The Moral Foundations of Freedom Conservatism

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The Freedom Conservatism Statement of Principles, which several of us launched in July, is a simple restatement of the principles that have animated the broad American conservative movement for many years. It is not a statement of policy but of the principles that should guide policy. As such, it is not primarily about economics or culture but about the values that underpin American conservatism. Those values in turn reflect certain fundamental moral foundations on which we build our philosophical and political outlooks. The whole of it is about much more than just freedom.

There are several ways of looking at moral foundations. One of the most influential and easy ways to understand frameworks is that developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He argues our moral intuition is based on several pairs of foundational values, which act like moral taste receptors. They are:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
  • Liberty/oppression

What is particularly interesting about Haidt’s research is that he finds that American leftists are only really concerned about the first two of these pairs, while conservatives place importance on all of them (libertarians, importantly, act more like leftists in this regard, having not much time for loyalty, authority, or sanctity.)

For any statement of principles to adequately reflect how conservatives think, it will have to address these values. Even for self-described “freedom conservatives,” we couldn’t just stop at liberty, as that would simply be a statement of libertarianism (and an incomplete one at that). While Ronald Reagan might once have said, “The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is,” we recognize that freedom conservatism has a wider, surer base than just liberty. It is first on our list of principles, to be sure, but without other foundations, our house would be built on sand.

Thus, we address care in our second principle. We are concerned about the pressures the American family is under, and the harm wrought on communities across the nation. We appreciate both that the nature of work is changing and the uncertainty that change brings. We know one of the surest expressions of love for our children is ensuring a good education for them, and so we underline the importance of that. The policies many of the signatories advance based on these principles also reflect this care, such as our almost universal championing of school choice.

Read the full article on Law and Liberty.