Industrial climate disruption, aka climate change or global warming, is perhaps the most important issue that humanity has ever faced. Scientists have concluded based on an overwhelming amount of data and over a century of well established and verified science that humanity has probably never faced the kind of disruptions to our world that are coming as a result of our emissions of greenhouse gases. But there is small and vocal minority of people who reject the science and data underlying this conclusion, and in the United States those deniers have successfully convinced the bulk of the Republican party to act as if that science is wrong and doesn’t matter.
Ever since I encountered my first example of a climate disruption denier I’ve wondered what kind of person could deny the reality that is industrial climate disruption. Over the years of writing on climate, however, it became clear that there were two groups of people who made up the majority of the serious deniers – libertarians and engineers of various stripes. As an electrical engineer myself, however, I didn’t understand how individuals trained in mathematics, science, and logic could fail to see glaring scientific, mathematical, physical, or logical flaws in their own arguments. Eventually, though, something clicked: most of the engineers I work with today and have worked with since earning my MSEE are either libertarians themselves or have some libertarian leanings.
This is the first part of a series of posts exploring the personality traits and moral values of libertarians, engineers, and the relationship of those traits and values to the denial of industrial climate disruption.
Libertarians: a distinct personality profile and moral ideal
If you think about the stereotypical traits we tend to attribute to libertarians – pro-small government, pro-property rights, anti-regulation, and anti-taxes, to name a few – it makes some logical sense that they’d be more inclined to reject the science supporting climate disruption. After all, if climate disruption requires government intervention, higher taxes, and restricts what a libertarian can do with his property, then he’d naturally oppose those types of solutions. But that resistance doesn’t explain why libertarians oppose the science itself instead of simply opposing policies that might be implemented as a result of the science.
In August, 2012, several researchers studying the psychology of political ideology released the results of three psychological studies they had performed into the values and personality traits of self-identified libertarians. The researchers compared the self-identified libertarians to self-identified liberals and conservatives and then compared and contrasted their values and personality traits. This paper (hereafter Iyer et al) concluded that libertarians were not merely a point on the traditional liberal/conservative values scale, but rather that libertarianism represented a third, unique approach that is distinct from both liberal and conservative values.
This paper served as the starting point for my investigation into why so many libertarians deny the reality of industrial climate disruption. But before we can understand their denial, we must first understand exactly what personality traits libertarians have and what they value.
Liberty as the only moral good
According to Iyer et al, libertarians really have only a single moral good – freedom from restrictions on their actions, or what Iyer et al call “negative” liberty. This differs from the more common “positive” liberty in that positive liberty means having the opportunity to pursue one’s own interests. In terms that many Americans are familiar with, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances described in the First Amendment of the US Constitution is a form of positive liberty, while having the freedom to do anything you want so long as it doesn’t interfere with the right of others to do the same is a form of negative liberty.
But Iyer et al indicate that this moral good is not well measured by traditional studies of morality, writing that “standard morality scales… do a poor job of measuring libertarian values” and that “if liberty is included as a moral value, libertarians are not amoral.” The flip side of this statement, however, means that libertarians do not share a common moral framework with either liberals or conservatives.
The data in Iyer et al demonstrate that libertarians have a similar profile (the relative order of importance of various values) to liberals on one test of moral values, the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ). Specifically, libertarians rate fairness highest, followed by harm, and both groups value authority and purity the least. But Iyer et al indicates that libertarians don’t think about fairness and harm in the same ways that liberals do – harm to a liberal often means injury to someone else, while harm to a libertarian means injury to the libertarian by others. Conservatives valued authority and being associated with the “in” group the most, above both harm and fairness.
This pattern of valuing the welfare of others less than one’s own welfare was again seen in the data from the Schwartz Values Scale. Given there are ten different values in this scale (instead of the five in the MFQ), there were more differences between libertarians, liberals, and conservatives. While all three groups valued self-direction the highest, libertarians valued it more than liberals and far more than conservatives. Libertarians valued achievement just after self-direction and over all the other values (benevolence, conformity, hedonism, power, security, stimulation, tradition, or universalism). According to Iyer et al, the libertarian profile looks “somewhat like liberals,” but with lower value placed on benevolence and universalism, the two Schwartz values that relate to caring about the welfare of others.
