Why do libertarians support conservative parties?

In a piece for the Sunday Age, Chris Berg says progressives think conservatives are heartless because they “don’t realise the right has a different and legitimate moral framework.” Perhaps so, but what about libertarians?

Berg draws on Jonathan Haidt‘s moral foundations research. Haidt argues that moral judgments are largely intuitive and rest on six foundations – care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.

Haidt and his colleagues have found that progressives (liberals) rely almost entirely on the first three foundations when making moral judgments. In contrast, conservatives rely on all six.

In many ways libertarians are like progressives. “We found that libertarians look more like liberals than conservatives on most measures of personality” Haidt wrote in his recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. However:

Where they diverge from liberals most sharply is on two measures: the Care foundation, where they score very low (even lower than conservatives), and on some new questions we added about economic liberty, where they score extremely high (a little higher than conservatives, a lot higher than liberals).

So if progressives are wrong about conservatives, could they be right about libertarians? In a recent paper, a group of researchers including Haidt reported that libertarians reject the morality of altruism “as well as all other moralities based on ideas of obligation to other people, groups, traditions, and authorities.”

Interestingly, the research suggested libertarians may be less satisfied with their lives than either progressives or conservatives. The researchers reported that “libertarians may be less happy in part because they care less about others and (most likely) bond less with others, particularly close others.” Libertarians seem to rely less on emotion and more on abstract reasoning.

Given their lack of interest in conservative values, why do American libertarians consistently favour the Republican party? According to Haidt:

People with libertarian ideals have generally supported the Republican Party since the 1930s because libertarians and Republicans have a common enemy: the liberal welfare society that they believe is destroying America’s liberty (for libertarians) and moral fiber (for social conservatives).

There is always potential for tension between conservatives and libertarians. As I argued in a 2008 article for Policy magazine – ‘Defusing the American Right‘ – the alliance comes under stress when conservatives enlarge the size and scope of government in order to pursue their values. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on drugs were areas of tension under the Bush administration.

But perhaps not all libertarians lack concern for people who are poor and marginalised. Recently a number of libertarian thinkers have gathered together at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Some of them are even talking about social justice.

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70 Responses to Why do libertarians support conservative parties?

  1. conrad says:

    “Haidt reported that libertarians reject the morality of altruism”

    In case they do, then this is evidence that some aspects of morals are learnt, since there is growing evidence now in the developmental psychology literature that we exhibit some aspects of altruism from birth. So if this latter one is true, libertarians must have learnt to supress this (although I guess if one was desperate, it would be possibe to argue that there are individual differences even at birth that separate people later). This is a bit different to the latter claim of using abstract reasoning rather than emotion, since altruism is not necessarily emotionally driven, and even for those aspects that are, suppressing a tendency is different to using abstract reasoning.

  2. Jim Rose says:

    I thought U.S. libertarians voted for the libertarian party

  3. Patrick says:

    Nick’s heading on the previous post was intended for this one, it seems. Is there really no reason for a libertarian to have voted consistently Republican?

    Is it completely beyond the pale that someone could think that the welfare state is not really ‘altruism’ in the classic and inherent sense conrad refers to, but rather that it deadens both that instinctive altruism as well as its beneficiaries’ motivation and resourcefulness?

    Without having to agree, is that really an incomprehensible way to think?

  4. Jim Rose says:

    are you trying to say that libertarians are grumpy?

  5. Sancho says:

    The term “libertarian” actually existed before the Tea Party, and has a specific meaning.

    No genuine libertarian would vote for a party that is staunchly against gay rights, enthusiastic about maintaining the war on drugs, scornful of the separation of church and state, can’t wait to pour taxpayer money into the pockets of investment bankers, continues to support failed, unnecessary wars, and this year built its election platform around repealing women’s freedoms.

    By calling themselves “libertarian”, garden-variety conservatives can feel like free-thinking revolutionaries bucking the status quo, while continuing to support the same old hierarchies and assumptions they’ve held for the past two thousand years.

  6. JB Cairns says:

    Milton Friedman would be challenged on a number of fronts here.
    Agreeing and disagreeing with some principles.

    He did disagree with Hayek but no having Keynes’s acerbic tongue few have ever known.

    • Jim Rose says:

      friedman did not self-identify as a libertarian. more of a classical liberal

      on hayek, Perhaps you should consult tawrence H. White’s “Did Hayek and Robbins Deepen the Great Depression?” which discusses Friedman saying that

      I think the Austrian business-cycle theory has done the world a great deal of harm.

      If you go back to the 1930s, which is a key point, here you had
      the Austrians sitting in London, Hayek and Lionel Robbins, and saying you just have to let the bottom drop out of the world.

