Open Up For Dialogue
Open Up For Dialogue
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They label him as a Nazi. He thinks it is unfair
They label him as a Nazi. He thinks it is unfair
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Home » Blog » Time to make changes and time to protect: what you may not have known about liberals and conservatives

Time to make changes and time to protect: what you may not have known about liberals and conservatives


Should we be sensitive to and emphasize what connects us in our society, what constitutes our share humanity? Or should we accept the colorful diversity of our opinions and try and understand the conflicts (sadly, not only verbal) between opposing camps, schools of opinion that like to differentiate themselves and seek out the “us-them” perspective.

In our series about value conflicts, this particular blogpost (and personal reflection) focuses on why the society needs both liberal and conservative attitudes. Let’s try to distance ourselves from the idea that liberalism and conservativism are two conflicting ideologies (like the black and white pieces in chess) but rather see them as complementary forces that are both needed for progress (with occasional passing of the torch between each other while working within one democratic society). What are the differences between these two schools of opinion? One may be characterized by curiosity, inclination to novelty, openness to experience and the pursuit of improving on the status quo, the other is associated with protecting of the existing culture, heritage, traditions, customs, and the shared identity.

However, the liberal and conservative attitudes create a much broader and richer scope than the recent Slovak presidential campaign would lead us believe. Neither liberalism nor conservativism deserve to become labels with which to discredit or even demonize political opponents. Moreover, they certainly should not be narrowed down to just two or three highly divisive topics, as it is often the case in the confrontations of the representatives from the more extreme sides of the political spectrum (e.g. on questions whether a family is strictly a marriage of a man and a woman or which considerations should prevail before termination of a pregnancy – the rights and responsibilities of the mother or the life of the fetus). These (disproportionately) visible and controversial topics get media attention. They hijack the discourse about liberal and conservative contributions to the society. They also force opinion-makers to dive deeper in their search for the truth, just like Catholic priest Tomáš Halík attempted to do: „The idea, that registered partnerships threaten traditional family is a nonsense. The traditional family is in danger because of marital infidelity, alcoholism, mutual disrespect of spouses, domestic violence, and the drive to earn money which leads to neglecting love shown to children, and other causes, but not registered homosexual partnerships.

On the other hand, registered partnerships differ from a marriage and in my opinion these two should never be mixed together or put on equal footing. The term marriage and family ought to really refer to only a lasting bond between a man and a woman, open to receive the gift of a new life.” ( Yet, this blogpost does not aim to find a new truth in our current times in the extreme confrontations of opinions but rather to help us remove the hateful labels. To do that, we first need to take a look at the observable dividing lines between those who call themselves liberals and those who see themselves as conservatives.

Values / Moral foundations

Often-cited psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers us a more well-rounded perspective in his book The Righteous Mind [1], using six moral foundations: Care/Harm – Fairness (proportionality)/Cheating – Loyalty/Betrayal – Authority/Subversion – Sanctity/Degradation - Liberty/Oppression.

1. Care/Harm The first moral foundation is care/harm. According to Haidt, neural and hormonal mechanisms enable us to create emotional bonds and to feel compassion, especially to those who are weak. We are outraged if somebody hurts others. The care for the weak appears in various moral appeals in the society.

Liberals and conservatives differ, however, in their understanding of the group of people that they care about.

Liberal minded people are more inclined to a universalistic way of thinking and defend disadvantaged/weak groups even those are from another country, another culture, or another religion. Their perspective is based on the conviction that human rights are universal and other people deserve to have the rights respected and protected even if they look much different from ourselves.

Conservatives do not try to protect the whole world. They prefer to take responsibility for their close surroundings and are inclined to particularism. They display greater degree of care towards people that are “like us”, “belong to us”, people who have done something beneficial or have sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their community.

2. Fairness/Cheating According to Haidt, the second moral foundation is fairness/cheating. The so-called „golden rule“ (“Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”) is the basis for many religions. However, fairness can be understood in several different ways.

Liberals emphasize equality of rights and opportunities and support measures aimed to correct power or wealth inequality. Their efforts for social justice are directed towards reducing differences among various groups of people, achieving greater solidarity and underlining the interconnectedness within society.

