Why to expect compassionate conservatism
Jun 4, 2008 (Updated Dec 24, 2008)
The Bottom Line Although it is often thought strange that conservatives should be more compassionate the progressives, in terms of psychological typology it is very much expected.
The American sociologist Arthur C. Brooks is well known for his extensive studies of charitable giving. His 2006 book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism surprised many with its finding that conservatives gave much more to charity than liberals, even allowing for differences in income. (Differences in cost of living, which my 2007 essay Hip Pocket Politics showed determine political and social beliefs, were unfortunately ignored)
In this essay I will aim to show here that, in terms of psychological typology, it is to be expected that conservatives will be more compassionate and more caring than progressives.
Personality theory, ever since its development, has defined several distinct psychological types according to a number of systems. The most familiar system is known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (after Isabel Myers and her mother Katherine Briggs). This system is based upon four polar opposites or "preferences", known as Extroverted/Introverted, INtuition/Sensation, Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perceiving (the letters in bold are the standard abbreviations for each preference). In this system, each individual is given a type through assigning one letter of each pair, for example ESTJ. Some formats of this system allow for one - though I assume no more - of these letters to be replace by X.
Each preference in MBTI affects one aspect of a person's character. The E/I preference affects orientation towards the world, with extroverts being more focused on the outer world and introverts on the inner life. The N/S preferences refers to the way in which the person perceives information, with intuitives doing so through abstractions and sensers through physical senses. The J/P type refers to attitude towards the world, with judgers preferring settled organisation and perceivers an open attitude.
The most important preference for the purpose of this study, however, is the T/F preference. Thinking types tend to rely on reason and are generally concerned mainly with finding the objective truth in any given situation. Thinking types base judgment upon all the facts and data they find about the situation under study. Because they are very concerned about the objective truth, thinking types tend to rely on an individual's own laws to make decisions. They tend to be uncomfortable with concepts of inherent natural laws because they believe the objective truth must be considered above all other considerations. Laws for the thinking type relate to the particular situation and are always relative to it, culturally conditioned and never applicable outside that culture. They are generally uncomfortable with decisions based around emotional or personal considerations, which they generally view as leading to a biased analysis of a problem. Thinking types generally therefore believe in being as truthful as possible and at times this can make them fanatical and exaggerated - consequently hurting or even scaring more sensitive types. In extreme cases, overdeveloped thinking types can lose objectivity and feel as though their opinions are more important than anything else, at times even trying to force their opinions on other people.
In general, thinking types are socially liberal. A number of factors explain this. Because thinking types analyse a situation using reason, they are generally the type of person who will discover new ideas that could be used to solve problems. Moreover, because they lack deep emotional ties, they are comfortable with radical changes whenever they see them necessary and are not personally affected thereby. Thinking types also often focus on what needs fixing, even in some situations where there is actually little need to change a situation. In such cases, thinking-oriented people can be highly impractical, although they generally have a better grasp of reality than feeling-oriented types. Their ability to grasp reality, however, very frequently makes thinking types such efficient managers that they develop a belief in self sufficiency leaving no room for generosity or emotional ties.
Feeling types rely largely on their emotional reaction to a situation. They do this in a very personal manner, being concerned with whether or not something will hurt themselves or other people in any way. They are extremely sensitive, deeply empathetic and easily wounded, longing for deep, ideally permanent emotional ties. Because they hate others being in pain, feeling types have genuine desire to help and care for others as directly as possible. Hence, many enjoy working in the caring professions and/or working for and giving money to organisations devoted to relieving such problems as poverty or disabilities. For this reason, feeling types are likely to enjoy working in charities or for specialised volunteer groups much more than thinking types do, generally believing action much more effective than management to prevent social problems. Hospitality, generosity and contributing personally to the welfare of society by giving their own personal resources to those in need are thus virtues of great importance to feeling types. (Thinking types, in contrast, often believe voluntary work is an excuse for failing to correct the social problems that necessitate it.)
This extremely personal, relationship-oriented focus makes feeling types strong believers in natural laws, which they see as protecting individuals and creating "natural communities", most significantly of course the family. For this reason, feeling types believe that it is extremely dangerous to experiment with new social structures that the thinking type may see as necessary in the event of major social or political changes or problems. To the feeling type such changes will be a major source of pain for the vast majority of people around him/her. They believe this will hurt people in manners the thinking type does not consider through disrupting the emotional - especially familial - bonds that hold a society together. They will suppress thinking that contradicts their own deep feelings no matter how much it is supported by empirical evidence.