      You’ve just got to let it cure itself. You can’t do anything about it. You will only make it worse. … I think by encouraging that kind of do-nothing policy both in Britain and in the United States, they did harm

      Milton Friedman (Parker 2002, p. 44) characterized the Hayek-Robbins view taught at the London School of Economics as “a picture of incredible darkness”.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Patrick, there’s nothing incomprehensible about what you suggest. But my two bob’s worth is that libertarians lining up with the right demonstrates the way in which almost everyone is driven by political intuitions which are either left or right. Or in the words of G&S

    I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!
    How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
    That every boy and every gal
    That’s born into the world alive
    Is either a little Liberal
    Or else a little Conservative!

    So those libertarian doctrines are really feeding some deeper psychological drive. And libertarians are more pissed off with, more fearful of the depredations of the left than they are of the right. And thought it is of course possible that those on the right become such extreme social conservatives that they drive libertarians out of their camp, and though that’s possible in the US, I won’t hold my breath even there, and as for here, well it seems a remote possibility.

    I think it was Samuelson who drew attention to the fact that with only a few notable exceptions, virtually none of the people on the right who’d been mounting the barricades for liberty had much to say about the outrages of McCarthyism. (I think this may have applied to Milton Freedman – though I may be wrong and he was certainly consistently libertarian though many of the issues of the 60s like conscription.

  8. Pedro says:

    Agreed Patrick. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know what it says, but so much of the debate seems to involve the idea that people who favour libertarian values are against helping others. I can only speak for myself, but I’m all for helping people but I don’t think you can make a moral claim that A ought to help B just because A has more money. I do think you can make the claim that pragmatism forces you to do that to at least some degree.

    As for preferring conservatives over lefties, I’d guess that is because conservative preferences in govt tend to have less impact on the libertarian life preferences. My view is that progressives generaly impose a lot more rules and restrictions than conservatives.

  9. Julie Thomas says:

    When they say that all humans have the capacity for empathy, they mean that some us have more of this than others.

    So I’d say that the libertarians among us are those type of people who are at the end of the distribution of empathy. I don’t think this is by any means an insult. All types of human’s are here and so they belong here; including the aspergers and the psychopaths; we all had something to contribute to the gene pool that makes us superbly adaptive and so it seems useful to maintain the diversity.

    There are no academic publications – that I can find – about it but the idea that human abilities are distributed on a normal curve is talked about a lot. This blogger explains it well I think but he is a bit weird, into all that hunter-gatherer diet etc. Maybe he can tell the difference between science and just-so-stories.

    “when plotted, traits that are influenced by our genes are distributed along a bell-shaped curve. For example, a trait like body fat percentage, when measured in a population of 1000 individuals, will yield a distribution of values that will look like a bell-shaped distribution. This type of distribution is also known in statistics as a “normal” distribution.

    Why is that?

    The additive effect of genes and the bell curve

    The reason is purely mathematical. A measurable trait, like body fat percentage, is usually influenced by several genes. (Sometimes individual genes have a very marked effect, as in genes that “switch on or off” other genes.) Those genes appear at random in a population, and their various combinations spread in response to selection pressures. Selection pressures usually cause a narrowing of the bell-shaped curve distributions of traits in populations.

    The genes interact with environmental influences, which also have a certain degree of randomness. The result is a massive combined randomness. It is this massive randomness that leads to the bell-curve distribution. The bell curve itself is not random at all, which is a fascinating aspect of this phenomenon. From “chaos” comes “order”. A bell curve is a well-defined curve that is associated with a function, the probability density function.

    This is a reasonable attempt to describe why and how the normal curve is probably the key to understanding how human traits are distributed throughout the population. from


  10. conrad says:


    actually, I think trying to think about things in terms of bell curves is often misleading, and probably so for altruism (and empathy also). The reason for this is that there is probably a huge range of variation where you will get very similar results if you measure behavior that could be affected by the same variable. For example, how fast people walk, read, etc. is distributed on a bell curve, but almost everyone can walk to the milkbar and a read a newspaper, so the fact that the variable happens to be normally distributed isn’t really telling us about life and normal situations.

    You can think about this in terms of altruism also. There are funny little experiements now where people look at what really young kids do, and you find most kids will help in most simple circumstances that have been manufactured (e.g., helping an adult do something for no obvious benefit). So if most people have some level of altruism, then it becomes a rather long claim to say that this is likely to affect our political beliefs in a way that meaningfully predicts them. Rather, most levels of altruism will put us in the ball park where we can consider various political beliefs and take some position on them, and our final beliefs will be largely unaffected by our innate level of altruism (c.f., learnt social responses).

    • Julie Thomas says:

      Conrad there is research that shows that we all have the capacity to experience empathy; as children, we all feel better when we see that an exchange is fair to both or all parties. But there is evidence that some people do have ‘less of a capacity’ for empathy and perhaps these are the people who are able to override their empathic feelings in favour of other feelings they learn to value as they grow up.

      People with aspergers are supposed to lack the ability to empathise
      But there is a new suggestion that aspergers do have the connections in the brain that allow them to ’empathise’ with others. A new idea is that aspergers actually have these connections but they lack the connections that provide them with the motivation to want to feel empathic.


