Fifty years ago, if you knew whether someone was a liberal or a conservative politically, you didn’t necessarily know a lot about that person’s moral values; party affiliation told you even less about someone’s preferences in restaurants or movies. There was so much diversity within each party that stereotyping was harder and cross-party alliances were much easier.
Nowadays you can make predictions about people’s values and votes from just a few seemingly unrelated things, such as whether they find exotic cuisines appealing or how messy their desks are. A research institute has survived more than five hundred thousand about their personality traits and moral values. They found very consistent differences between political beliefs in a few values.
For example, how strongly do you agree or disagree with these two statements:
1) “Compassion is the most important virtue.”
2) “The world would be a better place if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences?”
The liberals in the sample strongly identify with the compassion statement and strongly reject the failure statement. In contrast, those with conservative political beliefs endorse both statements mildly and equally.
What’s going on here? A useful way to think about these differences, especially when discussing view-point on economic policies, is that it’s a battle between the law of karma and the principle of compassion. Conservatives generally want to live in a world governed by karma, the ancient Hindu idea that people reap the fruits of their actions, both good and bad.
Karma was usually thought of as a law of the universe, like the law of gravity. Part of the reason conservatives have historically opposed the growth of the welfare state is the belief that’ it grants people a sort of karmic exemption, allowing those who are lazy or irresponsible to draw resources from those who are more hardworking. Conservatives agree that the world would be a better place if we “let j unsuccessful people fail” whether it be an individual, company or even a country.
Liberals, by contrast, would prefer to live in a world governed by compassion. They are more likely to give people second and third chances. For example, they are more likely to endorse this statement: “It is generally better to show mercy than to take revenge.” Karma and compassion are both necessary pillars of a well-functioning society. Conservatives are right that a world in which the law of karma applies tends to work better than one in which it doesn’t. Results from studies in experimental behaviour illustrate that cooperation rates skyrocket when cheaters expect to be punished.
However, the law of karma is not real. In free-market societies, hard work does pay off much better than laziness, yet cancer, unemployment and other forms of bad luck can strike anyone. And cheaters, exploiters and law-breakers do often prosper. If we want to live in a truly just world, in which honest work is rewarded, cheaters are punished and people can bounce back from misfortune and mistakes, we’ll have to engineer it ourselves. Karma and compassion don’t balance themselves; that’s a job we must do.