Conservatives respond more readily to proportional justice. Inequality seems less of a problem to them, if it results from different efforts, skills, or the overall contributions to the society. In their opinion, rewards should be based on merit, even if that would result in greater social differences. For example, the topic of different attitudes towards social benefits in Slovakia has already been addressed by Findor, Maďarová, Ostertágová [8]). That is the reason why the people on the more conservative side of the spectrum are opposed to affirmative actions which they see as redistribution of resources or benefits from the working citizens to unproductive or less productive groups (those who are recipients of social or unemployment benefits).

3. Loyalty/Betrayal The third moral foundation is loyalty/betrayal. The long history of tribal coexistence manifests itself to this day in a form of tribal mentality. It allows us to create big groups that are capable of working together (or defending themselves in conflicts with other groups). We need and seek in-group solidarity. At the very least, this can be seen in how we support sports teams. Creating and maintaining coalitions and loyalty to our own group have been an adaptation necessity for our ancestors to fight off the demands and attacks of other rival groups.

The liberal attitude (with their universalist tendencies) towards this moral foundation is sometimes cautious, even dismissive. From a liberal point of view, loyalty to a narrowly defined group may lead to nationalism, xenophobia, problematic division of the world into “us versus them” and restrictions to freedom for individuals in the name of benefits to the whole group. In addition, it can cause group or even herd mentality when a person no longer acts based on their conscience and judgement, but rather complies with group norms and pressure.

On the other hand, the conservatives see loyalty and faithfulness to the group as a real moral value in the spirit of the statement: “If a person fails to cover the back of his own people, what can be expected of him/her?“ They regard person’s self-sacrifice for a higher, collective purpose as a highly moral action. According to Haidt: “The love of loyal teammates is matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors, who are usually considered to be far worse than enemies.”

Yet, the group’s identity can be seen as narrow (family) or broad (Europe, with its Judeo-Christian cultural roots).

This moral foundation can be observed in the currently changing attitudes of the Central Europe to the liberal project, as Jacques Rupnik writes [10]:

“The ethnocultural reshaping of Western societies is perceived with great concern in Central and Eastern Europe, and this has put into question the liberal paradigm that had prevailed since 1989. Societies that once displayed remarkable capacities to adapt to the opening of their countries’ economies today fear that openness will mean destabilization and appear increasingly receptive to the discourse of closure. If the European liberal project cannot avoid becoming confounded with open borders and multiculturalism, there is a real risk that Central Europe will opt for the “closed society.”

4. Authority/Subversion The fourth moral foundation is authority/subversion. In its simplest form, it can manifest itself as domination and submission and the subsequent exercise of power, when authority or status hierarchy are not being respected. Haidt believes, however, that in contrast to animals, for humans authority does not need to be backed up by the threat of power. A person gifted with authority takes on responsibility for maintaining order and justice. Primatologist Frans de Waal wittily points out how we, as humans, need to be able to identify authority:

”Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.”

The liberals approach authority with some ambivalence and even suspicion or doubt. Hierarchical order carries with it the risk of abuse of authority which is why liberals are faster to undermine (false) authorities and try to promote non-hierarchical models with equity and maximum possible participation. If progress demands it, they question or even ridicule existing traditions or values which the conservative population sees as the pillars of stability.

The conservative view empathizes the need to respect authorities, decisions and regulations and care for order and continuity. Who does not share this opinion can easily be labelled as subverter, traitor, newcomer or a person with “no roots”. However, Dalibor Rohac [11] warns us that in present-day Hungary, we should not mistake societal conservativism for authoritarianism: “The Right demands: We should all stop helping budding authoritarians by conflating cultural liberalism with democracy. There’s a difference, after all, between a conservative vision for society and autocracy. And if we treat them as the same thing, it only shrinks the coalition of those willing to resist authoritarianism.”

5. Sanctity/Degradation The fifth moral foundation is sanctity/degradation. It is sometimes also referred to as moral purity/impurity. Purity need not necessarily mean chastity or suppression of sexuality. It may include any form of ideology where a control over one’s body and bodily pleasures is seen as virtuous. What also matters is what a person deems holy and untouchable (in the negative sense, untouchable means something that is impure or so dirty or defiled that you would not even want to go near it; in the positive sense, untouchable means something that is holy and needs to be protected from defilement).

