Of Freedom and Fairness

The new culture war is about economic issues, and the side that better sells its idea of fairness will have the upper hand.

By Jonathan Haidt

Tagged Culture War

In 1943, Allied forces achieved a hard-fought victory in the North African campaign, captured Sicily, and began to fight their way up the Italian peninsula. Victories in places such as El-Alamein, Salerno, and Anzio gave America some confidence that the Allies would ultimately prevail in Europe. That confidence allowed the American public to shift more of its attention to the Pacific Theater. Popular magazines such as National Geographic began to publish more maps and articles about the Pacific because Americans suddenly wanted to know a lot more about Saipan and Leyte Gulf.

The same sort of shift is happening now for the left in America’s long-running culture war. From the 1980s until the birth of the Tea Party, most of the action was in the Social Theater, in which the religious right and the secular left waged an existential struggle for the soul of American society. Issues related to sexuality, drugs, religion, family life, and patriotism were particularly vexing, and many people over 40 can recall the names of battlefields such as Mapplethorpe, needle exchange, 2 Live Crew, and the flag-burning amendment. But the left won a smashing victory in the 2012 elections, including the first victories at the ballot box for gay marriage. These triumphs, combined with polling data showing the tolerant attitudes of younger voters, give the left confidence that it will ultimately prevail on most issues in the Social Theater. The power base of the religious right is older, white, rural Protestants, a group that immigration, demography, and urban renewal have consigned to play an ever-shrinking role in American presidential elections.

Both sides are now likely to shift several divisions and carrier task forces over to the Economic Theater of the culture war, where the single most important battle of 2012 was fought—the battle over marginal tax rates for the rich. The left won that battle on January 1, when the House of Representatives voted to raise tax rates for the rich, but victory in the overall war is far less certain. Economic issues such as taxation are moral issues—no less so than social issues like gay marriage—and neither side has full control of the key moral foundations that underlie economic morality: fairness and liberty. Both sides are vulnerable to being outflanked and outgunned. Both sides could use a detailed map of the moral ground on which economic battles are waged.

In this essay I offer such a map, showing the territory currently controlled by Democrats (equality and positive liberty) and by Republicans (proportionality and negative liberty). What remains up for grabs is “procedural fairness”: the integrity of the process by which we decide who gets what. Both parties are open to charges that they don’t want everyone to “play by the same rules.” Both parties have ways of answering this charge and persuading the broader public that its concept of fairness is the better one. The party that wins that point will have the upper hand in this new culture war.

The Six Foundations of Morality

My research in social psychology has focused on morality and how it varies across cultures. I conducted my early research in India and Brazil in the 1990s, trying to understand why so many cultures and religions moralize food and sexual practices—think of kosher laws, or the widespread condemnation of homosexuality—even when such behaviors don’t seem to harm anyone. Why do many cultures treat rules about food and sex as seriously as rules about murder and theft?

I conducted interviews to find out how people feel about harmless taboo violations—for example, a family that eats its pet dog after the dog was killed by a car, or a woman who cuts up her nation’s flag to make rags to clean her toilet. In all cases the actions are performed in private and nobody is harmed; yet the actions feel wrong to many people—they found them disgusting or disrespectful. In my interviews, only one group of research subjects—college students in the United States—fully embraced the principle of harmlessness and said that people have a right to do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. People in Brazil and India, in contrast, had a broader moral domain—they were willing to condemn even actions that they admitted were harmless. Disgust and disrespect were sufficient grounds for moral condemnation.

I had predicted those cross-national differences. What I hadn’t predicted was that differences across social classes within each nation would be larger than differences across nations. In other words, college students at the University of Pennsylvania were more similar to college students in Recife, Brazil, than they were to the working-class adults I interviewed in West Philadelphia, a few blocks from campus. There’s something about the process of becoming comparatively well-off and educated that seems to shrink the moral domain down to its bare minimum—I won’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me, and beyond that, to each her own.

To make sense of these cultural variations, I created a theory in 2003 called “moral foundations theory.” My goal was to specify the “taste buds” of the moral sense. Every human being has the same five taste receptors—tiny structures on the tongue specialized for detecting five classes of molecules, which we experience as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Yet our food preferences aren’t dictated just by our tongues. Rather, they depend heavily on our cultures, each of which has constructed its own cuisine.

