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Moral Psychology Drives Environmental Concern

According to Feinberg & Willer (2013, p. 2), ’liberals express greater levels of environmental concern than do conservatives in part because liberals are more likely to view environmental issues in moral terms.’ Is this true?

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In this section we aim to understand and evaluate the fourth key claim in the argument that cultural differences in moral psychology matter for political conflict over climate change:

‘we hypothesized that liberals express greater levels of environmental concern than do conservatives in part because liberals are more likely to view environmental issues in moral terms’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2013, p. 2; my emphasis).

The same claim is made in an influential review:

‘The moral framing of climate change has typically focused on only the first two values: harm to present and future generations and the unfairness of the distribution of burdens caused by climate change. As a result, the justification for action on climate change holds less moral priority for conservatives than liberals’ (Markowitz & Shariff, 2012, p. 244; my emphasis).

Is this true?

Feinberg & Willer (2013) support this claim with two studies (numbered 1a and 1b in their paper). The first (1a) provides evidence that socially liberal, but perhaps not socially conservative, participants view a failure to recycle as a moral violation. The second (1b) provides evidence that the effect of political ideology (liberal vs conservative) is mediated by whether the participants regarded environmental issues as moral issues.

Does this work beyond the US? I found it difficult to identify many similar studies with non-US participants. We considered Doran, Böhm, Pfister, Steentjes, & Pidgeon (2019) in Do Ethical Attitudes Shape Political Behaviours?, which has participants from four European countries. In addition, Milfont, Davies, & Wilson (2019) studied a group of participants from New Zealand. They find an interesting interaction between political identity and moral pscyhology. In a post-hoc analysis, they find that

‘individuals with strong individualising morals evidenced a positive relationship between liberal ideology and electricity conservation […], whereas individuals who reported weak individualising morals evidenced a negative relationship’ (Milfont et al., 2019, p. 10).

While Milfont et al. (2019)’s results differ from Feinberg & Willer (2013)’s findings in interesting ways, their results do provide support for the main claim that concerns us: environmental concerns and behaviours are partly explained by moral foundations. This makes it plausible that environmental concern is, at least in part, driven by moral concerns and not entirely by political ideology.


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