Monday, July 04, 2022

Political Conservatives and Political Liberals Have Similar Views about the Goodness of Human Nature

with Nika Chegenizadeh

Back in 2007, I hypothesized that political liberals would tend to have more positive views about the goodness of human nature than political conservatives. My thinking was grounded in a particular conception of what it is to say that "human nature is good". Drawing on Mengzi and Rousseau (and informed especially by P.J. Ivanhoe's reading of Mengzi), I argued that those who say human nature is good have a different conception of moral development than do those who say it is bad.

On my interpretation, those who say human nature is good have an inward-out model of moral development, according to which all ordinary people have something like an inner moral compass: an innate tendency to be attracted by what is morally good and revolted by what is morally evil, at least when it's up close and extreme. This tendency doesn't require any particular upbringing or specific cultural background. It's universal to all normally developing humans. Of course it can be overridden by any of a number of factors -- self-interest, cultural learning, situational pressures -- and sometimes it speaks only with a quiet voice. But somewhere in the secret heart of every Nazi killer of Jews, every White supremacist lyncher, every evil tyrant, every rapist and abuser and vile jerk is something that understands and rebels against their horrid actions. Moral development then proceeds by noticing that quiet voice of conscience and building upon it.

Emblematic of this view, picture the pre-school teacher who confronts a child who has just punched another child. "Don't you feel bad about what you did to her?" the teacher asks, hoping that this provokes reflection and a feeling of sympathy from which better moral behavior will grow in the future.

Those who say human nature is bad have, in contrast, an outward-in model of moral development. On this view, what is universal to humans is self-interest. Morality is an artificial social construction. Any quiet voice of conscience we might have is the result of cultural learning. People regularly commit evil and feel perfectly fine about it. Moral development proceeds by being instructed to follow norms that at first feel alien and unpleasant -- being required to share your toys, for example. Eventually you can learn to conform whole-heartedly to socially constructed moral norms, but this is more a matter of coming to value what society values than building on any innate attraction to moral goodness.

Thus, a liberal style of caregiving, which emphasizes children exploring their own values, fits nicely with the view that human nature is good, while a conservative style of caregiving, which emphasizes conformity to externally imposed rules, fits nicely with the view that human nature is bad.

At least, that has been my thought. Some political scientists have endorsed related views. For example, John Duckitt and Kirsten Fisher argue that believing that people are ruthless and the world is dangerous tends to correlate with having more authoritarian politics.

For her undergraduate honors thesis, Nika Chegenizadeh decided to put these ideas to an empirical test. She recruited 200 U.S. participants through Prolific, an online platform commonly used to recruit research subjects.

Participants first answered eleven questions about the morality of "most people" -- for example, "Most people will return a lost wallet" and "For most people it is easier to do evil than good" (6-point response scale from "strongly agree" [5] to "strongly disagree" [0]). Next, they answered five questions about their own helpful or unhelpful behavior in hypothetical situations. For example:

While walking in a park, you notice someone struggling to carry a box of water bottles. Which of the following are you most likely to do? 
o Continue walking your path. 
o Help them carry their box.

Next, participants were explicitly asked about human nature:

Human nature can be defined in terms of what is characteristic or normal for most human beings. It describes the way humans are inclined to be if they mature and develop normally from when they are first born. 
Based on the definition given, which of the following two statements better represents your view? 
o Human nature is inherently bad. 
o Human nature is inherently good.

Now one could quibble that this definition of human nature doesn't map exactly onto philosophical conceptions in Mengzi, Xunzi, Hobbes, or Rousseau. And it's certainly the case that Mengzi and Rousseau can allow that human nature is good despite most people acting badly most of the time. But those issues are probably too nuanced to convey accurately in a short amount of time to ordinary online research participants. It's interesting enough to work with Nika's approximation for this first-pass research.

Next, participants were asked their political opinions on a some representative issues. For example: "The federal government should make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed" (6-point agree/disagree scale), "Do you favor or oppose requiring background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales?" (favor, neither favor nor oppose, oppose), and "Where would you place yourself on this political scale?" (Liberal, Leaning Liberal, Leaning Conservative, Conservative). The questionnaire concluded with some demographic questions.

To Nika's and my surprise, we found no evidence of the hypothesized relationship.