In the same way, I aimed to identify the innate psychological systems that were given to us all by evolution, and that each culture uses to construct its unique moral systems. For example, you’ll never find a human culture that makes no use of reciprocity and has no conception of fairness and cheating. Fairness is a really good candidate for being a moral taste bud, yet cultures vary greatly in how they implement fairness. Consider this quote from the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian legal text: “If a builder builds a house and does not construct it properly, and the building collapses and kills the owner, the builder shall be put to death. If it kills the owner’s son, the builder’s son shall be put to death.” You can see the psychology of fairness here, but this is not quite the way we’d implement it.

Drawing on the work of many anthropologists (particularly Richard Shweder at the University of Chicago) and many evolutionary biologists and psychologists, my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that there are six best candidates for being the taste buds of the moral mind: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.

Moral foundations theory helped to explain the differing responses to those harmless taboo violations (the dog-eating and flag-shredding). Those stories always violated the Loyalty, Authority, or Sanctity foundations in ways that were harmless. My educated American subjects (who, in retrospect, I realize were mostly liberal) generally rejected those three foundations and had a moral “cuisine” built entirely on the first three foundations; so if an action doesn’t harm anyone (Care/Harm), cheat anyone (Fairness/Cheating), or violate anyone’s freedom (Liberty/Oppression), then you can’t condemn someone for doing it. But in more traditional societies, the moral domain is broader. Moral “cuisines” are typically based on all six foundations (though often with much less reliance on Liberty), and it is perfectly sensible to condemn people for homosexual behavior among consenting adults, or other behaviors that challenge traditions or question authority.

The Older Culture War

After the 2004 presidential election, in which gay marriage, abortion, patriotism, and other “social issues” had played a large role, I began to apply moral foundations theory to the American culture war. I wanted to find out if left and right in the United States were in some sense different nations, each with its own set of beliefs, facts, and values. Was it correct to say that liberal moral cuisine was based primarily on the first three foundations (which protect individuals), whereas social conservatives were offering a moral cuisine that drew on all six foundations, including Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity (which are more oriented to protecting a tight, binding moral order)?

To find out, my colleagues and I created a website at www.YourMorals.org, where we posted more than 60 psychological surveys and experiments. More than 300,000 people have completed one or more of those surveys. When people register at the site, they indicate their political orientation on a seven-point scale running from “very liberal/left” to “very conservative/right,” with additional options for “don’t know” and “libertarian.” The results on our most basic survey, the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire,” support our basic prediction that liberals rely primarily on the first three foundations, whereas social conservatives use all six. People who identify as libertarian, or who say that they are liberal on social issues but conservative on economic issues, tend to look more like liberals—they have little use for the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations. Where these “economic conservatives” differ from liberals is in having much lower scores on the Care/Harm foundation—they dislike the “bleeding heart” attitude often seen on the left.

Everyone values the first three foundations, although liberals value the Care foundation more strongly. For example, they show the strongest agreement with assertions such as “Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.” But this difference on Care is small compared to the enormous difference on items such as these: “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong.” “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.” “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed.” Those three items come from the scales we use to measure the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, respectively. You can see how social conservatives, whose morality rests in large part on those foundations, don’t see eye to eye with liberals. Basically, liberals want to loosen things up, especially in ways that they believe will make more room for women, African Americans, gay people, and other oppressed groups to escape from traditional strictures, express themselves, and succeed. Conservatives want to tighten things up, especially in ways that they perceive will help parents to raise more respectful and self-controlled kids, and will assist the police and other authorities in maintaining order. You can see how those disagreements led to battle after battle on issues related to sexuality, drug use, religion, family life, and patriotism. You can see why liberals sometimes say that conservatives are racist, sexist, and otherwise intolerant. You can see why social conservatives sometimes say that liberals are libertine anarchists.

But then along came the Tea Party. It was an alliance among social conservatives and libertarians—two groups that are very different in terms of both morals and personality traits. They made common cause on economic issues—especially opposition to big government, the welfare state, and the high taxes required by such a state—and downplayed the social issues that would otherwise divide them. After 2009, the culture war therefore shifted away from the Social Theater, in which the battle is over the legitimacy of the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, on which libertarians score very low—as do liberals. The battle has moved to the Economic Theater, in which the two sides agree that Fairness and Liberty are important, but disagree about what those words mean.

Is the shift temporary? I doubt it. If social conservatives separate from libertarians and the Republican Party tries to retake ground lost in the Social Theater, they’ll win only the occasional Pyrrhic victory, alienating women (as with the “vaginal probe” controversy of 2012) and young people. The millennial generation has been raised on a diet of tolerance, diversity, and a reluctance to make moral judgments. They do not remember World War II or the Cold War, which would have instilled in them a stronger sense of the need for national unity to face down external enemies. Instead, technology links them increasingly to young people all around the world, making it harder to inflame them with pleas revolving around Loyalty. They have little fondness for hierarchy and tradition, so it will be hard to woo them with appeals based on the Authority foundation. And they have no visceral sense of disgust at homosexuality, and have been socialized to be as inclusive as possible, so arguments about sexuality derived from Sanctity will fail to move them.

