27 December 2010

Libertarian Psychology?

The latest issue of Reason has an interesting article in which science correspondent Ronald Bailey reports on the research of a group of social psychologists who are exploring "the Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology." Based on a sample of more than 10,000 libertarians, the research focuses on responses to a Moral Foundations Questionnaire that determines the relative weight respondents assign to different "moral foundations." The same questionnaire had been used on self-identified liberals and conservatives, with each group ranking some foundations relatively irrelevant and others highly relevant. The researchers found that self-identified libertarians ranked all five foundations low. They were: "harm/care," "fairness/reciprocity," "ingroup/loyalty," "authority/respect" and "purity/sanctity." The first two were favored by liberals, the latter three by conservatives.

Bailey reports that the researchers recognized a "liberal academic bias" in the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. That is, it failed to include "liberty" as a "moral foundation." Including it, they found, unsurprisingly, that libertarians ranked it more highly than either liberals or conservatives. For the sake of arguments, you can take the questionnaire yourself here. I just did and I fall far below the "average politically moderate American" score on Purity/Sanctity, but please don't draw conclusions. I'm actually below average on everything but Fairness/Reciprocity, though I'm close to the median on Harm/Care. Make of those facts what you will.

Back to libertarians, the researchers found that "libertarians scored lower than conservatives and liberals on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Low scores on agreeableness indicate a lack of compassion and a proud, competitive and skeptical nature." They're like liberals in their openness to new experiences and their low sensitivity to disgust; on the latter, they apparently experience even less "ick factor" than liberals. They're systemizers rather than empathizers, apparently reinforcing that lack of compassion. Libertarians, strange to report, have a stronger tendency to utilitarian solutions than other groups, putting the greatest good of the greatest number over the value of individual life, though they are individualists in just about every other respect. The lack of compassion may be a factor here, too, as may be (this is my own speculation) a stronger sense of necessity, of having to do what you have to do.

To his credit, Bailey doesn't publicize this research in order to flatter fellow libertarians. He notes a finding indicating that libertarians, like other ideologues, develop "an intellectual feedback loop" in which uncompassionate individualists "find more and more of the libertarian narrative agreeable and begin identifying themselves as libertarian." Bailey finds this account "fairly convincing," but he thinks that any pejorative connotations should be outweighed by an acknowledgement that "libertarian morality...changed history by enabling at least a portion of humanity to escape our natural state of abject poverty." Progress, he implies, depends on libertarian morality because it rejects both the "primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of left-liberals and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives." Love of liberty rather than love of mankind, Bailey concludes, "is what leads to true moral and economic progress." If he means that progress depends on some people not caring at some point what others think of their work, there's probably some truth to his position. But there's a difference between not caring what people think of what you do and not caring what happens to them as a result of what you do. I don't know whether libertarians as a group go to that next level, but I suspect that some do. Whether than indifference has anything to do with progress is a question libertarians and students of libertarianism ought to consider.

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