      Another recent idea is that at least some aspergers empathise too well with others so they have to shut down the emotional pathways as a defense against all the ‘feelings’ that they are exposed to in the social world that most humans live in now which requires us to interact with a great many more people than we would have encountered as the original hunter-gatherering humans.

      This isn’t the original article – no time to find it now, sorry

      There is certainly a lot to learn about what ’empathy’ is but I do think that even considering walking, some of us walk ‘better’ than others. So I still think that it is useful to consider that complex human traits and abilities like empathy are obviously distributed differently throughout the human population.

      The take home message; the overall thing to think about is that we are not blank slates and we do not all have the same chance in life if there is only one recognised way of being successful.

      We are all different even if, as is clear, we are all sufficiently similar to be able to talk to each other and come to some agreement about the fundamental values we should have.

      I like the normal curve, it’s a neat concept.

  11. JB Cairns says:


    in 1936 Hayek realised he had been dreadfully wrong on solutions, supporting BOF etc and even supported limited public spending

  12. Yobbo says:

    No genuine libertarian would vote for a party that is staunchly against gay rights, enthusiastic about maintaining the war on drugs, scornful of the separation of church and state, can’t wait to pour taxpayer money into the pockets of investment bankers, continues to support failed, unnecessary wars, and this year built its election platform around repealing women’s freedoms.

    You just described both major parties in the US. With no preferential voting, libertarians have to choose one.

    • Sancho says:

      Regarding drugs, the middle east, and Wall Street bailouts, yes, but not on gay rights and women’s freedom. Not to mention immigration.

      The Democrats are streets ahead of the Republicans in assuring personal freedoms and the right of adults to live as they choose, yet American “libertarians” continue to vote Republican, just as the local variety votes Liberal.

      Moreover, the ALP approaches issues like drug laws in a far more pro-liberty way than the Liberal Party, yet Australian “libertarians” can’t wait to get Labor out and install a government which will crack down on drug use, contraception and the right of consenting adults to marry whom they choose.

      • Yobbo says:

        The Democrats are streets ahead of the Republicans in assuring personal freedoms and the right of adults to live as they choose

        Simply untrue, another bald-faced lie from Sancho. Business as usual.

      • Jim Rose says:

        both sides of politics have their bug-bears and taboos.

        Nat Hentoff wrote a nice book in 1992 ‘Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other’. It is about those from the right and from the left who would suppress the rights of individuals to voice opposing viewpoints.

        He deals with traditional censors–religious fundamentalists and political right-wingers–but does not neglect the new ones, e.g., feminists who tried to prevent a pro-life women’s group from participating in Yale University’s Women’s Center.

        Hentoff discusses everything from efforts on college campuses to prevent non politically correct subjects from being discussed to censorship he faced while writing his columns. Hate-speech ordinances, speech codes on campus, flag-burning amendments to the Constitution, and feminist-Moral Majority coalitions to ban pornography.

        He especially criticizes “civil libertarians” who use the First Amendment as protection of things they like and then ignore it when trying to ban what they hate (racist writing, sexual harassment, etc.).

        Rather than set up left-wing straw men to knock down, Hentoff details stories of how the left censors, while acknowledging that the Right censors. Since conservatives admit their intentions they are not as dangerous as the duplicitous people on the Left.

    • Sancho says:

      Note that Yobbo can’t point out where these “lies” are in anything I wrote.

      Assertions instead of evidence. Business as usual.

      • Yobbo says:

        Sancho, you are the one asserting that:

        Democrats are streets ahead of the Republicans in assuring personal freedoms and the right of adults to live as they choose

        Why should I have to back up my assertions when you don’t bother to? Just typing it doesn’t make it true, and in your case typing is a pretty good clue that you are lying.

      • Sancho says:

        The Democrats have come out in support of gay marriage after several years of unofficially working toward it, while the Republicans loudly and openly oppose it. Is that untrue?

        The Democrats have consistently been less zealous in the war on drugs than the Republicans, and much more forward-looking regarding medical use of illicit drugs. Is that untrue?

        In the past twelve months alone, the Republican party has sought to introduce trans-vaginal screening for women seeking abortions, attempted to outlaw several types of birth control, and voted to repeal or prevent laws protecting women from rape and violence, all against opposition from the Democrats. Is that untrue?

        The Republican Party introduced and continues to support abstinence-only sex education, which has been proven to increase teen pregnancy and abortion rates. Is that untrue?

        The Republicans are vigorously opposed to immigration and citizenship for immigrants, while the Democrats are much more flexible. Is that untrue?

        The Republicans are quite clearly against extending freedom and liberty to a wide range of groups and individuals. Not only is that a simple fact, but it’s glaringly obvious. By folding your arms and saying “nuh-uh!” you’re asking to be excluded from any serious debate.

  13. Jim Rose says:

    does not all this psychology presuppose that people do not change their minds?

    people vote for different parties over the years: tory, labor, green and back again.