But the millennials also realize they are likely to get a raw deal when it comes to taxes and entitlements. They are well aware that previous generations borrowed heavily to subsidize their own retirement years, and left the generations to come holding the bag. They are likely to listen carefully to arguments about fairness, taxing, and spending from both parties. So let’s talk about the psychology of fairness.

Three Kinds of Fairness

Arguments about fairness are interminable in part because there are three different kinds, making it easy for left and right to talk past each other. First, we must distinguish between procedural fairness and distributive fairness.

Procedural fairness involves whether impartial and open procedures are used when decisions affecting the well being of others are made. Is the decision-maker impartial? Is the game rigged? Procedural fairness is crucial for the health of a democracy because when people have faith in the system, they are much more willing to accept outcomes that are disadvantageous to themselves. And when they think the system is corrupt, they are much more prone to join populist rebellions. Occupy Wall Street and many Tea Partiers (including Sarah Palin) agree that America suffers from crony capitalism—a direct violation of procedural fairness.

Distributive fairness, in contrast, refers to how we distribute stuff—benefits as well as burdens. Is everyone getting his fair share and doing her fair share? But there are two subtypes of distributive fairness—equality (everyone gets the same) and proportionality (all receive rewards in proportion to their inputs; this is sometimes called equity). This simple distinction can help us understand many of today’s most vexing controversies. Everyone endorses proportionality, but the left simultaneously endorses equality, even when it is in tension with proportionality. The right has no interest in equality for its own sake. Conservatives prefer proportionality, even when it leads to massive inequalities of outcome.

We find this clearly in our data at YourMorals.org. For example, consider this item, which pits equality versus proportionality: “All employees in a job category should be paid the same, regardless of productivity.” Among subjects who call themselves “very liberal,” 30 percent agreed. But just 3 percent of our “very conservative” subjects did. Liberals had to think about it, but for conservatives it’s a no-brainer: Imposing equality of outcomes in the absence of equality of inputs is a violation of fairness as proportionality.

This difference appears in left-right conflicts internationally. For example, François Hollande, the Socialist president of France, wants to ban homework. His concern is that children from single-parent homes are less likely to get help with homework from their parents than are children of married parents, who tend to be much better off financially. He is willing to slow down the education of some children to reduce the inequality of outcomes that results from meritocratic institutions such as the French school system. Conservative commentators in the United States discussed the initiative gleefully as an example of what they see as the left’s immoral commitment to achieving equality at all costs, punishing kids who are willing to work hard—even those poor children who want to work hard despite lacking parental help.

We find the contrast again in statements about fairness from President Obama and Mitt Romney. In 2008, responding to a question from “Joe the Plumber” on whether his taxes would increase if he became more successful, candidate Obama said, “It’s not that I want to punish your success…. I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” The right seized on that phrase—“spread the wealth”—as evidence that Obama was a socialist who favored using tax law to achieve equality, with complete disregard for fairness as proportionality.

Perhaps burned by the reaction to that encounter, Obama has since shied away from such explicit talk about equality of outcomes. The formulation that he introduced in his 2012 State of the Union address, and has repeated many times since then, is interesting in this regard: “We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” The second phrase (“fair share”) is a clear plea for fairness as proportionality, and the third phrase (“same set of rules”) is a clear plea for procedural fairness. But what should we make of that first phrase, “everyone gets a fair shot”? What exactly is a fair shot? Left and right have very different notions, and those competing notions underlie much of the controversy over the proper role of government today.

For conservatives, I believe that “a fair shot” refers to procedural fairness. It means that we all play by the same rules. As long as the law does not favor one group over another, it is not the government’s job to make everybody equally well-endowed at the start of the race. It’s okay if some children start off rich and others start off poor. In fact, there is special honor for the child who starts off poor and succeeds by dint of hard work. And this was precisely the context in which Mitt Romney made his famous “47 percent” remarks in Boca Raton. He began by describing how his father and his wife’s father were raised in homes with little money but a strong work ethic. They achieved the American dream. He then praised the work ethic of Chinese factory workers, willing to work for a pittance to better their lives. He praised Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s parents, who came to America with little money but were never envious of others: “Instead they said that you work hard and go to school, someday we might be able to have enough.” And then, only then, did he get the question about how he was going to “convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself,” to which he responded by dismissing the 47 percent who pay no federal income taxes. So for Romney, it’s proportionality all the way. If you work hard, you’ll succeed. If you don’t, you deserve to fail. If you pay into the treasury, then you deserve benefits. If you don’t, you don’t. Equality simply is not a concern.

