The Causes of Ideological Divergence

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Morality and Ideology Evolved to Solve the Problem of Cooperation

The capacity to cooperate evolved as a result of individual and group selection pressures.1 While Ideology employs mental functions that enable cooperation among large groups of individuals, ideologies differ from one another with respect to the specific survival-based
values that are promoted.

Ideologies differ because the challenges faced by human communities vary. As threats to the group change over time, proposed solutions to such challenges also change. A system that unequally distributes food secured through foraging and hunting may be less of a hindrance to group cooperation and cohesion during times of adequate rainfall and relative abundance, for example, but the salience of concerns relating to fairness may increase dramatically during periods of drought and relative scarcity.

One would expect similar variation in ideology between communities. Each community faces a different constellation of challenges: the ideology that prevails in each group will be contingent upon the specific ecology within which the community finds itself. Whereas the principal threat towards one community may involve an aggressive neighbor, for example, another community’s survival may be predicated on reducing attrition, retaining its members, or improving the survival rate of its children.

A Ubiquitous Set of Challenges Produced Universal Values

The Moral Foundation Theory developed by Jonathan Haidt identifies adaptive challenges faced by all large groups.2 While each group exists within a distinct ecology, and while specific challenges vary between groups and within the same group over time, all large groups will need to derive solutions to a core group of adaptive challenges:

  • Justice/Fairness: Each community must develop values that meet the adaptive challenge of ensuring that the rewards of cooperation are fairly distributed. Moral intuitions that relate to justice and fairness arise from the threat of exploitation of weaker group members by those who are more powerful.
  • Care/Harm: In order for communities to survive, they must evolve moral systems that meet the adaptive challenge of taking care of children. Values that emphasize care, compassion, and the prevention of harm probably evolved in response to this challenge.
  • Liberty/Freedom: Powerful individuals may seek to dominate the group. Moral intuitions that relate to liberty and freedom address the adaptive challenge of domination within the group and alert people to any signs of attempted domination. These values trigger an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.
  • Loyalty: Groups need mechanisms to prevent attrition. If large numbers of members join other groups, the community will not survive. Similarly, groups must form and maintain alliances and coalitions with other groups. Values that emphasize loyalty oppose the threat of betrayal.
  • Authority: Reverence for authority evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships within social hierarchies. Cooperation entails respect for roles, rules, and systems of communication and collaboration to which group members must reliably adhere. Moral intuitions that relate to authority are sensitive to the threat of subversion.
  • Sanctity: Sanctity refers to the tendency to invest objects – such as flags, statues, monuments, institutions, uniforms, totems, medals, documents or books – with infinite value. Sacred objects are important for binding people together.

    Humans, unlike many animals, must learn what to eat. Such flexibility confers an enormous advantage: one can be confident of finding something to eat in a new habitat. Being an Omnivore is simultaneously disadvantageous, however, because new foods can be toxic, infected with microbes, or riddled with parasitic worms. This problem has been described as the “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining wary of them until they prove safe.3 Moral intuitions relating to sanctity evolved in response to this condition, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world with pathogens and parasites. Moral intuitions that involve sanctity oppose degradation and decay.

Ideological Diversity

Each of the above-listed cluster of intuitions constitutes a “Moral Foundation” upon which norms, institutions and ideologies are based. While Moral Foundations related to the above-described intuitions exist in all cultures, there will be enormous variation between groups relative to the degree which each moral foundation is emphasized. Cultures also vary with respect to the specific ideas and practices evolved to express each moral foundation.

If Moral Foundations are universal, and if ideology is based upon moral intuitions derived from these Moral Foundations, what gives rise to ideological diversity?

There are two principal reasons why attachment to ideology inevitably produces dissonance:

  1. Ideologies Prioritize Some Moral Foundations Over Others

    American liberal or “progressive” culture exemplifies the extent to which ideology can narrowly focus on one or more moral foundations at the expense of others. Individuals who use the term “liberal” to describe their ideas (see “DEFINITIONS”, below) are primarily concerned with Justice and Compassion. Adherents to liberal ideology may not even acknowledge the existence or legitimacy of moral intuitions that relate to Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity. Americans who use the term “conservative” to describe themselves tend, on the other hand, to prioritize the Liberty/Freedom moral foundation. This emphasis is often expressed as “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Give-me-Liberty” anti-government anger.

