The Science of Libertarian Morality

A new social psychology study explores the moral formation of the libertarian personality.


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 yourmorals.org, 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.

In his earlier work, Haidt surveyed the attitudes of conservatives and liberals using what he calls the Moral Foundations Questionnaire which measures how much a person relies on each of five different moral foundations: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. Typically, conservatives scored lower than liberals on the Harm and Fairness scales and much higher on Ingroup, Authority, and Purity scales. In this case, libertarians scored low on all five surveyed moral dimensions. "Libertarians share with liberals a distaste for the morality of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity characteristic of social conservatives, particularly those on the religious right," notes the study. Libertarians scored slightly below conservatives on Harm and slightly above on Fairness. This suggests that libertarians "are therefore likely to be less responsive than liberals to moral appeals from groups who claim to be victimized, oppressed, or treated unfairly."

The Schwartz Value scale measures the degree to which participants regard 10 values as guiding principles for their lives. Libertarians put higher value on Hedonism, Self-Direction, and Stimulation than either liberals or conservatives and they put less value than either on Benevolence, Conformity, Security, and Tradition. Like liberals, libertarians put less value on Power, but like conservatives they value Universalism less. Universalism is defined as "understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection of the welfare of all people and nature." All three put high value on Achievement. Taking these results into account, Haidt concludes that "libertarians appear to live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g., respect for authority, personal sanctity) are not assigned much importance."

Haidt and his colleagues eventually recognized that their Moral Foundations Questionnaire was blinkered by liberal academic bias by failing to include a sixth moral foundation, Liberty. They developed a liberty scale to probe this moral dimension. (Sample values: People who are successful in business have a right to enjoy their wealth as they see fit; Everyone should be free to do as they choose, as long as they don't infringe upon the equal freedom of others.) And guess what? The researchers found that libertarians dramatically outscored liberals and conservatives when it came to putting a high value on both economic and lifestyle liberty. Most dishearteningly, liberals scored two full standard deviations below libertarians on economic liberty.

Based on this values data, Haidt and his colleagues conclude, "Libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights—libertarians' sacred value. Clearly, libertarians are not amoral. Rather, standard morality scales do a poor job of measuring their one central and overriding moral commitment."

Next the researchers wanted to explore how libertarians had come to embrace their moral code. Or as they put it, "Might libertarians generally be dispositionally more rational and less emotional?" On the Big Five Personality inventory, which is a broad measure of personality traits, libertarians scored lower than conservatives and liberals on Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Extraversion. According to some researchers, low scores on Agreeableness indicate a lack of compassion and a proud, competitive, and skeptical nature. On the other hand, like conservatives, libertarians are not generally Neurotic, tending to be more secure, hardy, and generally relaxed even under stressful conditions. And like liberals, libertarians scored high on Openness to New Experiences, indicating that they have broad interests and are very imaginative.

On a scale measuring disgust when confronting noisome experiences such as maggots in a garbage can, a rat scampering through a park, or spoilt milk, conservatives scored high. Libertarians scored similarly to liberals, but even lower on most measures of disgust. Consequently, the authors suggest, "The low level of disgust sensitivity found in libertarians could help explain why they disagree with conservatives on so many social issues, particularly those related to sexuality. Libertarians may not experience the flash of revulsion that drives moral condemnation in many cases of victimless offenses." (This may well be why I was so deeply puzzled by bioethicist Leon Kass' notorious article advocating a ban on human cloning, "The Wisdom of Repugnance." What wisdom does the reflex of repugnance offer?)

Some of the more intriguing results reported in this study involve the Empathizer-Systemizer scale. The scale measures the tendency to empathize, defined as "the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion," and to systemize, or "the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system." Libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing—and they scored a lot higher. The authors go on to suggest that systemizing is "characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism." They then add, "We might say that liberals have the most 'feminine' cognitive style, and libertarians the most 'masculine.'"  They speculate that the "feminizing" of the Democratic Party in the 1970s may thus explain why libertarians moved into the Republican Party in the 1980s.

Next up is a measure called the Need for Cognition scale which tries to gauge the extent to which people engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activities. Again, libertarians outscored both conservatives and liberals. The researchers also found that libertarians tend to be less flummoxed by various moral dilemmas such as the famous "trolley problem." In the trolley problem, five workmen will be killed by a runaway trolley unless you, in the non-aversive case (1) move a track switch which will divert the train but kill one workman, or in the aversive case (2) push a fat man off a bridge stopping the trolley. Typically, most people will choose to move the switch, but refuse to push the fat man. Why the difference? The utilitarian moral calculus is the same—save five by killing one. In fact, the researchers find that libertarians are more likely to resolve moral dilemmas by applying this utilitarian calculus than are either liberals or conservatives.

Taking the scores on these cognitive and emotional measures into account, Haidt and his colleagues note, "Libertarians are high in Openness to Experience and seem to enjoy effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks. In combination with low levels of emotional reactivity, the highly rational nature of libertarians may lead them to a logical, rather than emotional, system of morality."

But how might the emotional lives of libertarians affect their morality? Not surprisingly, on the Individualism-Collectivism scale, libertarians are more individualistic than either liberals or conservatives. When it comes to groups, libertarians are less identified with their communities than are liberals or conservatives, and like liberals they are less identified with their country, but like conservatives they don't identify with people "all over the world." On the Different Types of Love scale, it turns out that libertarian independence from others is associated with weaker feelings of love than liberals or conservatives have for friends, family, romantic partners, and generic others. The authors note that libertarians also report slightly less satisfaction with life than do liberals and conservatives. The researchers report that libertarians "score high individualism, low on collectivism, and low on all other traits that involved bonding with, loving, or feeling a sense of common identity with others."

Haidt's previous research has looked at the role that personality traits play in producing liberals and conservatives. To explore this area, the researchers adopted a three-level account of personality. Level One consists of dispositional traits such as sensitivity to disgust and Big Five traits. Level Two deals with how people fit their innate dispositions into the world including the adoption of moral attitudes such as those measured by the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Level Three is where people weave together their dispositions and emerging moral attitudes into narratives justifying their moral values and ideological beliefs.

Using this schema, Haidt and his fellow researchers suggest that people who are dispositionally (level 1) low on disgust sensitivity and high on openness to experience will be drawn to classically liberal philosophers who argue for (level 2) the superordinate value of individual liberty. But also being highly individualistic and low on empathy, they feel little attraction to modern liberals' emphasis on altruism and coercive social welfare policies. Haidt and his colleagues further speculate that an intellectual feedback loop develops (level 3) in which such people will find more and more of the libertarian narrative copacetic and begin identifying themselves as libertarian.

From Haidt's social intuitionist perspective, "this process is no different from the psychological comfort that liberals attain in moralizing their empathic responses or that social conservatives attain in moralizing their connection to their groups."

I find Haidt's account of the birth of libertarian morality fairly convincing. But as a social psychologist, Haidt fails to discuss what is probably the most important and intriguing fact about libertarian morality. It changed history by enabling at least a portion of humanity to escape our natural state of abject poverty. Libertarian morality, by rising above and rejecting primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of left-liberals and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives, made the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and modern prosperity possible. Liberals and conservatives may love people more than do libertarians, but love of liberty is what leads to true moral and economic progress.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.