Democrats, however, have a very different idea about what constitutes a “fair shot.” It’s not just a matter of procedural fairness; it also involves questions of distributive fairness. To see this, we must discuss liberty alongside fairness.

Two Kinds of Liberty

All Americans value liberty. One of the first manifestos for the Tea Party was titled Give Us Liberty (by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe). Occupy Wall Street renamed Zuccotti Park “Liberty Park.” So as a first pass we might simply say that left and right value liberty equally—they just disagree on the main threat to American liberty. The Tea Partiers say it is an out-of-control federal government; the Occupiers say it is big business and the 1 percent.

But the differences run deeper than that. Liberty comes in two competing flavors: positive and negative. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin coined the terms positive liberty and negative liberty in 1958 as European welfare states were developing new ideas about the relationship between governments and citizens. Negative liberty refers to “the absence of obstacles which block human action.” This is the traditional understanding of liberty: It’s the freedom to be left alone; it’s the freedom from oppression and interference by other people. This is the kind of liberty that, when violated, elicits the psychological state called reactance, which is an angry reaction against perceived pressure or constraint. Reactance makes people do the opposite of what they were pressured to do, even if they were not inclined to act that way beforehand.

Positive liberty, in contrast, refers to having the power and resources to choose one’s path and fulfill one’s potential. Berlin was summarizing a trend in postwar democracies in which some philosophers and activists began to ask: What good is (negative) liberty if you are stuck in a social system that offers you few options? Proponents of positive liberty argue that governments have an obligation to remove barriers and obstacles to full political participation, and to take positive steps to enable previously oppressed groups to succeed.

Perhaps the most eloquent argument for positive liberty was given by Lyndon Johnson in his 1965 commencement speech at Howard University. He began with a celebration of the Civil Rights Act, which granted negative liberty to African Americans: “Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.”

Johnson then made the transition to positive liberty:

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. And this is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result. [emphasis added]

Johnson’s logic still seems sound with regard to African Americans in the 1960s. But does it apply to African Americans today? Or to Mexican immigrants?
Once the left made the pivot from negative to positive liberty, it committed the Democrats to using the power of the federal government to pursue some policies in the name of fairness (as equality) and (positive) liberty that violated many other people’s notions of fairness (as proportionality) and (negative) liberty. These policies were usually deeply unpopular, and they opened up lines of attack that Republicans pursued with great success.

Examples from the 1970s are numerous: Forced busing of public school students to achieve racial integration violated white parents’ sense of negative liberty and triggered strong reactance. Affirmative action in education and hiring violated the idea of procedural fairness. Generous welfare programs violated many people’s notions of proportionality—the government seemed to give out money for nothing, which made it ever easier for men to abandon their children and pass the bill on to the taxpayers. These policies combined to alienate the white working class, driving much of it over to the Republican Party. The title of one book about that era says it all—Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism.

But these conflicts over competing notions of fairness and liberty are not just historical curiosities from a tempestuous time. They are still very much with us. Look at the New Haven firefighters’ case—the controversial 2008 case decided by Justice Sonia Sotomayor before she joined the Supreme Court. A white firefighter named Frank Ricci had gone to great lengths to study for an exam that was necessary for promotion to lieutenant. To overcome his dyslexia, Ricci had paid an acquaintance to read several books into a tape recorder, which Ricci then listened to. Ricci’s hard work paid off, and he qualified for promotion. But because no black firefighters passed the test, the New Haven fire department decided to throw out the results, fearing a lawsuit under federal laws designed to protect racial minorities. Ricci and 17 other firefighters sued. The District Court sided with the city, and Sotomayor was a member of the three-judge panel that heard the case in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. They too sided with the city and against Ricci. (The Supreme Court later overturned the decision and sided with Ricci.)

If you value fairness as proportionality, the initial ruling was an outrage. Ricci worked extremely hard, he overcame obstacles, and he succeeded. If you value procedural fairness, it looks bad, too: Everyone had a fair shot, everyone played by the same rules, but the rules were changed afterwards because they produced a group-based inequality. (The court had found no evidence that the exam was improper or racially biased.) Is this the vision of positive liberty that the left wants to take into the twenty-first century? If so, then the Democrats will be vulnerable in the Economic Theater of the culture war.


