Why are conservatives more punitive than liberals? A moral foundations approach

Jasmine R. Silver, Eric Silver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

18 Scopus citations


Morality is thought to underlie both ideological and punitive attitudes. In particular, moral foundations research suggests that group-oriented moral concerns promote a conservative orientation, while individual-oriented moral concerns promote a liberal orientation (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009). Drawing on classical sociological theory, we argue that endorsement of group-oriented moral concerns also elicits higher levels of punitiveness by promoting a view of crime as being perpetrated against society, while endorsement of individual-oriented moral concerns reduces punitiveness by directing attention toward the welfare of offenders as well as victims. Data from 2 independent samples (N = 1,464 and N = 1,025) showed that endorsement of group-oriented moral concerns was associated with more punitive and more conservative attitudes, while endorsement of individual-oriented moral concerns was associated with less punitive and less conservative attitudes. These results suggest that the association between conservatism and punitiveness is in part spurious because of their grounding in the moral foundations. Consequently, studies that do not take the moral foundations into account are at risk of overstating the relationship between conservatism and punitiveness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)258-272
Number of pages15
JournalLaw and human behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2017


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology(all)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law

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