To liberals, even talking about holiness or sanctity reeks of pharisaical holiness, puritanism or irrational emphasis on myths. The call for moral purity, chastity or sexual or other type of modesty is seen as a potential form of self-delusion that suppresses human nature and in the best-case scenario leads to misinformed or naïve decisions (e.g. virginity pledge), and in the worst-case scenario, it leads to hypocrisy or double life (persons attacking homosexuals verbally by day while being homosexual themselves by night).

Conservatives are more likely to accept the opinion that some things in life are (and should be) holy, even untouchable (e.g. the sanctity of life or marriage), and that humans are not the masters of creation but rather they must respect an outside higher power. Even though monotheistic religions prohibit idols, conservativism is associated with acts of devotion shown to objects (flags, crosses), places (sacred or memorial sites connected to a specific religion or nation) and people (saints, heroes). Those who are not willing to join (e.g. liberals or supporters of other religions) are then seen as threats to moral purity/sanctity or are perceived as wicked or perverse.

6. Liberty/Oppression The last moral foundation is liberty/oppression. We are very sensitive to issues of liberty (or lack thereof). Perhaps the reason is that we are destined to live in hierarchical structures where oppression or even tyranny occurs.

Liberals often see the vulnerable or disadvantaged groups as victims of oppression, especially when their basic human or civil rights are denied. Liberals aim to liberate and emancipate such groups (sometimes even through affirmative actions and enforcement of not only equal opportunities but also through equal outcomes such as universal basic income).

On the other hand, conservatives value freedom in the sense of the state not interfering excessively with the lives of individuals (in terms of high taxes or overgrown regulations). In the international context, conservatives choose to protect of the sovereignty of their country (against constraints to state’s decision-making from the EU, NATO, etc. – see the Brexit slogan “Let’s take back control”).

Balance between change and stability

What do liberal and conservative perspectives actually complement each other? Here is a summary based on Jonathan Haidt:

Liberals notably gravitate towards the moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty. They respond less, however, to ideas of loyalty towards the closest relatives or their tribe, or honoring authorities or valuing moral purity/sanctity. Liberals may even see those ideas as sources of xenophobia, authoritarianism and puritanism. Liberals appreciate diversity rather than group mentality. They are faster to question authority and do not look favorably on legislative regulation of sexuality. They see change and enforcement of justice as more important than maintaining continuity and traditions at any cost. They promote rather improvement that simple maintenance of social order.

On the other hand, people with a more conservative mindset view institutions and traditions as the backbone of order and stability even if freedoms of individuals need to be restricted in situations of threat to interests of the whole community. To conservatives, maintaining order is of great value.

Both groups make moral contributions and ensure balance between change and stability within the society.

In order to appreciate a different view, we need to get to know the other side and trust it at least at a basic level. This is much easier to do at a local level where we meet people of both the liberal and conservative mindsets face to face. In personal encounters, it is much easier to recognize and experience that opinions create a broad continuous spectrum, and polarization is not so fierce.

(Source: HOLMES, H. [4])

However, if we only live in our (online) bubble, unable to see others as fully human and vulnerable, the differences become more heightened, especially with regard to topics such as migration, national defense and societal order. Conservative voters call for safety, stop to migration and the reinforcement of armed forces. They sincerely do not understand how anyone could oppose the idea of increased safety measures.

Based on the research, the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson [6] speaks about different functions of liberals and conservatives within the political and public institutions, along the dimensions of “openness” and “conscientiousness”. The lower score on the dimension of openness and a higher score in conscientiousness helps conservatives to implement decisions and policies and enforce regulations. However, if the whole society was to be dominated by conservatives, the dynamics would suffer and the society could not respond sufficiently quickly to changes.

On the other hand, liberals’ lower score on the dimension of conscientiousness and higher score in openness allows them to promote changes, develop new policies and regulations and redefine values. Yet, if the entire society was fully dominated by liberals, the actual implementation of programs and strategies would start to fall behind.

Not just differences

Regardless of the differences, both liberals and conservatives share some foundational values – they respect democracy, rule of law and human dignity (whether derived from humanism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the belief that “God created man in His image”).

