The Lowest Levels of Love (with apologies to Dr Amburgey)

Different Types of Love scale

The Different Types of Love scale is a 40-item measure of loving feelings toward four different groups. Participants indicate agreement with statements concerning friends […], family […], generic others […], and their romantic partner […]


Table 4 shows that libertarians showed the lowest levels of loving feelings toward others, across all four categories (although the difference with conservatives on love for friends was not significant).


Consistent with the results on the Identification with All of Humanity scale, the libertarian independence from others is associated with weaker loving feelings toward friends, family, romantic partners, and generic others. It is noteworthy that differences between liberals and conservatives were generally small (except toward generic others). Libertarians were the outliers.

You’ll always be my bro, though. These results come from a paper by a bunch of moral psychologists, including Jonathan Haidt. I’ve blogged about the paper before, in regards to intelligence. (Libertarians are smarter than conservatives and liberals, remember? It turns out that we are bigger jerks, too.)

My intuition tells me that this is an incomplete analysis, though (the paper’s authors say as much, up front, in the paper itself). It’s not that libertarians are less loving than conservatives and liberals, it’s simply that we show our love in a different way, most likely in a way that isn’t represented in the sampling process. Libertarians could not, for example, be the ardent internationalists that we are without some measure of “love” for humanity.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose I am walking down the street and I see a bum with a cardboard sign and a tip jar (a paper cup from Carl’s Jr). The bum is drunk, and a little stoned. I say to myself, “Damn, that guy is in a crappy situation.” I reach into my pockets to see if I’ve got some change or, better yet, a couple of cigarettes. I am comfortable in claiming that most libertarians – sans those raised on the Atlantic coast of the US – go through the same thought process. If I put myself in that guy’s shoes, anything more than what I spare for him becomes a nuisance to me. Does this make sense? So if I’m panhandling, and somebody tries to do more than give me their change or spare me a couple of smokes, they become a pain in my ass. Why would I want to be a pain in our hypothetical bum’s ass?

This same thought process can be attributed to family, friends, and romantic partners. We’re not being jerks, we’re respecting your autonomy. I know for a fact that this can be a shallow admission of truth for some to hear, but it’s the truth nonetheless.

The libertarian’s outlier-ness in regards to conceptions about love may explain why we have such a tough time politically. (Our superior cognitive skills, which prompts us to be more open to getting at the truth of some matter, also goes some way toward explaining why we fail politically, as politics is emphatically about avoiding the truth.)

Morality (“love”) is simply one of a number of different spheres of conception about how the world works (including, say, economics, history, or sociology). However, morality is often the only sphere that people can afford to use to make judgments about this or that policy or social puzzle. This is because the training that is required to understand more complex topics like economics or sociology is expensive (“time”) and hard to come by. So, for example, there are a number of explanations for why foreign aid to Somalia is bad. You can use historical explanations or sociological ones or economic arguments, but the first – and often only – line of reasoning used by most people is moral in nature. Thus:

Giving money to poor countries is morally wrong.

Not exactly a game-winner, right? Look at what a jerk you are. Should we, as libertarians, be spending more time explaining to others why we think the way we do?

7 thoughts on “The Lowest Levels of Love (with apologies to Dr Amburgey)

  1. I’m going to make two comments in two different boxes. First, the stupid comment:

    I’m going to do the very-libertarian thing here and claim that these results are skewed by the “so-called” libertarians. (Yeah, I know this is a stupid comment but it’ll be over soon.) There’s a sort of naive-libertarianism that I experienced a phase of before I had been studying economics for a while.

    This naive-libertarianism is exciting at first, “Yeah, everything’s working out great for me as a white male going to college on someone else’s dime! Poor people are choosing not to be white!” I know for me it was a phase and eventually landed on a more liberal (and simultaneously more radical) view of the world that lets me cry at the beginning of the movie Up and be okay with the idea of gold just being another shiny, non-magical rock. But thinking about these things is essentially how I put food on the table.

    I’m wondering if naive-libertarianism is just a phase for a lot of people, and I’m wondering what they move into when they exit that phase? Perhaps libertarianism as a community of self-identifiers has a problem of turnover. Does anyone know of any research on this?

