Social liberals in the United States and social conservatives have very different values. In terms of political views, they are not really that far from each other. However, in terms of what they would like to see reflected in our culture and how they think about people generally, social liberals and social conservatives are very different. The result, as I understand it, is a lot of anger at people who share different values and instances of iconoclasms that spill over into political realms beyond our social and cultural worlds.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker wrote about the values differences between social liberals and social conservatives. This quote comes from his book which was published in 2011 and still holds true today. “In judging the importance of moral concerns,” Pinker writes, “recall, social liberals place little weight on In-group Loyalty and Purity/Sanctity …, and they place little weight on Authority/Respect. Instead they invest all their moral concern in Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. Social conservatives spread their moral portfolio over all five. The trend toward social liberalism, then, is a trend away from communal and authoritarian values and toward values based on equality, fairness, autonomy, and legally enforced rights.”
Examining social liberals and social conservatives through this lens is helpful for understanding current political arguments. The landmark supreme court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a great tool for examining the moral concerns that each group holds (and is also an example of political iconoclasm from social conservatives).
First, social liberals are not worried about Purity/Sanctity, which means they are not worried about whether a woman is a virgin before marriage. This means they are more likely to think about risky sexual behavior or teenage sexual activity and respond with programs and incentives that increase education and access to birth control relative to social conservatives. Social conservatives who are more likely to be religious conservatives (and in the United States that means Christians who believe that pre-marital sex is a sin), are more likely to believe in an all out taboo against pre-marital sex. Such sex destroys the sanctity of marriage and the purity of the woman in such views. The reaction against legal abortions is a reaction against sexual promiscuity and against behaviors that do not adhere to conservative moral values around purity and sanctity, moral values that social liberals generally don’t care about.
The second dimension of the overturning of Roe v. Wade has to do with Authority/Respect. Social liberals are more likely to question authorities who tell them to behave and act in certain ways. This means they are less likely to listen to leadership figures who tell them not to engage in pre-marital sex or higher risk sex behaviors such as having multiple partners. They are more likely to favor increased personal decision making capabilities and as a result are more likely to favor legal access to abortions. Social conservatives are more likely to value authority and respect as general principals and and are more likely to view strong figureheads and leaders positively (there is a reason why Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies were more accepted among the Republican party than the Democrat party). When religious leaders put taboos in place around women’s bodies and sexual behavior social conservatives are more likely to respect and adhere to those taboos.
Finally, In-Group Loyalty pushes social conservatives to adhere to the values of their religious groups and the political orientations of those around them. When support for a movement against abortions grows, social conservatives will find it hard to go against the movement, especially when they see their identity as tied to the movement or a group supporting the movement. It is not impossible for social liberals to feel the same on any of these scales, but they tend to display less strong ties to values within these areas.
Ultimately, the reality of our social and political system today is that we have very different values between social liberals and social conservatives. The battles over these values play out in our entertainment choices, in our political systems, and in all of our various social interactions. Better understanding where are values align and where they diverge can help us better understand the fights we see in our current social world.