Reason coldly of your grievances, or else depart.

Shakespeare, Romeo And Juliet

All my life I’ve been a left-leaning liberal kind of guy. I believe in social justice, equality and protecting those less fortunate than myself. As such, voting Labour – or at a push LibDem – has always seemed the unarguable moral choice. So why do so many people vote Conservative?

This morning my Twitter timeline was full of outrage and anger against ‘class traitors’ who had betrayed their roots and voted Tory out of naked self-interest and greed. Apparently, the polls were wrong because people were too ashamed to admit they were thinking about turning their backs on all that is moral and just.

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This is a convenient narrative and one I’d always shared until reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In it, he proposes that there are six distinct foundations, or continuums, that act like ‘taste receptors’ on the moral tongue. They are:

  1. Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
  2. Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules.
  3. Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation.
  5. Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority.
  6. Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions.

He explains that those of us on the left tend to value the care/harm foundation most highly. We’re also moved by the liberty/oppression foundation and, in an incomplete way, the fairness/cheating foundation. We see it as morally right to care for others, protect the vulnerable from injustice and oppression, and to divide resources equitably. And, at least in terms of morality, that’s pretty much all we care about.

Those on the right meanwhile care about all six foundations. They see family values as a moral issue in the way those on left tend not to comprehend. Although they care about the care/harm foundation, they care mainly about protecting the groups to which they belong whereas liberals are more likely to care not just about people from different groups, but will also see animal welfare and the environment as moral issues. The sad irony is that when left wing voters caricature the right they are echoing the exact same moral triggers they so revile in other contexts. They feel betrayed, subverted and, it would sometimes seem, degraded.

Of course some voters may have voted Conservative for venal, self-interested motives but not all. Working-class voters who decided in favour of the Tories are not stupid or selfish; they just care about different things. They get upset by ‘scroungers’ soaking up benefits and immigrants ‘taking their jobs’. They feel angry at what they see as wasteful public services supporting the idle, the feckless and the undeserving. They care about ‘our brave boys’ fighting foreign wars and they care – at least to some extent – about God’s views on marriage, homosexuality and abortion.

There’s also some good evidence that the neurotransmitters that incline us towards liberalism or conservatism are genetically heritable. Obviously that doesn’t mean our political affiliations are predestined, just that our neural architecture is predisposed one way or another. Our brains are sufficiently plastic to allow for significant environmental factors to dictate the course of our lives. But still, it’s an interesting idea.

Haidt puts it thus:

People don’t adopt their ideologies at random, or by soaking up whatever ideas are around them. People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety and diversity whilst simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (although not predestined) to become liberals. The tend to develop certain ‘character adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left. People whose genes give them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with the grand narratives of the right.

Whether you agree with or condone conservative concerns is irrelevant; other people’s moral principles are no more Right than ours. But as long as those on the left ignore, or worse scoff at, these concerns they’ll never understand why people vote Conservative. And, maybe more importantly, they’ll struggle to return to power without appealing to the full range of the electorate’s moral receptors.

Maybe we should understand a little more and condemn a little less.

Before you ask – and not that I should have to justify myself – I voted Labour. Although with some reluctance.

Update (13th December 2019): This post was written after the general election in 2015. For those that want to know, I voted LibDem, again with some reluctance, this time round.