  14. JB Cairns says:


    To be a pedant it was Gilbert that wrote the words. It was said that was why he never got the knighthood Sullivan gained.

  15. Peter Patton says:

    When did Australian leftists start with this obsession about ‘libertarians’? I’d never heard of an Australian libertarian before I started reading these blogs a few years ago. When I was a committed leftist there were more important and immediate aims than listening to academics wank on about Hayek, Ayn Rand, and ‘libertarians’. How many Australians encountered these people even at university? I suppose once the socialism game was revealed as a disaster that left the academic leftists with quite a lot of spare time. I suppose they started looking around feverishly for bogeyman to justify their poncing around as ‘radicals’ and ‘progressives’. But if all they’ve come up with is this stuff, they clearly should have taken the hint back in 1989. The game’s over boys.

    • Sancho says:

      Well, my interest began when I noticed that bog-standard conservatives were starting to label themselves “libertarian”.

      I think it’s important that words have consistent meanings, especially when they concern big ideas. The right has been quite successful in redefining “socialism” to mean anything Ayn Rand would disagree with, and “terrorist” to mean anyone the US would rather not be alive.

      I’m just raising the flag to remind people that, despite an earnest attempt at rebranding, these “libertarians” are the same bunch that were waving pitchforks at Galileo and Darwin, and conservatism hasn’t become cool just because a few right-wingers have realised they actually quite like smoking pot.

      • JC says:

        Well, my interest began when I noticed that bog-standard conservatives were starting to label themselves “libertarian”.

        When I first read that I was wondering when you’d take out your peer reviewed dissertation that climate sceptics are also 6,000 year old earthers and I then saw you mention it in a para below.

        What evidence do you have that some of da right wingers are going around pretending they’re libertarian’s Sanchez?

        The only thing I’ve seen is that some of us abhor the new left that has appeared of late.. you know like sticking plain packaging on peoples’ private property, furthering group rights through the legal system, peddling rent taxes when the theory of economic rent was bowled for a six even during Ricardo’s time and lastly but more importantly, the rise of the Finkelsteinians who advocate control of the non-left wing press.

        This isn’t the almost neo -classic liberalism of Hawke and Keating, Sanchez. This is something else and if right parties want to join hands with libertarians and do away with some of this monstrosities then well and good. However some of us are realistic that a few of these abhorrent measures will remain and in fact the right supports a few illiberal measures.

      • Sancho says:

        Hooray! It’s not a party til JC show up.

      • JC says:

        You won’t be invited to the party until you answer the question.

        (And by the way, I see you’re often taking that old chestnut of yours out of the fire implying that support of drug decriminalization isn’t such a big deal and it’s more a fashion statement.

        Here doofus: It’s nothing much at all is it.

        Forty-nine decapitated bodies were found Sunday dumped on a highway connecting northern Mexico with the U.S. border. The incident appears to be the latest salvo in an escalating war between Mexico’s two dominant drug cartels. (May 13)


        49 people having their heads cut off? No biggie. As long as there’s universal healthcare. Who knows with the wonders of obamacare, perhaps they’ll be able to sew the heads back on and those victims will be back to work in no time.

      • Sancho says:

        It’ll have to wait til later, dear boy. Try the weekend open thread.

        We’ve got Yobbo claiming that black is white and Pedro insisting that Australians are champing at the bit for something they never choose when it’s offered, so working through that generous heap of strawmen and false equivalences isn’t viable for now.

  16. Jim Rose says:

    PP, good point. the libertarian vote in the USA is less tha 0.5%

  17. Tel says:

    I see no altruism when a man has a gun at his head and empties his pockets out of fear, hoping to live another day or two. There is no generosity in forced giving, nor in giving away what others have earned.

    I see no altruism when a man is indoctrinated from birth to follow a scripture and gives to the poor because he has no mind of his own to consider otherwise. Do we call the sun altruistic because it gives warmth and asks nothing in return? Do we call the rain altruistic because it gives us the water that we need to stay alive? Only a primitive would thank the elements for being what they already are.

    Thus, it is only under a system were the freedom exists to make choices that altruism is possible at all, in any form.

    That’s not to say that libertarians are all of them altruists, most of them believe in trade (or “reciprocal altruism” if you are a biologist, but “trade” is the older word). Under a system of voluntary trade, where both sides have the choice to say no if they don’t like the deal, both sides should profit. This is not really altruism either, but a generous man may choose to be more easy going when it comes to driving a bargain, and a wealthy man may choose to give away material goods in return for the commendation and appreciation of his fellows.

    When the socialists come around to take what you have, they don’t even say, “thanks”.

    • Sancho says:

      In Australia, everyone has that choice. If you feel like the elected government is taking from you unfairly, vote for someone who represents your interests, or stand for election yourself.

      You’re carrying on like a martyr because most other Australians disagree with you and don’t make the choices you want them to.

