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A look at libertarian morality

Libertarian PorupineYou know your libertarian friend? The one who votes Republican but scoffs at “family values,” who posts Ron Paul quotes on Facebook and thinks taxes are a form of theft? Well, thanks to some new research, we now know more about him (or her). The results are both unsurprising and shocking. Obviously, libertarians prize personal liberty and freedom above just about everything, but they don’t value the tight, bonded relationships that people throughout history have depended on for survival. This means that libertarianism isn’t just a political stance – it’s a new way of looking at human social life.

University of Southern California psychologist Ravi Iyer teamed up with University of Virginia colleague Jonathan Haidt (now at NYU) and several other colleagues to see how libertarians compared with ordinary liberals and conservatives in a massive online sample. Haidt is well-known for formulating moral foundations theory, which claims that human morality can be understood as drawing on five basic instincts: harm avoidance, fairness, respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and purity. Previous findings published by Haidt and his doctoral student Jesse Graham (who also contributed to this research) had shown that conservatives tended to emphasize all five of these foundations equally, while liberals mostly ignored authority, ingroup loyalty, and purity, while strongly emphasizing harm avoidance and fairness.

This pattern of moral profiles, which has been replicated across different cultures and nations, suggests that conservatives actually feel moral emotions differently than liberals, and vice-versa. But, of course, not all conservatives and liberals are the same. Libertarians are often lumped in with conservatives in contemporary American politics, but they tend not to share several of the traits of traditional conservatives – particularly respect for tradition and authority. Iyer and the other researchers run a well-known survey website,, and they decided to use this online platform to see whether these differences actually showed up in surveys measuring personality type, moral opinions, and similar characteristics.

Crunching data from over 150,000 visitors who took online surveys at between 2007 and 2011, Iyer and the other researchers found that libertarians did, indeed, have a unique personality profile that distinguished them from both conservatives and liberals. As you might expect, libertarians rated themselves as economically conservative, but socially liberal. But perhaps more surprisingly, libertarians showed a moral profile that was distinctly their own: like liberals, they didn’t place much importance on the moral dimensions of authority, ingroup loyalty, or purity. But like conservatives, they didn’t emphasize the “liberal” dimensions of harm avoidance and fairness, either. This meant that, compared with liberals and conservatives, they actually seemed to feel fewer moral emotions, period.

                                     Ravi quote

Or did they? A new, sixth moral dimension, “liberty,” was tested on a small subset of the site’s total visitors,  and it seemed to garner the lion’s share of libertarian interest. Compared with both liberals and conservatives, libertarians more strongly endorsed the moral importance of both economic and lifestyle liberty. The authors interpreted this result to mean that libertarians actually felt a weight of moral concern when it came to being left alone to do what they wanted, or to decide how to use their own economic resources.

No surprise, right? They’re called “libertarians,” after all. But remember: this emphasis on personal liberty seemed to come at the expense of other types of moral concern, such as fairness, respect for authority, or concern about harm to others. Libertarian morality not only showed an empirically different profile than that of liberals or conservatives, but it emphasized liberty and individual autonomy to an extraordinary extent.

Another interesting finding had to do with personality. The so-called Big Five personality inventory breaks down personality into five distinct tendencies: openness to new experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism. Historically, many researchers have used the Big Five to look at the difference between conservatives and liberals. Generally, the most common finding is that liberals are much more open to new experiences than conservatives, while conservatives tend more toward conscientiousness and, in some studies, agreeableness. (Some researchers also think that conservatives may be less neurotic than liberals, and Iyer's findings mildly support this view.)

Libertarians less connected graphIn this study, Iyer and his colleagues found that libertarians again had their own unique personality profile. Like liberals, libertarians were significantly more open to new experiences than conservatives. And along with conservatives, they reported less neurosis than liberals. But they were significantly less agreeable, conscientious, and extraverted than both conservatives and liberals. This finding stood up to multiple statistical analyses, leaving the authors to conclude that libertarians seemed to have a recognizable personality style: one that was highly open to new experiences and stimulus, emotionally steady, and not quite as motivated by getting along with others.

Finally, libertarians seemed to enjoy thinking more than either liberals or conservatives. In a test of empathic versus systemizing tendencies, libertarians were the only group that scored higher in systemizing than in empathizing. In this context, empathizing refers to interest in other people, while systemizing refers to fascination with inanimate or abstract objects. Thus, libertarians showed themselves to be highly stimulated, not by other people, but by things and ideas. (See the graph to the right on libertarians' patterns of social connection.) This finding dovetailed with libertarians’ results on the Different Types of Love scale, which showed that libertarians reported feeling less love than liberals or conservatives toward different groups, including friends, romantic partners, and humanity in general. Meanwhile, they also reported higher need for cognition, or motivation to engage in thinking and problem-solving.

Iyer’s findings paint a fascinating, if sometimes challenging, portrait of libertarians in today’s complex political landscape. Like liberals, libertarians are hungry for novel experiences and often dismissive of tradition, authority, and concerns about purity or sacredness. They’re also not as conscientious, detail-oriented, or agreeable as conservatives, and they’re much more stimulated by intellectual and abstract challenges (they performed better or tests of analytic thinking, too). In some ways, libertarians almost seem more liberal than liberals – further away from the warm confines of tradition, more on the edge of established cultural boundaries. In the past, human social arrangements were almost always tight, emotionally weighty, and powered by shared ritual, value, and religious tradition. If culture is a laboratory, libertarians are cooking up quite an innovative, and unprecedented, experiment indeed.

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+2 #3 Michael DeAmicis 2013-07-03 00:34
Thanks for the article and the work behind it. This helps me understand myself better which is a new thing for me. I never cared for politics or news growing up and spent 14 years In the military. 12 acive 2 guard. After I got out as my first daugter was born I started waking up to a lot of things. Then went to college and had the phycology and polysciclasses that really jump started my self realization. I never even understood the two parties or a need for them. I have always been an American and can't undestand why anyone would want to be caled anything else. I have the big piture now though and have been slowly identifying myself with the libertarion mind. I hate boxes and labels though. This article is talking about me to the T. Every word of it identifies with me. I have a lot of repect for you and your work based on this treatse. Thanks.
+1 #2 Connor W 2013-07-02 15:05
#James Dow, thanks for your comment. It's always a risky thing to put people in fixed types, because real life is always more complex and variegated than our models of it – by definition. However, models serve a purpose. They give us traction over the "buzzing, blooming confusion" of the world (as William James put it) by giving us categories and predictions to understand it with. This model of libertarian morality I've reported on is undoubtedly flawed and incomplete. But it's based on real data, and it gives us useful perspectives on libertarians and the political spectrum.

As far as DNA goes, of course genes and culture evolve in tandem, and of course there are all kinds of feedback loops in this process. It's what's known as "niche construction." I'm not sure what you're getting at with the plasticity point, though. Do you mean to say that the types of personality and cognitive profiles that tend toward libertarianism are changeable? Do they need to be?
+2 #1 James Dow 2013-06-29 18:14
New views of sociobiology now emphasize the plasticity of genes. One should be careful when putting people in fixed types. The DNA in the brain can actually change. People change their personalities. How they do this is the interesting question.

See: Marla B. Sokolowski and Joel D. Levine. 2010. Chapter 1: Nature–nurture interactions. In Székely T., J. Komdeur, and A. J. Moore, eds. 2010. Social behaviour: genes, e ecology and evolution. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.
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