Notes On Libertarian Moral Values

References: Excerpts taken from

Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians

Citation: Iyer R, Koleva S, Graham J, Ditto P, Haidt J (2012) Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366.

As I study Jonathon Haight’s works on moral/ethical values I came across the above 2012 research article on how libertarians self-identify their beliefs and values. Libertarians score differently that both liberals and conservatives on beliefs about morals and ethics.
Haight reports that studies show that liberals care very much about harm and fairness, whereas libertarians do not. Libertarians care very much about oppression versus freedom, whereas this is not much of an issue for liberals. And both liberals and libertarians differ from conservatives, who weigh every moral foundation equally. Conservatives value divinity ethic , for example, whereas divinity ethic is not very important to either liberals or libertarians.

So the three groups see fundamental issues of human values and life in somewhat different ways. Well, markedly different fashions actually. In the below sections quotations from the referenced paper are shown in alternating colored backgrounds. My comments are in this larger text.

My purpose is to report on what they said about libertarian moral values in order to better understand why libertarians do not seem to communicate their ideas effectively with others such as leftists, conservatives,liberals, and other groups, or why members of those groups fail to understand a libertarian world view.

Now, let us ask, what do Libertarians say about themselves? Here are some excerpts and conclusions from the study about how libertarians describe themselves.

Study 1: Describing Libertarian Morality

If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.
– Ayn Rand

Our first prediction was that, compared to liberals and conservatives, the morality of libertarians would be characterized by strong endorsement of individual liberty at the expense of other moral considerations. We addressed this question by examining several measures designed to give a broad overview of a person’s values and morals, in particular the Moral Foundations Questionnaire [41], and the Schwartz Value Scale [42], as well as a new measure of endorsement of liberty as a moral principle, introduced here (see Appendix S1). For convergent validity, we also examined several other scales commonly used to measure moral orientations.


The first five rows of Table 2 show d scores indicating how libertarians differed from liberals and conservatives on the MFQ (also see Figure 1).

Libertarians were similar to conservatives on the fairness foundation, as both groups scored substantially lower than liberals.

However, like liberals, libertarians scored substantially lower on the ingroup, authority, and purity foundations compared to conservatives.

Finally, libertarians scored slightly lower than conservatives and substantially lower than liberals on the harm foundation.

Convergent results were found using the Moral Foundations Sacredness Scale, which measures endorsement of foundations using a willingness to make tradeoffs.

My Comments: Please Note: I am not sure how willingness to make tradeoffs affects any of this.


Our results suggest why libertarians do not feel fully at home in either of the major American political parties.

Consistent with our prediction, libertarians were relatively low on all five foundations.

Libertarians share with liberals, a distaste for the morality of ingroup, authority, and purity, characteristic of social conservatives, particularly those on the religious right [43].

Like liberals, libertarians can be said to have a two-foundation morality, prioritizing harm and fairness above the other three foundations.

But libertarians share with conservatives their moderate scores on these two foundations. They are therefore likely to be less responsive than liberals to moral appeals from groups who claim to be victimized, oppressed, or treated unfairly.

Libertarianism is clearly not just a point on the liberal-conservative continuum; libertarians have a unique pattern of moral concerns, with relatively low reliance on all five foundations.

My Comments: This has been my own observation – DISGUST expressed at victims. Other groups seem not to feel the same way, or at least to varying degrees.

Lifestyle and Economic/Government Liberty

In the original conception of Moral Foundations Theory, concerns about liberty (or autonomy or freedom) were not measured. But as we began to collect data on libertarians and to hear objections from libertarians that their core value was not well represented, we created questions related to liberty in the style of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. We generated 11 items about several forms of liberty (see Appendix S1) and collected responses from 3,732 participants (2,105 men; 2,181 liberals, 573 conservatives, and 525 libertarians). Principal component analysis using varimax rotation indicated two clear factors (Eigenvalues of 3.40 and 1.48; next highest was .74). Six items loaded greater than .60 on the first factor, which represented concerns about economic/government liberty (e.g., “People who are successful in business have a right to enjoy their wealth as they see fit”).

My Comments: Please Note: Libertarians do not seem to know most other people do not share this attitude.

Three items loaded greater than .60 on the second factor, which can be interpreted as a “lifestyle liberty” factor (e.g., “Everyone should be free to do as they choose, as long as they don’t infringe upon the equal freedom of others.”).

My Comments: Please Note: I personally, as a conservative, reject the above belief on freedom. It is *NOT* the rule Christians are supposed to follow, for example. It is a secular value.

We created two subscales from these items (Cronbach’s alpha for economic/government liberty was .81; for lifestyle liberty, .60; the correlation between factors was .27).


