Party Affiliations May Drive Morals, Not Vice Versa

Conventional wisdom might assume our party affiliation is determined by personal belief (or moral compass), not vice versa—but that might be wrong, say scientists writing in the American Journal of Political Science. Their research suggests ideology drives morals, rather than the reverse.

"People can be so passionate about political issues, and sometimes these are issues that don't affect them directly. Why is that?" co-author Peter Hatemi, a professor of political science at Penn State said in a statement.

"The moral foundations theory suggests that [we may have] these deep-seated moral compasses that are driving these beliefs, so we wanted to see if that was true."

The moral foundations theory (MFT) Hatemi refers to argues that political attitudes (that is, whether you are conservative or liberal or somewhere in between) are the result of our moral belief system.

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Vintage political poster
Political ideology might be better at predicting morality than vice versa. Picture: Vintage illustration of a donkey, goat, and elephant admonishing citizens to participate in voting ‘Don’t Be the Goat. Get Out & Vote’, 1960s Found Image Holdings/Corbis/Getty

To test that theory, Hatemi and co-authors collated the results of three studies examining the connection between a person's politics and morals. Two were panel studies (one with U.S. respondents and one with Australian respondents) and one was a nationally representative sample involving more than 1,000 people on the crowdsourcing website Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The studies involved a questionnaire examining five foundations of morality. Those included care/harm (i.e. "a sensitivity to human suffering"), fairness/cheating (i.e. sensitivity to exploitation"), loyalty/betrayal (i.e. "sensitivity to group loyalty"), authority/subversion (i.e. "sensitivity to social rank and position") and disgust/purity (i.e. "sensitivity to social threats or taboos").

Importantly, they measured morality and political ideology at more than one period in time—the studies included varied in length between 18 months and 4 years.

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The results of the three studies were consistent, say the paper's authors. While the data did not show strong evidence suggesting morals predict political ideology, there does appear to be evidence suggesting political ideology strongly influences morals. Indeed, a person's ideology was two to three times better at predicting morals than vice versa.

As Hatemi was clear to stress, this does not prove causation.

"But what it does mean is that I may not know all your beliefs or anything about you, but if I know with which political party you identify, I'm going to have a pretty good guess at your position on a lot of issues," he explained.

It also explains the repeated examples of voters excusing or explaining away actions that would otherwise conflict with their moral compass, Hatemi added.

The paper's authors use the example of socially conservative voters who claim to value sexual morality and family values and yet managed to pass off comments regarding President Donald Trump's talk of grabbing women by the genitals as "locker room banter."

Or liberal voters who excused former President Bill Clinton's sexual advances toward subordinate members of staff in spite of their anger against unconsented sexual advances.

"We'll recondition anything, on average, through our ideological lens," he said. "If we see something within our political party that may conflict with our morals, we will often say 'no, it's moral because of this,' or 'no, it really is fair because of that.' We tailor what we find acceptable to our politics."

Party Affiliations May Drive Morals, Not Vice Versa | Politics