For this last reason especially, feeling types tend to be socially conservative. Feeling types are poor with management work as it is much too logical for them and they hate others managing their personal affairs. Inability to plan difficult jobs and unwillingness to rely on complete strangers whose potential aggression they fear frequently leads feeling types to "clinging" behaviour. “Clinging” makes feeling types still more conservative than people who are via savings and thrift completely self-reliant and believe government should never interfere with business.
In situations with which they are uncomfortable, feeling types turn to government to protect family and community. Examples of such "protection" are John Howard's "Baby Bonus" or the building of uneconomic roads to give cheap land and spacious housing. (In a sense, the huge American cars of the 1960s and modern 4WDs are highly symbolic of the feeling type's need for space to protect his/her emotional sensitivity. Both can be viewed as a "shield" between the feeling type and the outside world of hard-hearted insensitive people).
Family formation is, as I mentioned in Hip Pocket Politics, a major breeder of conservatism and requires deep emotions for stability. Thus, (relatively) feeling-oriented cultures concentrate where land is cheap and comfort available without excessive discipline, thrift or public welfare. Today, the only places meeting these requirements are Australia and parts of the United States.
The requirement of any of these for prosperity is indicative of an environment with limited or no resources for an industrial economy and tends to lead - in one way or another - to a worldview that believes people should either gain help via taxation of the rich or hoard money and self-consciously reduce consumption in order to support themselves in the long term. Both alternatives produce a personality that is highly thinking-oriented because extreme self-reliance (to store enough money for long-term prosperity) or ability to accept frequent radical change is required - to an extreme extent in Europe and East Asia, whose societies have since the Industrial Revolution developed values that view compassion and empathy as vices. Such a viewpoint leaves no room for voluntary charity or work, but because hurting people is not viewed as illegitimate as it would be by a feeling type, it allows for belief that radical disruption of the political system is the best solution to crises.
This radically thinking-oriented viewpoint puts much more pressure on governments to respond to the needs of those who are not rich. Assertiveness of the majority explains the high minimum wages and effective environmental policies of northern Europe, especially Scandinavia (where aggressive, anti-religious "black metal" is a major cultural force and the perfect symbol of un-compassionate self-centredness).
Although the factors outlined above go a long way toward explaining the compassion of conservatives, Brooks' research in Who Really Cares showed the key issue to be religion. Who Really Cares shows secular conservatives - who as a group resemble in some ways the culture of East Asia with its emphasis on thrift - as no more compassionate than secular liberals.
Religion is clearly related to the thinking/feeling preference. Traditional religious bodies are highly feeling-oriented and require extreme self-sacrifice and especially submission of will. Submission of will and opinions is acceptable to the feeling type who will view it as helping others, but utterly unacceptable to the thinking type whose highly logical viewpoint does not allow for restrictions on what may be read. Moreover, the emotional insensitivity of thinking types means they will never consider potentially harmful effects of intellectual ideas as a feeling type would. Differences in religiosity thus serve to enhance the differences in compassion inherent in the T/F preference.
Traditional religion is thus highly feeling-oriented: the God of the Bible is a very rare type of highly personal feminised male. This fits in with the fact that feeling types have traditionally been much more common among females than males, and attendance of religious services has been correspondingly greater. Recent studies suggest thinking types are becoming more frequent among women as their religious attendance declines. This firmly suggests that the secularisation of the developed world outside Australia and Red America is masculinisation or defeminisation. (The fact that feeling types have not become correspondingly more frequent among males demonstrates that - contrary to common perceptions and viewpoints amongst both Left and Right - masculinisation of women does not cause feminisation of men. The rise of black metal in Scandinavia where feminism is most advanced, suggests the reverse is the case.)
Who Really Cares showed no gender differences in charitable giving, but defeminisation of women rather than absence of thinking/feeling influence is the most likely explanation, though another possibility is the inherent cautiousness of women that may be seen as another side to their generally security-oriented nature which is often criticised on the Right (for instance in John Lott's Freedomnomics).
In summary, personality psychology clearly shows that compassionate conservatives and un-compassionate liberals are to be expected for the simple reason that feeling-oriented, compassionate types are inherently highly conservative. This conservatism is largely due to their strong belief in personal rather than outside responsibility for social problems causing distrust of government and belief that individuals and especially communities must take responsibility for social problems.