    • Perhaps libertarianism as a community of self-identifiers has a problem of turnover. Does anyone know of any research on this?

      I can’t think of any. The only research of I know of that has to do with “turnover” is mostly in political science and it deals with Third Worldism. My guess is that you’d have to browse through the literature of political psychologists to find anything on what you’re thinking of, and delving through such a specialized field for no purpose other than blogging is probably too costly!

      My big question mark in regards to your first answer centers around the distinction between naive-libertarianism and regular-libertarianism. I’m sure you are already expecting this objection, but if we go with this train of thought – and I’m not saying we shouldn’t – we’re drawing distinctions between specialists and Average Joes. I’m not sure that this is what Haidt and company want in their research, and I’m not sure that sampling specialists is the best way to understand why (and how) people think the way they do. From some reason I am drawn to this old EconLog post by Bryan Caplan.

    • If there is a “correct” libertarianism that the majority of libertarians don’t appreciate (whether it’s because most libertarians have only been libertarian for a short while, or whatever other explanation) we’re still left with Haidt’s finding that those self-identifying as libertarian are statistically different from liberals and conservatives.

      I stand by my initial evaluation that my comment was stupid, but the gap between your/my conception of libertarianism as a loving philosophy and Haidt’s results is important. Is that gap because you and I are ideological specialists (in whatever way)? Is our love something that can be wrapped into mainstream libertarianism?

      I recall an IHS summer seminar where there was some emphasis placed on the idea that we need to think of classical liberalism as a sort of living, open-ended philosophy rather than as a narrowly proscribed set of arguments about one specific issue (the role of government). Maybe you were at that seminar and we both took that point to heart.

  2. Okay, time for the smart comment!

    You’re spot on. There’s a mental image I’ve read (and I’m going to butcher this because I don’t remember it clearly) of a moral gradient (I’m 60% sure that’s what it’s called). The way I fit this concept in my head is that we each have a sort of a topographical map of something hill-shaped. This map represents the moral weight we put on others and ourselves. We’re at the center, and the points furthest away are those strangers from far away that we will never meet in our lives. Different areas may represent different groups of people. Even better, instead of a topographic map, you’re forming it with a finite amount of playdough. Some people might have more or less playdough than others, but they’re usually pretty similar.

    Say one person’s hill is shaped like Grinch mountain (incredibly steep) he holds himself in far higher esteem than anyone else, even those very close to him. Someone whose map is a flat plain (or plateau, but it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?) is messiah-like in her even-handedness with humanity; every person is as valuable to her as her mother. Both of these are very different from normal, and we like to see other people be normal. Sometimes quirkiness is acceptable, and I suppose we might admire someone whose map looks like a ridge representing her strong devotion to the children of an African village she visits every year as well as animals of all sorts.

    When I compare my moral gradient to the people around me, I notice some important differences. I put a much higher weight on strangers and foreigners. I still probably put a lower weight on the poor than a typical democrat. But that effect is swamped when you account for how much more I care about strangers and foreigners. So if I care more about the world’s poor, then who’s missing out on love? From whence came this playdough? I’m pretty sure it’s my girlfriend’s coworkers. I honestly can’t keep them straight and I can’t piece together the stories I hear about them into anything but the most abstract people.

    I think my moral gradient might be pretty typical for a libertarian. Like you, I don’t want to put people out and that can appear stand-offish. But that’s really just me saying, “I don’t know you, but I believe you aren’t simply a solipsist delusion left here for my abuse or neglect.” But other-oriented sentiments come at a cost. I consider people in the abstract, where non-libertarians consider people on a case-by-case basis. Each one is special, but only a few of them actually count. Most people incorporate Dunbar’s number as both the limit of their social network and a limit to the number of people they actually care about. For me, I basically recognize “family”, “friend”, “human being”. I don’t have “second cousin, twice removed” or “friend’s ex-boyfriend’s cool cousin that I still hang out with some times.”

    That’s all a very long winded way of saying “egh, their measure for love might have been focusing on love for those in-between strangers whose names I just can’t remember for the life of me.”

  3. “I am comfortable in claiming that most libertarians – sans those raised on the Atlantic coast of the US – go through the same thought process.”

    Trust me, Atlantic coast liberals don’t go that thought process, either.

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