The simplest test is to consider whether participants who describe themselves as politically liberal are more likely than those who describe themselves as politically conservative to say "human nature is inherently good". In all, 79% (118/150) of participants who described themselves as liberal or leaning liberal said that human nature is inherently good, compared to 74% (37/50) of participants who described themselves as conservative or leaning conservative -- a difference that is well within statistical chance (two-proportion z = 0.66, p = .51).

Here is the breakdown by political leaning:

[click to enlarge and clarify; error bars are +/- 1 standard error]

For a possibly more sensitive measure, we created a composite "people are good" score by averaging the eleven questions in the first part of the survey (e.g., "most people will return a lost wallet"), reverse scoring the negative items. As expected, people who said that "human nature is inherently good" scored higher, on average, on the people-are-good composite scale (2.5) than respondents who said that "human nature is inherently bad" (1.9) (pooled SD = .52, t[198] = 7.29, p < .001). We then converted the political leaning answers to a 0-3 scale by converting "liberal" to 3, "leaning liberal" to 2, "leaning conservative" to 1, and "conservative" to 0. We then checked for a correlation. If political liberals have more positive views about the moral behavior of the average person, we should find a positive correlation between these two measures.

Again, and contrary to our hypothesis, we found no evidence of a positive correlation. The measured correlation between the "people are good" composite score and political leaning was almost exactly zero (r = .00, p = .95).

How about using our indirect measure of political liberalism? To test this, we created a composite political liberalism score by scoring the most liberal response to each political question as 1, the most conservative response as 0, and intermediate responses as intermediate, then averaging. As expected, this correlated very highly with self-described political leaning (r = .78, p < .001). Again, there was no statistically detectable correlation with the "people are good" score (r = -.07, p = .35).

Looking post-hoc at individual items, we do find two items concerning human nature and human goodness that correlate with political leaning. Agreement with "Children need to be taught right from wrong through strict rules and harsh punishments" correlated negatively with self-described political liberalism at r = -.40 (p < .001) and composite political liberalism at r = -.41 (p < .001). And political liberals were more likely to opt for "natural consequences" to the prompt:

Your child has purposefully disobeyed the rules you set for them. Which of the following are you most likely to do?
o Let them live with the natural consequences that they have made. 
o Opt for hands-on punishment by grounding them (taking their phone/technology away and not leaving the house).

For example, 8% (4/50) of respondents who were conservative or leaning conservative chose "natural consequences", compared to 46% of respondents who were liberal or leaning liberal (two proportion z = 6.79, p < .001).

In retrospect, these two questions were outliers. They directly concern parenting styles rather than more generally whether people are inherently good or respondents' hypothetical helpful or unhelpful behavior. Parenting styles and beliefs about human nature are closely connected on my theory, but the surface content of these questions is different from the others, and my theory might well be wrong.

As the numbers above suggest, liberals and conservatives do differ on these two parenting-related questions in the direction my theory would predict. Furthermore, also as my theory would predict, "liberal" answers on these questions correlate with agreement that "human nature is inherently good" (r = .27, r = .31, both p's < .001). However, when we get away specifically from questions about parenting to more general questions about the goodness or helpfulness of people, we don't see the relationship Nika and I expected. In general, political liberals seem to have no more optimistic a view of human nature than do political conservatives.

Full stimulus materials and raw data available here.


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Not sure I can, in good conscience and with a straight face, believe this is true. Anyone can say or write anything, if they believe it will make good press. A recent comment on another blog post summed things up pretty concisely for me. That commenter asserted that the R party is all about power, which includes being about money as well. Contrariwise, the people in the D camp are concerned with doing what is right.
I will grant these are broad generalizations. I will, however, contend that records speak volumes. To me, as further stated by another person or two, there is a clear and present danger posed right now. That danger is not a result of people wanting to do the right thing(s).

Howie said...

I wonder if you could pose the question differently as to reflect political candidates liberals and conservatives would support or social policies.
That would reflect your theory of dispositions I'd think
Perhaps you could survey in a constellation of ways- I'd need more time to think about it
Or perhaps both political populations breakdown in complex ways so there would be another variable related to conservatism and liberalism or in addition to them that would pick it up
Perhaps you could use dustbowl empiricism to track variables that correlate with liberalism/conservatism and goodness/ badness
What's happening could be complex or interesting

Howie said...

To be more concrete: perhaps the active variables turn out to be openness to experience or conscientiousness or agreeableness or religiosity- these may match and interact with your chosen variables

Arnold said...

Three forces in-of ourselves, good bad and neutral...

Conscientious dispositions sometimes appear...