  18. Pedro says:

    Sancho, how do you know whether most Australian’s disagree with Tel? All that you do know is that the current welfare system is part of the political establishment but you have no idea at all as to the extent of support or the reasons it is supported. Further, while I think it very likely that there is widespread support for a degree of redistribution as a general concept, there is zero evidence that there is any widespread support for any particular level of redistribution and taxation.

    As for choice, in this Country the only choice you can make is how hard you are going to work. I don’t think that choice in anyway affects Tel’s point about the moral claim of the taxman and of redistributionists.

    • Sancho says:

      Bit self-contradictory there, Pedro:

      I think it very likely that there is widespread support for a degree of redistribution as a general concept, there is zero evidence that there is any widespread support for any particular level of redistribution and taxation

      Followed by:

      I don’t think that choice in anyway affects Tel’s point about the moral claim of the taxman and of redistributionists.

      So, you agree that most Australians, via elections, make consistent choices from a range of resource distribution models, but that doesn’t contradict Tel’s claim that Australians are “forced” into choosing resource distribution?

      Clarify that for us.

      These discussions go on as if there are no other parties than Labor and Liberal.

      In fact, there are dozens of independents and minor parties – including, now, the Liberal Democratic Party – and are representative of pretty much every ideology and philosophy out there.

      If Australians really are the suffering tax-slaves Tel portrays, the LDP will be Australia’s governing party in no time. Do you think that’s likely to happen?

      And frankly, I don’t believe in altruism either, but there’s a distinct qualitative difference in the way people give: if someone gives to the poor because they receive the reward of feeling like a good person, that’s better than someone who grudgingly gives to the poor because they don’t want homeless squatters in their investment property.

      Most Australians believe that there is such a thing as society, and no amount of low-empathy objectivist argument will change that.

  19. Pedro says:

    Sancho, nope.
    1 People choose parties in elections, not specific policies.
    2 A general idea can be widely supported while there is little consensus about specific proposals.
    3 Tel said, and I agree, that you forcing me to give money to a poor person is not a moral act.
    I reckon politicians have a reasonable idea what voters might like and judging from the pollies, voter pretty much uniformly like higher benefits and lower taxes.

  20. Pedro says:

    I forgot to say that Maggie only meant that society does not have it’s own wallet.

    • Sancho says:

      Ah, but society does have a wallet. That’s the entire basis of free market economics. Invisible hand etc.

      Also, apostrophes don’t work like that.

  21. Sancho says:

    1. Parties like popular policies, yet no successful party has an objectivist economic policy, because the great majority of Australians aren’t interested in them. If they are, the LDP will roar into Parliament over the next few elections. Do you think that’s likely?

    2. There is no evidence at all that this general idea is widely supported. The fact that Australians continue to elect parties committed to expanding welfare and the size of government suggests the opposite.

    3. No one’s forcing you to give money to poor people. Australianw consistently vote for a system in which every citizen contributes some of their resources, which then are redistributed according to the explicit priorities of the faction the majority of Australians chose. If it makes it easier, just imagine that all the taxes you contribute go to providing financial incentives for foreign investors, and building public infrastructure for the benefit of mining companies.

    It’s trite to say it, but if you’re so unhappy that you live in a society that continually rejects your ideas, you can emigrate to somewhere democracy doesn’t work and government is too weak to stop citizens pursuing their own agenda. I hear the food in Somalia is excellent, and surplus Soviet weapons are cheap enough for even a small band of child soldiers to maintain their liberty from the predations of tax-hungry politicians.

    And yes, people generally like to have all sorts nice things which are mutually exclusive. Such is life.

  22. desipis says:

    Tel said, and I agree, that you forcing me to give money to a poor person is not a moral act.

    That really depends on your sense of morality. Helping the poor is generally seen as a moral act. Infringing on another’s property is generally seen as an immoral act. Likewise, forcing another is also generally seen as an immoral act. There are, of course, exceptions to all these generalities.

    The question of whether redistributing wealth through a tax system is moral is a matter of degree, not something that can be decided absolutely. How poor does one person have to be, or how wealthy does the other need to be, for the good from helping the former to outweigh the bad from taking from the later? I’m not sure extreme hypotheticals about having a gun held to one’s head really help to determine a balance that answers the question satisfactorily. One could easily counter it with an example of stealing some bread to stop a family from starving to death. Property rights, at some stage, have to give way to other important aspects of morality.

    • Sancho says:

      I’m not sure extreme hypotheticals about having a gun held to one’s head really help to determine a balance that answers the question satisfactorily


  23. aidan says:

    I’m amazed they could find enough libertarians for a statistically significant result.

    *boom* *tish*

  24. Tel says:

    Tel said, and I agree, that you forcing me to give money to a poor person is not a moral act.

    I beg to differ, I made the claim that it is not an altruistic act. Nothing in Sancho’s handwaving demonstrated in the smallest way either an individual or a group acting in an altruistic manner. Since “moral act” is notoriously poorly defined, I won’t even attempt discussion on that issue, but an “altruistic act” is well defined, and for a bunch of people claiming that Libertarians hate altruism, they are having a devil of a time pointing out a single instance of this.