When Iyer et al looked at ethical positions, they found that libertarians were more likely to consider ethics “situational” instead of universal. This means that libertarians are more likely to feel that what is ethically acceptable varies from one situation to another. Iyer et al suggest that this is because libertarians “live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g. altruism, respect for authority) are not assigned much importance.” This is supported by the original research upon which Iyer et al’s survey was based, which found that people with ethical profiles like those of libertarians
‘reject moral rules’ and ‘base moral judgements on personal feelings about the action and the setting.’
Iyer et al further investigated the low valuation libertarians of traditional authority with a questionnaire that directly measures “the extent to which people are emotionally resistant to restrictions on their behavioral freedom and to the advice and influence of others.” Conservatives were the least resistant, followed by liberals. Libertarians were the most resistant to accepting restrictions on their behavior and even to listening to the expert opinions of others.
When asked specifically about their interest in economic and lifestyle liberty, libertarians valued both types of liberty the highest, well over either liberals (who valued lifestyle over economic liberty) or conservatives (who valued economic over lifestyle liberty). In this case, Iyer et al defined “economic liberty” as the right of successful people to “enjoy their wealth as they see fit” and “lifestyle liberty” as the right of everyone to “be as free as they choose” within the limitation that their freedom not infringe upon others.
The Iyer et al studies conclusively demonstrated that the single libertarian moral good of liberty, specifically “negative” liberty, is quite different from the morals of either liberals or conservatives. This single moral good is the driving factor from which all other libertarian values are derived.
The rational ethos of libertarianism
Beyond the moral good of liberty that libertarians espouse, Iyer et al found that they also feel a greater need to be rational than, and to perceive themselves as more rational than, either liberals or conservatives.
When Iyer et al looked at the Big 5 personality traits (an alternative method of determining personality to Myers-Briggs personality types) of libertarians, they found that libertarians were largely open to new experiences, felt a strong need to think about things, and were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives. In more common Myers-Briggs terms, libertarians have an INTx profile, where the “x” could be either judging or perceiving (J/P).
When it came to difficult moral choices, libertarians’ need to be rational about their choices produced utilitarian results. For example, libertarians were more willing to sacrifice one person to save many than either liberals or conservatives, with conservatives being the least willing to logically reason out the need for one to die so many could live.
When faced with questions that had two different answers, one of which was correct and another that was intuitive, Iyer et al found that libertarians were more likely than either liberals or conservatives to choose the correct answer. Iyer et al was careful to point out that this result does not necessarily mean that libertarians are smarter than liberals or conservatives, only that libertarians are mentally better at suppressing the intuitive reflex.
Finally, Iyer et al also found that libertarians needed to formulate their opinions based on arguments and data instead of on “peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is.” Again, libertarians had a slightly greater need to think about things than liberals and a moderately greater need than conservatives.
In every case that Iyer et al looked at, libertarians needed to think more about things before forming judgements, usually somewhat more than liberals and much more than conservatives. One possibility for why this is could be that libertarians are psychologically more comfortable with systems that have black and white rules than they are with people who only come in shades of gray.
Systemizing over empathizing
Iyer et al looked specifically at the preference of libertarians for systemizing or empathizing. According to Iyer et al, the creators of this particular personality scale define systemizing as “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Empathizing, on the other hand, is defined as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.” Given that libertarians tend to be introverts who value being left alone to do as they please, it’s reasonable to expect that libertarians would also prefer systemizing more and empathizing less than liberals or conservatives.
What surprised Iyer et al was just how strongly libertarians are systemizers. While liberals valued empathizing more than systemizing, and conservatives valued both about the same (with a slight emphasis on empathizing), libertarians valued systemizing more than empathizing, and nearly as much as liberals valued empathizing.
This result describes what Iyer et al and others call a fundamentally “male” mental process, as opposed to the “female” liberal mental process of empathizing. But there’s a problem with this characterization, namely that libertarians are overwhelmingly male – 79.6% in Iyer et al and 67% in polls of the United States as a whole. Since correlation is not causation, it’s not possible to know with the data from the Iyer et al study whether this dominant systemizing mental process is because so many libertarians are men, or whether men are more likely to be attracted to libertarianism because it’s dominant mental process is systemization.