Group Identification

Prioritized Moral Foundation









2. Ideologies Identify Different Threats to Each Moral Foundation

Even when ideologies seek to advance the same Moral Foundation, different ideologies identify different threats to the Moral Foundation that each ideology shares. While threats to Justice and Fairness are addressed by both the American Left and Right, for example, the Left sees this Moral Foundation threatened by powerful private interests and oppressive systems (unregulated Corporate interests or, more recently, “systemic racism”), while the Right identifies government intrusion (regulation, taxation, or, more recently, “social engineering”) as constitutive of the principal threat.

Threats to Sanctity can also be conceived as emanating from different sources. Although the Sanctity foundation is most used by the nationalists and the religious right – flags, anthems, crosses and saints are examples of objects endowed with sacred significance – one can also find the foundation’s impurity-avoidance function in natural food stores, where a variety of products promise to cleanse one’s mind or body of “toxins”. The Sanctity foundation can also be found in the environmental movement, where degradation of the biosphere is reviled not only because it poses a physical threat to life but also because it stands for a more symbolic kind of pollution, a degradation of nature and humanity’s place within it.4

Group Identification

Moral Foundation




Corporate Interests; “Systemic Racism”



Government Interference

“Work Should Be Rewarded”: How a Universal Value Leads to Ideological Divergence

The universal value Work Should Be Rewarded expresses the Justice/Fairness Moral Foundation. While this principle is universally embraced, it simultaneously exemplifies the way in which a universally shared moral intuition can produce dissension, insofar as a divergence of ideas may take root with regard to the source of threat to a universal value.

Individuals who use the word “conservative” to describe themselves (see “DEFINITIONS”, below) are most sensitive to the prospect that governmental assistance to the needy (in the form assistance to the jobless or in the form of progressive taxation) will undercut hard work and the motivation to pursue it. Governmental assistance and regulation is perceived as supporting “free riders” and as undercutting individual responsibility and the necessity of hard work as a means of bettering oneself and one’s family.

Those who use the term “liberal” to describe themselves also embrace the principle that Work Should be Rewarded. Yet the threat to this principle is construed as deriving from income inequality, inadequate minimum wage, or lack of work opportunities. It is these problems, from the liberal point of view, that render governmental action necessary.

Whereas individuals on the Left advance regulation and assistance to those with low income due to moral intuitions that relate to Justice and Compassion, the Right articulates compassion for those who work hard but see their income eroded by taxation and government intrusion. The Right also accesses moral intuitions relating to Justice: It is unfair to assist the jobless when so many feel compelled to work and when many might not work if an alternative to work is available to them. For conservatives, government assistance demotivates people to work because the rewards associated with free riding renders hard work unnecessary.

“While We are Born to be Righteous, We Must Learn What We Should be Righteous About”. 5

The human capacity for ideology and righteousness is analogous to the human capacity for speech and language. Humans are born with the capacity for speech but require prolonged exposure to a specific language for that capacity to be expressed. Similarly, while the capacity for ideological thinking is innate, and while each individual’s genetic endowment will influence the specific ideology embraced by the individual, the content of the ideology internalized by each individual is culturally transmitted. The ideas and behaviors that constitute a specific ideology are communicated to the individual from birth.