  25. Sancho says:

    Nothing in Sancho’s handwaving demonstrated in the smallest way either an individual or a group acting in an altruistic manner.

    Not even the bit where I wrote “I don’t believe in altruism”?

    I suppose you don’t agree with my statement in that post about Barack Obama being a lizard alien, either.

    • Tel says:

      Sancho, I was replying to your “May 15, 2012 at 7:48 am” post where you accused me of “carrying on like a martyr”, since it was in direct reply to my point discussing altruism, I got the impression that you were disagreeing with me.

      I did indeed miss your related reply to a completely different post, and sometimes these multi threaded conversations can confuse a simple and straightforward fellow such as myself. May I suggest that you might have mentioned your agreement in the first place, and if you wanted to say that you didn’t like my tone of expression, or some other nuance, then throw in a few lines of explanation to assist in making that distinction.

  26. TerjeP says:

    Conservative parties are more likely to express an opposition to higher taxes. I think taxation is a hot button issue for most libertarians. It is for me. Given a choice between a decent tax cut or legalisation of same sex marriage I’d choose the former. Even though I’d like to see both.

    As for empathy I think some people are confusing it with sympathy.

    • Sancho says:

      That’s my point, of course: people who believe that tax cuts are far more important than small government, minority rights, freedom of movement, personal liberty, separation of church and state and equality for women have taken to calling themselves “libertarian”.

  27. Julie Thomas says:

    Terje when you say tax is a ‘hot button’ issue for you, that is perhaps an indication that your opposition is based on ‘feeling’, not thinking. If you have read Haidt and are familiar with his concept of the elephant as representing our unconscious assumptions and the automatic assessments we naturally make, and the elephant’s rider as our conscious mind, that can but often does not control the elephant. Haidt explains culture as providing a path that the elephant will follow unless directed otherwise.

    I am not clever enough to apply this idea to your visceral response to tax. What we need to explain maybe, is why you see it as theft and I see it as an efficient way of ensuring that we can all live in safety without having to step over beggars in the street or have a need to carry guns to protect ourselves.

    How did you develop the idea that tax is theft? Are you sure that the path you have constructed for yourself, libertarianism? – is a ‘useful’ one? It seems clear to me that it hasn’t worked as well as it should have, as far as many of the ideals have been adopted in countries around the world or is that not the case? As far as I can see, people in all ‘real’ civilizations, as opposed to the hunter-gatherer civilizations, have paid tax in one way or another.

    A clear understanding of empathy/sympathy and whether altruism is something real, is yet to achieve consensus but there is no denying that the altruistic device of the mammary glands (yeah the female breast is an altruistic device lol) do exist in humans and other mammals. Nursing mothers give up a lot to suckle the free-riding infant.

    Anyone interested in the most recent ideas about altruism and such matters check out this bloke’s blog and this one in particular. It’s a summary of one side of the current thinking. http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2012/05/evolutionary-explanations-for-altruism-and-morality-some-key-distinctions/

  28. TerjeP says:

    I wasn’t denying the existence of altruism. Or of the existance of sympathy. I was just stating that some people seemed to be confusing sympathy and empathy.

    My position on tax was arrived at after lots of thinking. However I also have strong feelings about it. The feelings are more a consequence of the thinking than the other way around. Once you conclude that tax is theft you start to feel annoyed about it. I imagine that when people started deciding slavery was wrong then then started feeling bad about slavery.

    I like the elephant analogy. Although the message is somewhat different it reminds me of a section from “The Tao of Pooh” that my wife read to me many years ago. To paraphrase it the westerner thinks of himself as a riverbood captain able to steam up and down the river at will. The easterner thinks of himself as being on a small boat drifting with the current. The easterner seeks to know when and where he may dip his oar into the water to change currents. He saves his strength for those strategic moments and the rest of the time he let’s the water do it’s work.

  29. Julie Thomas says:

    People do confuse empathy and sympathy and there is a difference; empathy is about understanding the person’s problems without feeling pity. Pity is a ‘bad’ emotion, in that it ‘disempowers’ the individual. This word takes into account the complexity of the factors that are thought to be involved in the experience of an individual losing the ability to be as self-reliant as they can be.

    It seems clear to me that the ability to feel/experience empathy does vary; some people are very empathic and others are not. The discovery of Aspergers people, who are thought to lack empathy gives us clear evidence that people are differently ‘empathic’. The neuroscience evidence shows that it isn’t a choice; we are wired differently. It is the case that we can change this wiring with ‘therapy’ but there must be a limit to how much brains can change, just as there is a limit to how much you can change your body by physical therapy.

