Is Honesty a Conservative Moral Value?

I mean cap-C Conservative. Do Conservatives and Republicans value honesty?

I ask in the context of Jonathan Haidt’s research into moral spheres, and which spheres are important to different political groups. (Blogged here and here.)

In response to Haidt’s $1,000 challenge for people to come up with additions to his five spheres, Tim Dean proposes the one that also came immediately to my mind when I first saw the challenge: truth/honesty.

“You should tell the truth” is obviously a widespread or perhaps universal moral intuition. (Though of course it’s not categorical — none of these intuitions is.) And it’s easy to understand how that predilection would have evolved.

I don’t know if truth/honesty merits a place in Haidt’s pantheon — there are complicated issues of interacting and overlapping moral spheres, touched on below. But I am curious about the same thing Tim Dean is:

Another interesting test would be to see how self declared liberals and conservatives respond to issues of truth/honesty. My guess would be that conservatives would rate truth/honesty as being more important than liberals.

My intuition: Conservatives would be shown to rank honesty differently depending on the context of the situation.

• In private, direct, and especially face-to-face situations, I think there’s a 50% probability that Tim is right, that conservatives would care more about honesty than liberals. Significantly more? Very low odds, I think.

• In the public realm — especially the realm of public debate — I think they would be shown to rank honesty very low relative to other spheres, especially group loyalty.

I would suggest that this is a result of conservatives’ greater concern for group loyalty. When the context is groups — promoting them, defending them — both the truth and the fairness realms are downgraded to the benefit of the loyalty realm. In a further (meta) downgrading of honesty, they would be expected to give lip service to honesty while failing to practice it. Think: “fair and balanced.”

This highlights the problematic nature of Haidt’s realms — the interactions between those realms — and the need for research that teases out those interactions. It also highlights the need to distinguish different groups’ moral weightings in different contexts.

Unfortunately, those necessities would/will turn Haidt’s fairly easy-to-understand model into a far more complex field of study — much as genetic interactions and epigenetics have done to genetics.






3 responses to “Is Honesty a Conservative Moral Value?”

  1. Curt Gardner Avatar

    One thought on this. I’ve heard the opinion that “liberals are obsessed with hypocrisy” – and I’d say that (some) conservatives more frequently feel that people should “do as I say, not as I do” (i.e. that they’re propounding a notion that would be best if most people followed it, even if they themselves don’t). This is not quite the same as honesty in general, but it does seem to point out differing attitudes.

  2. Tim Dean Avatar

    Interesting distinction between public and private. You could well be correct that there is different application in different circumstances – I would expect that to be the case for all of the moral foundations.

    However, I still suspect that honesty – particularly the breach thereof – is a more serious moral transgression for a conservative than for a liberal. Honour, trust, proving oneself a reliable in-group member etc.

    @Curt – I think the reason liberals are obsessed with hypocrisy is because of the influence of post-modernism and relativism. If one accepts relativism, then all one has to use as a moral compass is one’s own perspective and convictions. Contravening an externally imposed moral code is one thing – arguably you’re still behaving in a way consistent with your own beliefs and values, but they happen to be in conflict with the external moral code – but contravening your own moral code is somehow worse. It’s ‘bad faith’. It means you have *no* moral compass, or at least no consistent one. Conservatives, on the other hand, can disobey the external moral code for their own reasons but demand that others obey the code.

  3. Asymptosis Avatar

    @Curt Gardner

    I hadn’t heard that. If it’s true, I have two possible hypotheses to explain it:

    1. Because they’re faced with it so constantly. i.e. Red-ink Republicans who have skyrocketed the national debt since Reagan sanctimoniously preaching reduced debt, and blaming that debt on Democrats.

    2. Democrats do, in fact, value honesty/truth-telling more highly–at least in the public space. I’m sorry that Haidt seems to be testing integrity, not truthfulness, as a moral value.

    @Tim Dean

    This also seems to confute integrity and honesty, but it might make sense: One who lives by one’s own moral code would tend to place high value on personal, internal integrity. Hence behaviors that demonstrate lack of that internal integrity in others would be quite bothersome. In evolutionary terms, it would look like cheating, free-riding on the integrity of others.

    P.S. Choosing and building one’s own moral values from a broad range of sources is no more “relativist” than cherry-picking some values out of one particular source, such as the Bible, while ignoring others from that same source. Arguably much less so.