Are Authority and Loyalty Virtues?

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Jonathan Haidt and other researchers probing the differences between liberals and conservatives have identified five values that help define political preferences:
  • Compassion
  • Fairness
  • Authority
  • Loyalty
  • Purity
Liberals tend to place greatest importance on compassion and fairness whereas conservatives tend to value all five roughly equally.  Most interesting to me though is how that plays out in policy, especially foreign policy.

Liberals perceive the US as a wealthy country capable of offering a hand up to less privileged nations. They are motivated to act by images of people suffering.  Meager as they are, foreign aid programs that support food self-sufficiency, civil society, environmental protection, clean water, micro-credit lending, and medical care are supported by liberals.  When conflicts arise, liberals hope either to stay out of them (fairness) or prefer a peace-keeping role or sometimes intervention on behalf of whichever side represents justice. Clinton's decision to intervene in Somalia was an example of a compassionate foreign policy.  Obama's role in overthrowing Qaddafi was more pragmatic perhaps, but still a good example of the fairness motivation.  Rather than providing direct support to either side, imposing the no-fly zone over Libya allowed the rebels a fair chance.

In the past ten years, Americans have had to consider the issue of torture, not torture by foreign tyrants but by America.  The shame of Abu Ghraib and the embarrassment of water boarding, authorized at the highest levels of our government, have shaken our sense of who we are as a people.  For liberals, torture can never be permitted and there is no grey line. Compassion and fairness align with the Geneva Convention and our Constitution's 8th Amendment:

"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
Keep in mind as you read though that not all Democratic presidents are liberals and not all Republican presidents are conservatives.  Republican ex-general President Eisenhower spoke out against the military industrial complex and was critical of the penchant for war.

Conservatives on the other hand see the US as the world's greatest power, one whose authority dare
not be questioned.  Insulting the national honor deserves military action (though the pragmatists may hold back) and unilateral action is more respected than advocating for unified actions through the United Nations. Loyalty to America is paramount and challenging a military action is treasonous.  Conservatives might also support some foreign aid, though tend to prefer military aid to rulers loyal to America.  The loyalty test and strategic value are the determining factors.

The invasion of Iraq is an example of authority, loyalty and purity.  American authority would of course prevail and quickly.  Vice President Cheney predicted in March 2003 that the war would last "weeks, not months". Hussein's offenses against the US included threatening the President's father. Had Iraq been a Christian nation, the decision to wage all-out war would have been more difficult.  Prevailing stereotypes about Muslims though won the purity vote as well.

Perhaps an even better example was the first President Bush's invasion of Panama in 1989.  Manuel Noriega had strong CIA ties over decades and had worked closely with Bush in his role as CIA head and as vice president. He had even assisted in the Iran-Contra Affair under Reagan. Relations had soured in the 1980s though and there had been calls for military action.  In the US, the President was called a wimp for not invading.  When he did order the invasion, it was triggered by a threat against American diplomats.  Bush sent the marines and then brought the captured Noriega back to the US. The US imprisoned him from 1990 until 2007.  American authority was upheld and Noriega's disloyalty -- his turn against the US after having been an agent of it -- punished.

And what riles conservatives about President Obama's foreign policy?  Their belief that the President has apologized for America around the world.  If he had done so, he would be insulting American authority to wield power without question and he would be seen as disloyal.  Not to mention the birthers and fringe groups who rail about the President's purity.

Naturally, most Americans -- liberals and conservatives -- support war when their country is attacked (or perceived as being attacked).  The true pacifists (they're both liberals and conservative libertarians) are out-shouted and wield little influence.


  1. Wow Linda, you really make me think. I find myself so in the middle on politics. I'm certainly not conservative, but I wouldn't say that I am liberal either. These five values, honestly I wasn't aware of how they figured in politically. Thanks for the info. Thanks for making my brain wonder!

  2. Wilson invaded Europe
    FDR invaded Europe
    Truman invaded Korea
    and LBJ invaded Vietnam

    So does that make them conservatives?


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