the moral values described above will also be more likely to support policies that promote a certain type of cooperation. Thus, for those individuals who benefit the most from social exchange in the broadest sense, the most important values will be those related to reciprocation, making them the most likely to support free market policies and the laws governing them. At the same time, those individuals for whom kin altruism is particularly beneficial may value family love to the greatest extent and, therefore, be most likely to support family-friendly regulations.

To test their assumptions, the study’s authors analyzed data collected among people representing different countries and cultural contexts: the USA, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the international community Reddit, a popular online forum. A total of about 2,700 male and female participants took part in the studies. Results indicated that, although a few of the seven analyzed moral values were indeed related to declared political views, for the most part, the relationship between morality and politics was not consistent. As the analysis revealed, those for whom respect for others was particularly important were generally more conservative; however, such a clear pattern of results could not be observed for other values. In some cases, they were positively related to conservatism; some cases showed a negative association, and no significant relationship was observed in others.

The role of context
Does this mean morality and politics have nothing to do with each other? As the authors suggest, this is only one explanation – and one of the less likely ones. After all, more detailed analyses have shown that the relationship between political conservatism and moral values may, on the one hand, vary depending on the context in which the study is conducted. On the other hand, how we define conservatism can be of great importance. The literature on political ideology distinguishes at least two ways of understanding conservatism: social conservatism (for example, attitudes toward women’s or minority rights) and economic conservatism (describing attitudes toward market issues). Thus, preliminary analyses conducted by the authors suggest that values relating to the family and courage are more closely associated with social conservatism, while those describing justice issues are associated with economic conservatism. The relationships observed, however, often differ between the countries where the research was conducted.

In conclusion, as argued by the authors, the relationship between morality and politics is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Ongoing inquiries on the subject need to consider cultural differences and better measures of political ideology, which means a call for further research, which is heartily encouraged!

For more information:
van Leeuwen, F., van Lissa, C. J., Papakonstantinou, T., Petersen, M. B., & Curry, O. S. (2024). Morality as Cooperation, Politics as Conflict. Social Psychological Bulletin, 19, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.32872/spb.10157

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