Why do some people bind and blind themselves to the “liberal” team, and why do others bind and blind themselves to the “conservative” team? There are three principal factors that determine the “team” that an individual joins:

  • Factor 1: Genetics. Identical twins reared in separate households share similar ideologies, even if the households within which they were raised adhere to significantly disparate ideologies. Genetics explains about one third to one half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. 6

    The principal genetic/temperamental differences that gives rise to ideological diversity between “liberals” and “conservatives” relate to Threat Sensitivity (salient among Conservatives) and Openness to Experience (salient among Liberals).7 A similar manifestation of such divergence is manifest in attitudes towards child-rearing: individuals who identify as conservative strongly value obedience in their children, whereas persons who identify as liberal are most concerned about cultivating intellectual curiosity in their offspring.8
  • Factor 2: Personality Traits. Traits guide children along different paths. Different sets of genes gave siblings “different first drafts of their minds, which led them down different paths, through different life experiences, and into different moral subcultures. By the time they reach adulthood they have become very different people.” 9
  • Factor 3: Life Narratives. Narratives are simplified and selective reconstructions of the past. The stories individuals create to explain and justify themselves and their beliefs reinforces an attachment to ideology.

The life narratives of conservatives and liberals differ. When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, for example, conservatives underscored deep feelings of respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group, and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness.10

Such narratives are self-perpetuating. The ideologue scans and selects for experiences that justify and support the ideology to which he or she is attached. A person who describes herself as “liberal”, for example, is prone to find evidence of injustice and lack of compassion when searching for the basis of social problems. A self-described “conservative”, on other hand, is likely to find evidence that social problems are attributable to insufficient respect for legitimate authority. She is likely to find evidence that problems are rooted in an insufficient sense of individual responsibility and inadequate feelings of loyalty to sacred institutions (such as family, church, or nation).

Ideology as Double-Edged Sword

Insofar as individuals and groups differ with regard to

1. The specific Moral Foundations that are emphasized, and

2. The origin of the threats to each Moral Foundation,

the capacity for ideology is a double-edged sword: While ideology evolved to facilitate cooperative work, the mental functions that entail cooperation also ensure that cooperative groups will be cursed by some level of moralistic conflict.


Polarizing Belief Systems Intellectualize and Justify Divergent Patterns of Moral Intuition

What is “Conservatism”? 10

Although the term “Conservative” is often associated with the American Republican party and Trumpism, the beliefs, behaviors, and policies of the American Republican Party since 2016 are frequently incompatible with conservatism and often diametrically oppose important Conservative moral and intellectual principles.11

Samuel Taylor Coleridge perhaps best articulated the moral intuitions underlying conservatism when he declared that the “consequences of the heroic medicines recommended by the Revolutionists [are] far more dreadful than the disease.” Initially an ardent enthusiast for the French Revolution who became disillusioned with its excesses, Coleridge – like Edmund Burke – ultimately grew suspicious of those who advocated rapid social change.

For the purpose of this article, intellectual justification for conservative moral intuitions generally entail:

  • Prescriptions based more on experience rather than reason. Aristotle, sometimes regarded as precursor of modern conservatism, held that morality and politics – unlike natural science – lacked special experts, and that in these areas human experience is the main source of knowledge and wisdom. Confucius is another possible precursor of modern conservatism, as his concern for the prospect of social breakdown led to a cautious outlook that emphasized authority and hierarchy.
  • Suspiciousness of utopianism and the idea that humans and society can be perfected.
  • Respect for Authority and an assumption that a hierarchy of authority is most conducive to human well-being.
  • An attitude that is fearful of sudden change and that trusts arrangements that are tried and tested. Edmund Burke held that there is a practical wisdom in institutions that is mostly not articulable theoretically, certainly not in advance, and that such practical wisdom is passed down in culture and tradition. Ancient institutions – such as family, nation, and religion – embody a tacit wisdom that warrant our respect. Conservatives are skeptical of large-scale constitutional, economic or cultural planning, because behavior and institutions have organically evolved through the wisdom of generations and cannot easily be articulated.