Table 2 shows that libertarians scored highest on both kinds of liberty (also see Figure 1). On economic/government liberty, liberals were the outliers, scoring below the midpoint of the scale, two full standard deviations below libertarians (d = 2.56). On lifestyle liberty, libertarians scored substantially higher than both liberals (d = .81), and conservatives (d = 1.19).


Libertarians are not unconcerned about all aspects of morality, as suggested by their scores on the MFQ and several other widely used morality scales. Rather, consistent with their self-descriptions, they care about liberty. Like conservatives, they endorse a world in which people are left alone to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, free from government interference. They also exceed both liberals and conservatives (but are closer to liberals) in endorsing personal or lifestyle liberty.

Study 2 Summary: How Do Libertarians Think and Feel?

My comments: Note: I am going to skip this study and perhaps report about it separately.
The next study, study 3, is more interesting in terms of objective results.

Study 3 Summary: How Do Libertarians Relate to Others?

As predicted, libertarians in our sample appeared to be strongly individualistic. Compared to liberals and conservatives, they report feeling a weaker sense of connection to their family members, romantic partners, friends, communities, and nations, as well as to humanity at large. While liberals exhibit a horizontal collectivistic orientation and conservatives a vertical collectivistic orientation, libertarians exhibit neither type of collectivism, instead displaying a distinctly individualistic orientation. This relative preference for individualism may have been moralized [10] into the value orientation found in Study 1.

Libertarians’ weaker social interconnectedness is consistent with the idea that they have weaker moral intuitions concerning obligations to and dependence on others (e.g. Moral Foundation Questionnaire scores). If “moral thinking is for social doing” [33], then libertarians lack of social connection naturally means that they have less use for moral thinking. Their distaste for submitting to the needs and desires of others helps explain why libertarians have very different ways of relating to groups, consistent with their lower endorsement of values related to altruism, conformity, and tradition in Study 1, providing convergent evidence for the idea that moral judgment is tightly related to social functioning.

Conclusions (to Study 3)

While not all libertarians endorse the views of Ayn Rand, our findings can be summarized by the three quotations we have presented from her work. We began Study 1 with Rand’s exhortation to reject “the morality of altruism,” and we showed that libertarians do indeed reject this morality, as well as all other moralities based on ideas of obligation to other people, groups, traditions, and authorities. Libertarians scored relatively high on just one moral concern: liberty. The libertarian pattern of response was found to be empirically distinct from the responses of liberals and conservatives, both in our cluster analysis of participants and in our principal components analysis of measures. We found strong support for our first prediction: Libertarians will value liberty more strongly and consistently than liberals or conservatives, at the expense of other moral concerns.

We introduced Study 2 with Rand’s claim that Western culture can only be reborn when it can be founded on “a rational ethics.” Consistent with Rand’s writing and psychological research concerning the intuitive origins of moral reasoning [8], we found that libertarians were indeed less emotional (less disgust sensitivity, empathic concern, and neuroticism) than liberals and conservatives. This lack of emotional reactivity may underlie an indifference towards common moral norms, and an attraction to an ideology where these moral codes are absent, libertarianism. The only emotional reaction on which libertarians were not lowest was reactance – the angry reaction to infringements upon one’s autonomy – for which libertarians scored higher than both liberals and conservatives. This disposition toward reactance may lead to the moralization of liberty and an attraction to an ideology that exalts liberty above other moral principles – namely, libertarianism.

We also found that libertarians showed a strong preference for and enjoyment of reasoning (higher on utilitarianism, need for cognition, systemizing, and a greater likelihood of answering correctly on the cognitive reflection task). We think it is worth repeating that libertarians were the only one of our three groups for which systemizing scores were higher, in absolute terms, than their empathizing scores, suggesting that libertarians are the only group that may be psychologically prepared for the Randian revolution of “rational ethics.” Thus, we found strong support for our second prediction: Libertarians will rely upon emotion less – and reason more – than will either liberals or conservatives.

We introduced Study 3 with Rand’s condemnation of love that is not based on a strong sense of self. We found that libertarians do indeed have a strong sense of self and the self’s prerogatives, and a correspondingly lower sense of attachment to others. They exhibit a high degree individualism, a low degree collectivism, and generally report feeling less bonding with others, less loving for others, and less feelings of a sense of common identity with others. Libertarians have a lower degree of the broad social connection that typifies liberals as well as a lower degree of the tight social connections that typify conservatives. These social preferences were related to their moral attitudes suggesting that libertarians have less functional use for moral concerns. We found strong support for out third prediction: Libertarians will be more individualistic and less collectivist compared to both liberals and conservatives.

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