    The variability in ability in all areas though, is ‘normal’ and necessary; I don’t think Aspergers are a diagnosable category of people. They are just ‘standing out’ now, because the environment has changed so much that they have become visible. I think that variation in all human abilities is ‘natural’ and necessary, it is what makes our species so adaptive; we have a variety of types of people who are able to come to the fore when the problem/environment requires it. We thrive when we have and appreciate diversity.

    People who ‘lack empathy’ are valuable also. Being an ‘Aspergers’, I lack empathy, and being able to say and think what I did about stepping over beggars, shows this. I should have known that this could have upset some people who have more neurons in the area of understanding how others ‘feel’ than I do.

    I think if I personally, if I had not had to rely on welfare, I would feel and think differently about having to pay tax. As it is, it is the evidence of my experience as a welfare bludger and then my psych education combined to construct my understanding of the necessity of tax. I think that contrary to what I said earlier, tax actually isn’t efficiently used in the area of welfare, but if some people stopped whining about what everyone knows is essential – death and taxes.

  30. TerjeP says:

    You can empathise with beggars and not sympathise. I have a nephew who due to extreme social distinction is homeless. Due largely I suspect to poor parenting he lacks the capacity to view any given situation from the view point of others. It makes him impossible to live with which is why he lives on the streets. I can empathise with him, as in see things from his perspective, but that doesn’t necessarily make me want to help. Sometimes I do but it is an act of extreme charity based on love for a little kid I once knew. In those moments of charity I am engaged in sympathy (wanting to help him out of pain) but most of the time I just have empathy (an understanding that he is in pain).

    You can have loads of empathy and still step over beggars. You can even empathise with people for the purposes of exploiting them. Empathy is an amoral ability to understand. Sympathy is about caring.

    I didn’t know you had aspergers. It seems to me to be a type of blind spot that limits ones capacity to interprete social signals. I can’t see a lot of advantage in it other than a possible reduction in a certain type of noise.

  31. TerjeP says:

    I meant dysfunction not distinction.

  32. JB Cairns says:

    if you have never been homeless you cannot empathise with someone who is hopeless, same with poverty, unemployed etc.

  33. Julie Thomas says:

    Terje, by my definition of empathy, if you don’t want to help somebody get better, live better, be a better person, you aren’t ’empathising’. Empathising requires that you first see that the other person is inherently valuable and deserves respect.

    I think that talking about your relative, you have made the ‘judgement’; the pejorative value judgement, that he is either not fixable or is choosing not to help himself. You blame his upbringing and that has to have been a factor, but the wider environment is also a big factor and the basic genetic endowment is the starting point upon which the rest of the person is built.

    There is evidence that our brains are wired differently, so how can you ‘blame’ your relative for not having the neurons that he needed to be able to make the right choices; to have the resilience that allows him to overcome the public criticism, humiliation and stereotyping that has gone down about those on welfare over the pasts decades without being depressed and you know, in some people especially intelligent young men who aren’t coping, depression often looks like ‘I don’t give a fuck’.

  34. Julie Thomas says:

    JB Exactly,I think that having the experience actually makes new neurons or connections so that someone who has been there done that, does learn to empathise.

  35. Julie Thomas says:

    I totally agree, Sancho, but there actually is no diagnosis of psychopathology for children; If people are saying that a child is a psychopath or even a potential psychopath, it isn’t because the child has been diagnosed by a professional.

    And a psychopath is only useless/dangerous as a member of society if he or she is not properly socialised. Some of the top surgeons we have, and the top barristers have been found to have similar psychologies to psychopaths; their ability to think and act in ways that are not ‘neuro-typical’ can be really useful for all of us.

    The problem arises when people who are ‘different’; not ‘neuro-typical’ are born into poor families who have no resources to cope with the problems that come with atypical children, and a society that blames them for not being able to control a child who is more difficult to socialise, than other children are. In these cases, the special abilities that the child might have had are wasted or turn into disabilities for them and their society.

    There is a lot of evidence about labelling and stereotyping children that shows that it can have a significant negative effect on ability. Also check wiki for the stereotype effect.


    • Sancho says:

      Actually, the article describes the diagnostic tools used to conclude that the children in question meet the criteria for psychopathy, but there’s still the problem that the children are still developing.

      It also touches on the capacity to teach empathy as an intellectual quality, but then we’re back to the problem of labeling children with adult psych traits.

      • Julie Thomas says:

        Sancho I don’t think you are talking about the article I linked to above; it was about stereotyping and how it reduces motivation in children.

        • Sancho says:

          I was referring back to the article I posted, because you wrote:

          there actually is no diagnosis of psychopathology for children; If people are saying that a child is a psychopath or even a potential psychopath, it isn’t because the child has been diagnosed by a professional.

          …which isn’t so.

  36. TerjeP says:

    Julie – okay we are at a semantic cross roads. I don’t use empathy in the same way you do. For me understanding and caring are different issues.

  37. Julie Thomas says:

    Terje I don’t think empathy requires caring. I am sure I didn’t say that one has to understand and care, I think I said or meant to say that valuing a human being as a having a right to be here to be part of the universe – I keep expanding my definition – I realise that – but I mean to insist that empathy in it’s psychological meaning doesn’t mean ‘caring’ in the way that I suspect you mean ‘caring’.