Independent and solitary
Iyer et al found that libertarians are weak empathizers, have a strong need for rationality over emotion, and value their independence. These traits come together in a number of ways to describe how libertarians relate, or perhaps fail to relate, to other people.
One of the Big 5 personality traits that Iyer et al looked at is extraversion, and a low score means that you’re more introverted than extraverted. Libertarians were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives, who were roughly equal with each other. When asked about how they empathized with others, libertarians were the only group to use the “put yourself in their shoes” type of empathizing more than any other type. Not only that, but libertarians empathized with others’ personal distress the least of all.
Iyer et al also compared libertarians’ relative level of individualism and collectivism to both liberals and conservatives. As expected, libertarians valued both competitive, hierarchical individualism and peer-to-peer, horizontal individualism more than either liberals or conservatives and more than either form of collectivism. Libertarians valued peer-to-peer collectivism, described in Iyer et al as characteristic of an egalitarian attitude, the least and moderately lower than either liberals or conservatives.
Libertarians and conservatives had similar profiles in the Iyer et al data for how much each group identified with the rest of humanity (as broken down into community, country, and the world). Both groups identified the most with their country, followed by their community, and lastly with the rest of the world. Liberals, on the other hand, identified with the world first, then community, and lastly their country. But libertarians identified the least with community and country, and only barely more with the rest of the world than conservatives did. Iyer et al wrote that this finding was “consistent with the libertarians’ desire for personal liberty.”
Finally, when Iyer et al looked at the data for how libertarians felt love toward their partners, family, friends, or “generic others,” Iyer et al found that libertarians feelings of love toward all four groups of people were the weakest of all when compared to liberals and conservatives. Libertarians’ feelings were the strongest toward their partners, but even those feelings were slightly weaker than the feelings that liberals and conservatives felt toward their partners. Feelings of love toward “generic others” were the lowest of all for libertarians. Iyer et al considered these results to be “noteworthy” because
differences between liberals and conservatives were generally small (except toward generic others). Libertarians were the outliers. [emphasis added]
Iyer et al are not able to turn the correlations in values and personality traits they observed among libertarians into causative relationships. The data from Iyer et al cannot say, for example, that libertarians’ focus on negative liberty as their single moral good is because libertarians tend to be introverted and unable to empathize with others.
Furthermore, while Iyer et al is based on a large sample of data, it is not necessarily representative of the entire population of libertarians. For example, the demographics of Iyer et al are somewhat different from a nationally representative poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press that also included a breakdown of libertarian demographics. For example, Iyer et al had a significantly greater percentage of men, a slightly greater number of whites, and about the same number of college educated respondents as the Pew poll did. The greater number of whites and males almost certainly skews the data some, but it’s not possible with the Iyer et al data to say how much.
But when you look at Iyer et al‘s conclusions, they match well to the profile that Pew used to differentiate between libertarians and other ideological groups in their poll. Pew’s data shows that most libertarians reject strict environmental laws, something that is expected given Iyer et al’s finding that libertarians are resistant to external factors that would impinge upon their personal liberty. Pew found that libertarians were accepting of homosexuality, which is also expected given Iyer et al’s findings that libertarians are relatively unmotivated by emotional “disgust” reactions and highly value horizontal, peer-to-peer individualism. So while a similar study to Iyer et al would almost certainly generate somewhat different results using a nationally representative poll of libertarians, it’s unlikely that the results would significantly change Iyer et al’s overall conclusions.
Finally, Iyer et al points out that entirely possible that the moral good of negative liberty that libertarians value more than any other may be a moralization of their personal preference for living free of too many entanglements. In a culture where morality is generally defined along lines that libertarians disagree with and don’t feel, it’s easy to see why libertarians would have an emotional need to redefine morality in a way that reduces their cognitive dissonance. But whether this is the case or not will require more studies than just Iyer et al.
As an engineer with some libertarian leanings myself, I found Iyer et al to be fascinating. It explained much about so many of my fellow engineers, so many of whom are also libertarians. In Part Two I’ll discuss how being an engineer and working for a corporation affects the perspectives and values of engineers.