What is a “Liberalism”? 12

For the purpose of this article, intellectual justification for liberal moral intuitions entail:

  • Faith in moral progress and suspicion of tradition. Liberals are wary of traditional sources of moral authority and tend to assume that moral progress entails questioning and discarding traditional beliefs and practices. Moral progress often involves the use of reason and compassion to challenge traditional beliefs, practices and institutions.
  • Ensuring that economic prosperity is tethered to greater social and economic equality. A concern for the advancement of social and economic equality – and restraining powerful and potentially oppressive private interests that prevent such equality from being realized – is often termed “progressive”. The State is seen as the vehicle through which equality can be furthered. More recently the focus of “progressives” (and the ideological combatants who oppose them) have increasingly encompassed culture as well as laws, leading to so-called “culture-wars”.
  • Deep concern for “Social Justice”. In sharp contrast with conservatives (who assume that existing social arrangements should generally be preserved), liberals assume that the social structures should be rearranged to advance the long-term prospects of the least advantaged. “Progressives” believe that the basic structure of society should be modified by the State, if necessary, to ensure that no social group advances at the cost of another. The broader classical liberal tradition was centrally concerned with bettering the lot of the working class, women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and other socially disadvantaged groups.


  1. See “How Did We Get So Ideological?”, first in a series on Ideology and Ideological Blindness, found on this website.

2. Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage Books. New York. 2012.

3. Ibid. Page 172.

4. Ibid. Page 174.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid. Page 325.

7. Ibid.

8. “Teaching the Children: Sharp Ideological Differences, Some Common Ground”. Pew Research Center. September 18. 2014.

9. Haidt. Page 328.

10. Summary of the intellectual basis for Conservatism is derived from entry on “Conservative” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

11. While ideological blindness probably contributes to an understanding of the loss of reality-contact plaguing the Republican party since 2016, this extraordinary circumstance is attributable to numerous other factors in addition to ideological blindness and is to this extent beyond the scope of this article.

A Conservative politician captured the “hijacking” of American conservatism:

“It is just so strange to me. When I ran (in 2014), it was about fiscal conservatism and keeping the size of the federal government smaller rather than larger. It was about the national debt,” he said. “And now Trump, because of his persona, it seems like he has hijacked the party, and we are focused on nonsensical things like the ‘deep state’ and conspiracy theories.”

Former Republican congressman Dave Trott (Michigan). He has since renounced the Party.

From: “Republicans struggle to define a new governing coalition as Trump closes grip on party.” Washington Post. By Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey. May 23, 2021.

12. Summary of the intellectual basis for Liberalism is derived from entry on “Liberalism” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2 thoughts

  1. Andy, this is terrific – a gift for those of us who are perplexed by the bitterness and lack of curiosity for compromise and finding the center. Thank you!
    Did Haidt address at any point the idea of a temporary social safety net – in other words, the importance of helping through a temporary tough time? An economic downturn, a drought, sickness or whatever that impacts someone and for which they need some form of support – eg health care, money, housing – but only temporarily? I assume that would be liberal. But I could be wrong. Also what of the shared duties to pay for government services like food inspection, safe water, roads, police/fire service – is that generally more progressive? Or does it depend on the actual service/gov’t function?
    Thanks again this is excellent!

    1. Thank you, Daven. I think you capture two critically important aspects of the problem our culture now faces with respect to
      ideological blindness, i.e., “bitterness” and “lack of curiosity”. The two aspects are inextricably linked, naturally, insofar as
      entrenched resentment is not an “open” attitude, and to this extent does not conduce to intellectual curiosity. It is ironic to find this problem on the so-called “left”, insofar as persons who identify with this group ostensibly place a high value on intellectual curiosity.

      Classically “liberal” ideology favors state-sponsored support for those who are afflicted by an economic downturn. Ideas regarding the form and extent of support, and who is eligible to receive such support, fall on a continuum. More moderate liberals tend to favor temporary and limited support from the state, whole those who have more radical views seek to re-structure the system to prevent the conditions that cause unequal outcomes from arising.

      Classically “conservative” ideology favors robust state sponsored services that are specifically focused on providing security for the population. Police and Fire services would fall into this category. The function of police, for example, is to defend the population against an external threat (i.e., crime). This function is fully appreciated by conservatives because they are most “threat sensitive”. For conservatives, one of the exclusive functions of the State (i.e. government) is to protect the population against external threats. They are far less inclined to favor governmental support for services that don’t directly align with this function. If one’s audience is temperamentally or ideologically conservative, then, one would want to frame support for government intervention in terms of threat (as a cost of government inaction) and security (as the impetus for government action).

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