Haidt’s Biased Survey Evidence on Libertarians (Updated)

In his book The Righteous Mind (review coming soon) and in a coauthored paper with Ravi Iyer and others, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that libertarians are essentially amoral(*): they care less about care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity than conservatives and liberals and care most of all about liberty. (I blogged the latter study here.)

But it turns out that one of the chief surveys on which most of this research rests looks geared toward generating biased outcomes for libertarians specifically. The “Moral Scenarios” survey asks respondents to judge the morality of certain actions, all of which involve the exchange of money. Here is one example:

A professional sports player has played for his hometown team for the past 10 years and has never played anywhere else. Recently, he was offered a lot of money to play for his hometown team’s rival in a different city. Losing their best player to a rival team would upset many people in his hometown. However, he decides to take the offer and play for the rival team.
How morally offensive is this?
Not at all offensive Extremely offensive
How upsetting is this?
Not at all upsetting Extremely upsetting
How angry does this make you feel?
Not at all angry Extremely angry

You can give your reaction on a 1-7 scale.

Now, two things are peculiar about this survey. First, all the questions are about the exchange of money. Other questions are about the morality of a manufacturer’s making a less safe car to save money, auctioning off a place in the liver transplant queue, and so on. Thus, the questions seem almost calculated to elicit defensive responses from libertarians, who more than conservatives and liberals tend to be committed to the justice of market exchange. It’s therefore no surprise that libertarians are less likely to answer that these actions are “morally offensive” than are liberals and conservatives. If the survey consisted of moral dilemmas in which the pursuit of equality (sanctity) had perverse consequences, then liberals (conservatives) would likely be the defensive ones with lower average scores on “moral offensiveness.”

Second, the questions are overwhelmingly tilted toward eliciting an emotional, intuitive response rather than a reflective one. I don’t think of morality as a sliding scale of “offensiveness,” but Haidt does, and he forces his respondents into that philosophical straitjacket. My own response to almost all of these scenarios was “it depends.” There was no option for that, of course. So I chose an answer right in the middle of the scale. It turns out that middling answers on these scenarios puts you well below the typical liberal and conservative responses. Again, since libertarians often tend to elevate reason (possibly excessively) and denigrate emotion as a guide to moral judgment, they are less likely to take extreme positions on these questions. That tendency alone further biases the results toward libertarians’ appearing comparatively amoral.

(*) “Essentially amoral” is my gloss on his findings. He criticizes libertarians as being extreme exemplars of so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) morality, caring only about rights and not about other moral dimensions.

This post has been updated to add the footnote above.

5 thoughts on “Haidt’s Biased Survey Evidence on Libertarians (Updated)

  1. “Jonathan Haidt claims that libertarians are essentially amoral: they care less about care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity than conservatives and liberals and care most of all about liberty.”

    Haven’t read his book or paper, but if that quote above is accurate as to his thought then I know all I need to know about Mr. Haidt. Seriously, I was drawn to my libertarianism by my sense of morality and most of my libertarian leaning friends were too. In response to each in order of listing I have these questions: 1. Care or caring – by who and for whom? Who gets to decide how much I should care about someone else? 2. Fairness – by whose definition? Who gets to decide what’s fair and between whose demands or needs? 3. Authority – The only difference I see between liberals, conservatives and libertarians on this point is that we question authority across the board while liberals and conservatives seem to be okay with authority (even extreme abuses of such) as long as their team is in charge. 4. Loyalty – to what or who and are they deserving of my loyalty? 5. Sanctity – not sure what he means by that exactly. Sanctity of what? Is there a group of diverse people that holds the Constitution in more reverence than libertarians in the U.S.?

    This is why I find the so called social sciences to be anything but science.

  2. I’ll have to bump The Righteous Mind up my reading list so I can see where Haidt’s views stand on that matter at the moment, but I remember commentaries from him a few years backs that said that libertarians and liberals had similar balances of moral sentiments–that is to say more focus on harm and fairness than the other three, upon which conservatives put a comparatively high emphasis. However, I also remember that he was careful to point out that even with the differences in emphasis, moral responses relating to all five moral “foundations” were universal, just differently emphasized, so I would be very surprised to hear that Haidt was calling libertarians “essentially amoral”.

  3. I should be clear: that’s not a direct quote. What he actually says is that libertarians score significantly lower on all five of the traditional dimensions than either liberals or conservatives. (Conservatives care about all five equally, and care about care and fairness-as-proportionality almost as much as liberals.) He also says that, although he is a liberal, conservatives are right to care about all five strongly. There is a strong implicit critique of libertarians, to the extent that he spends any time on them. I suspect, however, that his surveys exaggerate the differences between libertarians and others. Moreover, his interpretations assume that it must be “right” (in some sense) to give high answers across the board. More on this in the forthcoming review.

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