The map above shows the lay of the land. The three kinds of fairness are the lands west of the river; the two kinds of liberty lie to the east. Democrats have undisputed control over the northern provinces of equality and positive liberty, which are related concepts supporting notions of social justice. Republican forces are massed in the south—they control most of proportionality and negative liberty, and a portion of procedural fairness. So what would it take to shift the border? What would it take for each side to capture more territory?

The Coming Battles

For the Republicans, their main weakness is clear: procedural fairness. Especially after Mitt Romney’s campaign, many Americans think of the Republican Party as the party of the plutocracy, trying to use the levers of government to maintain privileges, low taxes, and political access for the super rich. Republicans perennially oppose efforts to reduce the role of money in government and rein in the excesses of Wall Street. Democrats sell plenty of influence too, but at least they make visible efforts to make politics more procedurally fair.

Republicans could also challenge Democrats on the main piece of negative liberty that Democrats own—sexual liberty. If libertarian influence grows over time while Protestant social conservatives weaken, the party could someday drop its opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage, allowing Republicans to claim that they are truly the party of liberty, not just in the boardroom but in the bedroom as well. (The same thing goes for drug use and decriminalization—Republicans currently oppose negative liberty in the rec room.)

Republicans seem to have no interest in positive liberty, but some of their most innovative young thinkers can be seen laying the groundwork for an eventual move into that territory. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, for example, have been writing for years about how the Republican Party can become the party that helps the poor and working class achieve upward mobility in part by strengthening two-parent families. The goal is not social justice per se, but it is an attempt to use government to help groups that start off in life with a huge disadvantage—a lower level of family stability.

For Democrats, the map shows areas of opportunity and risk as well. The Democrats often pursue “nanny state” policies that are good for public health, but that strengthen Republican claims on negative liberty—the Affordable Care Act and its individual mandate being the most prominent case in point. Another change for Democrats would be to back away from their habitual preference for government regulation of businesses by applying stricter cost-benefit tests, as Cass Sunstein did as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during Obama’s first term. Indeed, the Obama Administration implemented fewer new regulations in its first three years than did the George W. Bush Administration in its first three years. Democrats have historically claimed to stand for the “little guy,” so it is striking that small businesspeople tilt strongly Republican. That could change, particularly if Republicans continue to be seen as the party of big business. If Democrats can keep showing that they are responsive to the needs of the business community, and that they aim for fewer and smarter regulations, they might eventually retake some portion of negative liberty.

Democrats could also gain some ground on proportionality, particularly the negative side of proportionality: punishment for cheaters and slackers. The Democrats earned the label “soft on crime” in the 1970s, because they seemed to disregard proportionality out of compassion for criminals or concerns about racial equality. Bill Clinton made some progress reversing that association, and the plummeting crime rates of the 1990s reduced the pressure. But the Democrats should still be mindful of opportunities to punish cheaters—opportunities they have traditionally passed up. Tort reform, for example, is popular. Many people are outraged by stories about frivolous lawsuits, which insult our sense of proportionality. Whether or not such lawsuits are major drivers of health-care costs, Democrats seem to be the party protecting trial lawyers (who are major donors), while Republicans have long been the party showing moral outrage and calling for changes. The Obama Administration took a step in the right direction in 2011 when it launched a drive to help states overhaul their medical malpractice procedures, including the creation of special health courts. Such courts—opposed by the trial lawyers’ lobby—would have specially trained judges able to resolve malpractice claims quickly, awarding compensation from a set schedule. No more juries handing out extravagant settlements after long trials filled with testimony from dubious experts. Such courts would increase procedural fairness as well as proportional fairness.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Democrats will face in the coming years is to rethink their commitment to race-based affirmative action, and a conception of positive liberty in which African Americans are the focal group, as they were (quite properly) in Lyndon Johnson’s time. The race gap in education and achievement has been shrinking in America for 60 years, whereas the class gap has been rising, particularly since the 1980s. It is now twice as large as the black-white race gap, by some measures. It is therefore increasingly difficult to offer a moral justification for giving hiring and admissions preferences to the children of married African-American lawyers, rather than to the children of white coal miners or single mothers.

Andrew Jackson’s campaign slogan from 1820 seems apt for our time: “Equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.” If Democrats can manage the pivot from race to class in the coming years, and can make the argument for how and why government programs should be used to create positive liberty for the poor, in ways that violate neither proportionality nor the negative liberty of others, they’ll be able to reclaim Jackson’s slogan. It will be an inspiring banner for them to wave in the new culture war over fairness and liberty.


This article originally referred to François Hollande as the Prime Minister of France. He is the President. We regret the error.

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Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist. He is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU-Stern School of Business. His most recent book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

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