As summarized by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the basic difference between the moral intuitions of liberals and conservatives is that the moral lobes of liberals light up in response to the factors of harm / care and fairness / justice, with much weaker responses to authority / hierarchy, in-group / community / loyalty, and purity / taboo. Conservative brains respond about equally to all five of these factors, and the largest split with liberals is over the factor of purity.
This shows up today in debates over whether something disgusting like gay butt-sex ought to be condoned or condemned. "Just because it's yucky doesn't mean we should condemn, punish, or quarantine it," says the liberal. "We find things yucky for a reason," the conservative replies: "it's Mother Nature's way of guiding us toward the healthy and wholesome, and away from the diseased and infectious."
But as Haidt and others have observed, liberals do have strongly puritanical intuitions about some things. Look at how obsessive they are about food taboos — any type of food that is not organic, that is genetically modified, that has too much fat, too much sugar, too much sodium, gluten, dairy, peanuts, or high-fructose corn syrup. They are also the type to compulsively use hand sanitizers, napalm for their kitchen countertops, and other extreme forms of hygiene.
An earlier post extended this puzzle to looking at racial differences in disgust and morality between East Asians and Europeans (and Middle Easterners). Overall, East Asians don't show as much revulsion toward as wide a variety of stimuli as Europeans do, and they are more permissive of and more likely to consume what Europeans would consider the most vile of cultural garbage — eating raw squid, watching a cartoon squid rape a 10 year-old girl, buying used panties from vending machines, and so on and so forth. This is why East Asia has not exported a moral code like Europe and the Middle East has.
At the same time, Asians follow more elaborate behaviors to ensure hygiene, such as wearing different pairs of shoes in different rooms of the house, so as to not transfer pollution from a dirtier room to a cleaner room.
What underlies the apparent exceptions is the scope of focus: liberals and Asians restrict purity concerns to the personal, while conservatives and Europeans extend it farther out into the communal. The OCD mindset and habits of the hygiene freaks is fundamentally isolating, sensing everything outside of the self as a threat. The "how dare they?" mindset and habits of standard-bearers is pro-social, attempting to maintain the purity of people, places, things, symbols, and roles against the desecration which would corrode communal identity.
Notice that liberals don't care if some random school doesn't serve organic food in the cafeteria — it's only the schools that their own children attend that matter, and even then they'll give up and pack a separate organic lunch without launching a broader campaign. Only the tiniest fraction of delusional crusaders feel like non-organic school lunch is a travesty that requires correction across the entire school system. Ditto for their OCD routines in the bathroom and kitchen — what do they care about what you do in your bathroom and your kitchen, provided you and they remain apart?
For liberals, everyone is entitled to their own set of hygiene routines and food taboos, and no norms are held for larger groups than the individual (or at most a nuclear household), let alone are they enforced by the larger-group members. Occasionally, a band of do-gooder mommies whose children attend the same school will cooperate to establish and enforce their organic salad bar ways at the school, but again this is uncommon even for liberals.
Conservatives don't act according to the norm of "I'll let you do what you want, if you leave me to do what I want." What if that means I raise the American flag each morning outside my house, while every morning you burn a new American flag in your driveway? What if some bunch of attention junkies on Halloween want to go out in public dressed up as "slutty nuns"? What happens when some of us in the neighborhood want to preserve the mini-golf course where families have been playing and bonding for decades, while others want it replaced by yet another chunk of condos with throwaway trendoid shops at street level ("mixed-use development")?
Conservative-minded folks sanctify these things — whether they are symbolic like the flag, role-based like "nun in the Church," or tangible like the mini-golf course — because they bind us to others in a community at a point in time, connect us back to those who held these things as part of their group identity, too, and will continue to link future generations to us and our predecessors.
This is also why fans of a sports team don't want the name or mascot changed — both are central to the totem with which they all identify, and altering them would sever ties to the past. Changing the team's location is almost as bad, although uprooting an intact totem is not as sacrilegious as adulterating its name and form willy-nilly.
When the focus on purity could go either way, the conservative will sense the threat to communal cohesion, while the liberal senses the threat to individual health. Alcoholism, substance abuse, sleeping around, disgusting sex acts — liberals see more and more harm being done to the individual, and the need for others to care for them until they're better. Hence their solutions follow the model of self-focused therapy. (That is, when they are not "tolerant of" i.e. callous toward others descending into degradation, although in fairness that is more of a libertarian than a liberal inclination.)
Conservatives see the pollution of the individual in these cases, but they also see how this person's decay will weaken the bonds of everyone who is connected to them. And not only in the sense of actively threatening to harm others, e.g. a drunk who begins beating his wife. Even a non-violent, apathetic drunk will weaken the bond between him and his wife, and therefore between his family and the others in the community. The video game addict isn't just "wasting his life" — which he certainly is — he's one less anchor for social ties that run throughout the community.
The end-point of a liberal-guided society is the insectoid hive found in East Asia, where each little drone in each little cell follows their OCD rituals to maintain individual cleanliness (and indirectly, public cleanliness), and where junkies are sent off to heal themselves at video game addiction camp. But also where nothing is held sacred or taboo, and so where everything is in a constant state of flux, no two drones identifying with each other, and none of them feeling securely rooted in the past.
White folks are never going to become that atomized and soulless, but normal people need to point out where the liberal path would ultimately take us, to guard against the Panglossian assurances of how great it'll be when everyone tolerates everyone else's lifestyle choices, or the fallback agnosticism about how we can't know what the effects will be unless we try it. (Hey, I know, let's eat random wild berries — we won't know which are poisonous until we swallow a bucketful.)
They might lazily object about "OMG, seriously? Slippery slope arguments in 2014, really?" But normal folks don't want to take even one more step in the insectoid direction. We've already gone down that path far enough. Pointing to the examples of East Asian societies would instead serve as a reminder of what we need to be moving away from.