What they share is their exposure to the risk presented by populists and autocrats. It is possible to gain political advantage by ostentatious declarations of conservativism or liberalism, even by nondemocratic politicians. The British rabbi Jonathan Sacks who was awarded the Templeton’s prize writes about the risk (all too familiar to us living in Slovakia) of merging religion with politics [12]:

“Politics turns into virtue what religions often see as a vice — the fact that we do not all think alike, that we have conflicting interests, that we see the world through different eyes. Politics knows what religion sometimes forgets, that the imposition of truth by force and the suppression of dissent by power is the end of freedom and a denial of human dignity. When religion enters the political arena, we should repeat daily Bunyan’s famous words: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.”

How to start a dialogue: not just with empathy and respect but also with humor and shared experience of awe (or even physical efforts).

Despite everything, it is possible to overcome value conflicts between liberals and conservatives. It requires offline, face-to-face conversations, rising above our differences, and experiencing what connects us as humans.

Sarah Ruger [7] from the Koch Foundation writes:

”Emerging research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that we often need a shared experience of awe, humor, or physical exertion to help transcend our differences. (Think team-building trust falls and rope courses in the woods). Fortunately, it doesn't take a trip around the moon to bridge the deepest divides—even conversation over a cup of coffee or a meal can remind us of each other's humanity.“

Social psychologist Robb Willer [9] recons that besides the necessary elements of empathy and respect, what also helps is “moral reframing” – linking political topics with moral values of the people we talk to (rather than just our moral values). Willer states some examples form the USA in his TED talk:

“So if you want to move conservatives on issues like same-sex marriage or national health insurance, it helps to tie these liberal political issues to conservative values like patriotism and moral purity. ... If you want to move liberals to the right on conservative policy issues like military spending and making English the official language of the US, you're going to be more persuasive if you tie those conservative policy issues to liberal moral values like equality and fairness.“

In conclusion, it is worth adding that our societies also need “bridge builders” who refuse to see the words “liberal” or “conservative” as labels. They need not see themselves to be clearly positioned along the liberal-conservative spectrum and their identities are not built on liberal or conservative foundations. We need people who refrain from making snap judgements and are willing to reproach even people in their own “bubble” when they start labelling others. Bridge building can only happen where two opposing sides meet – and where people are willing to listen to each other rather than feel disdain for each other. Bridge building is possible when we understand our own joys and frustrations and afford the other side the feeling of acceptance. Because it is in dialogue that makes us see the cracks in “the absolute truth” – ours and theirs. And it is beneficial - in the words of Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

By Peter Guštafík


[1] HAIDT, J. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, 2012, ISBN 1846145716 [2] HAIDT, J. Can a Divided America Heal? [online]

[3] HAIDT, J. The moral roots of liberals and conservatives [online]

[4] HOLMES, H. Red brain, blue brain - the neurobiology of political values [online]

[5] HIBBING, J.R. – SMITH, K.B. – ALFORD, J.R., 2014. Predisposed - Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, Routledge, 2014, ISBN 978-0-415-53587-8

[6] PETERSON, J. Full Address and Q&A | Oxford Union [online]

[7] RUGER, S. We can accept our differences – it’s better than killing each other [online]

[8] FINDOR, A. – MAĎAROVÁ, Z. – OSTERTÁGOVÁ, A. 2014. Morálne základy sporu o sociálnu spravodlivosť na Slovensku [online]

[9] WILLER, R. 2018. How to Have Better Political Conversations [online]

[10] RUPNIK, J: Explaining Eastern Europe: The Crisis of Liberalism [online]

[11] ROHAC, D., 2018. In Hungary social conservatism and authoritarianism are not the same [online]

[12] SACKS, J., 2005. Different freedoms, or why religion and politics should never mix [online]

Further materials on the topic: KRISTOF, N. A Confession of Liberal Intolerance [online]

KRASTEV, I. Eastern Europe's Illiberal Revolution [online]

DEMICHELE, T. Liberal's and Conservative's Brains Are Different on Average [online]

SCHWAB, K. This Thesaurus Translates Between Liberals And Conservatives [online]

LINDSEY B. – Wilkinson W. THE CENTER CAN HOLD: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes [online]

Peter Guštafík

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