    Caring is another word that is potentially ‘loaded’ word, when it is used by people who think caring is something we all have and can do and there are others who think that caring is something that nurses do as a job.

    The way I think of empathy is that I can see “that there but for the grace of God go I”. There is nothing special about me that earned me the right to be here and another person to be cold and lonely sleeping on the street. You might be able to objectively assess yourself as better than another person but that’s a capacity few of us have; we all do it subjectively of course.

  38. Julie Thomas says:

    Sancho I am so sorry I didn’t even see your link – but now I read it, I can only say, that is America and I’m pretty sure but not as certain as I was before, that this isn’t happening in Australia. Do you think it is?

  39. TerjeP says:

    Julie – I agree with the sentiment of “there but for the grace of God go I” or at least the atheist equivalent. I tend to regard myself as more fortunate than others rather than better than others. And I am quite capable of caring and often do. It’s just that in my mind it is clearly possible to understand somebody and their predicament but have little concern for their doing anything to help rectify it.

    For example in a business negotiation you might through insightful listening come to understand that the other party is in need of a quick deal because of financial pressure they are under. And you might understand that delaying tactics are going to cause them some emotional grief. You could use this knowledge to go easy on the person or you could use it to go hard on them. Either way the insight about their plight is a product of empathy. The ability to put yourself in their shoes and see the world as they would see it is what I call empathy. However how you may respond to that insight could be considerate or inconsiderate. Selfish or benevolent. Either way the ability to gain the insight is what empathy is all about. Empathy is amoral.

  40. Julie Thomas says:

    Terje ” It’s just that in my mind it is clearly possible to understand somebody and their predicament but have little concern for their doing anything to help rectify it.”

    I agree, but this is because you are an outlier, all libertarians are. You don’t have a ‘neuro-typical’ amount of those neurons that allow you to ‘feel’ like ‘normal’ people do. The fact is that most people, have more of the neurons that providing them with the ability to ‘feel’ what people in pain – mental or physical feel – without judging the pain as being the result of a lack of self-reliance.

    These are the people that are just as necessary for the survival of our species as are those of us who can and do value reason; and I value reason but not above all other human capacities.

    I think the next step I took after understanding that I am just one among many, was to understand that my freedom and security – and both are necessary in a decent society (children absolutely need security and certainty as well as freedom, to develop without psychopathology) – depend on how the rest of society behaves, just as much or as more as it depends on how I behave.

    To have freedom we need everyone to be able to make the choices that allow for a free society. The individual (most of us anyway) need a society; If you are so different to the ‘normal’ person who needs people and feels empathy and has no doubt that it exists perhaps you should try sea-steading where you can establish your ideal society of non-caring rational individuals?

    Empathy is natural; ’empathy devices’ exist in the body and in the brain. You make the judgement that empathy it is immoral and provide no reasoning for that, except perhaps Ayn Rands rubbish? Because there is no generally respected body of reasoning that supports that claim.

    Anyway Terje, have you heard the joke about how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
    Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.

    And I’m not even a real psychologist, so I think I’m done. But thanks.

    LOL, you don’t want to change. Your rider and your elephant are on a clear and easy path but the path is a dead end. It has left you in the ‘conservative dark’ rather than being able to make your way into the ‘ethical light’.

  41. TerjeP says:

    I said empathy was amoral not immoral. We seem to be wading in a semantic mine field here. I do hope you know the difference between amoral and immoral.

    As for the following assertion by you:-

    “You don’t have a ‘neuro-typical’ amount of those neurons that allow you to ‘feel’ like ‘normal’ people do.”

    I think this is a somewhat outrageous assertion based on vain supposition on your part. You are making a stack of assumptions about what I feel and what I don’t feel. You are simply not in a position to judge. We have not even discussed what I feel in anything more than a very narrow sense. Let alone whether it is a product of some neuro deficiency. I could assert that this leap of logic on your part shows that you are half brain dead but that simply wouldn’t be polite and would probably be equally vain.

  42. Julie Thomas says:

    Terje what are you talking about?

    I just got lost and bored with your typical libertarian/asperger tendency to quibble and find meaning in any difference there might be between amoral and immoral.

    Or did I insult you? What particular part of what I said was the hot button issue?

    Gotta be some reason(?) – maybe not reason; maybe emotion – for why you are so cross with me. But I don’t care to know; that’s your karma.

    • Patrick says:

      Julie, amoral and immoral are fundamentally different.

      Also, if you thought of libertarians as a class of people and not an epithet, might realise that possibly the primary moral principle f libertarianism is a commitment to judge less.

  43. TerjeP says:

    Julie – for somebody that does not care to hear my response you do ask a lot of questions. And seriously if you don’t know the difference between amoral and immoral you are a philosophical pygmy and should try a different topic.

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