The objectivity of movement in nature...

David Duffy said... ;) (see "nature of man, constructive").

From collaborators with our group, but only indirectly relevant:

The Wilson-Patterson Inventory includes items on "inborn conscience", "apartheid" and "white superiority" - I can't see how people responding favourably to the latter two can believe in the goodness of the human nature of at least one subset of the population.

Arnold said...

...optimism-optimal when related to history...
Then I consider the optimism of cave men to the optimism of modern men...

Is it, what is in front of us hasn't changed...'s that we changed, our disposition changed...

Why are we disposed to change, we see galaxies live and die...
...humanity live and die...

Is there a objective nature to change...

Callan said...

I'd be tempted to test if it's the reverse - for the parenting question use a scenario where in group favoritism is tempting to engage in rather than policing children. Maybe the child runs along a beach and their careless running seems like it could have kicked another child's sandcastle. The child comes up beaming with a beautiful shell to show you.

Perhaps given options like 'admire the child's find', conservatives may favour this option more than liberals and liberals may favour the 'Investigate the other child's castle' option more. Perhaps the results come up with no real correlation because conservatives do find human nature to be good, but liberals only say they do. And actually liberal actions reflect more of a predisposition to find human nature to be bad?

Pilot Guy said...

Eric - I just wanted to thank you for the decades-worth of content that has inspired me and motivated me. I have been accepted to an accelerated PhD Philo program and I have chosen to engage with it in no small part due to your ongoing engagement with fascinating and impactful Philo challenges - so thanks from me!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi all! Thanks for the comments and sorry about my slow reply -- I've been traveling.

Paul: I confess I am still drawn to the idea that human nature is fundamentally good -- but I do think that conscience often speaks with only a quiet voice.

Howie: Yes, I agree that there's more that could be explored here. Maybe Nika or I will do a follow-up. There's probably something to be found, but we don't seem to have angled in on it in quite the right way.

Arnold: We have changed as the world around us has changed, as the result of the changes we have wrought upon it.

Callan: Interesting conjecture! That would make a good follow-up.

Pilot-Guy: Terrific! Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad my work has been an inspiration and motivation!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David Duffy: Thanks for those suggestions! I'm traveling right now, but I'll check them out when I'm back in town. They looks very interesting.

Howard said...

I wonder what either group might say on the question whether humans can be made good and how, or whether we are both good and bad

chinaphil said...

Ha! Raises the interesting possibility that political affiliation is actually just parenting style. All politics is the politics of the nursery.
There was one sentence in the preamble there that I disagreed very strongly with. "Those who say human nature is bad have, in contrast, an outward-in model of moral development. On this view, what is universal to humans is self-interest." I react strongly against this for two reasons. First, I don't see that self-interest is universal. The most obvious counterexample is mothers, who regularly (not always, of course) report experiencing complete devotion to their children, and who often act in a way that substantiates that assertion. There is also the relatively high occurrence of suicide; and the ancient moral tradition of heroism. It's reductive to just dismiss all of that and say, no, none of that counts, the only human universal is something out of an economics book. Moreover, self-interest is not even necessary for this part of your argument. You are suggesting that human nature is bad; self-interest is an orthogonal or mediating construct to badness, and demands a whole bunch more argumentation, when you could just leave it at "bad."
And the second point is that I disagree that self-interest is bad. It's certainly not the epitome of badness. School shooters seem to have that dubious honour, or terrorists, and they are generally not motivated by self-interest (in any rational sense of the word). And remember, according to Smith, self-interest (when deployed within a law-abiding market setting) is actually an extremely powerful good. I understand that excessive self-interest is a bad, but excessive anything is a bad. Even if self-interest is a universal, there would be a whole bunch more argumentation needed to say why that's bad.
(Incidentally, I think I have a better version of human universals: the universal is the desire for human connection and community. In general, I'd say that this is a positive motivation, so I guess this puts me in the Mencius camp. But my theory also runs up against some challenges: hermits, those who hide away in the basement... it's not obvious to me that there are *any* universals. It may be that human character is underspecified by our biology, and that in fact it is highly variable.)

Arnold said...

My 9 year old grandson says his 7 year old sister is very frustratingly corruptibly wrong about doing what he thinks and wants her to be and do, she doesn't seem to care...
...of course they are the best and brightest people in the world...

Objective observation by some grandparents might be...
...'am I so different, have I settled every thought feeling sensation in me, am I in control of anything..., ...