The Moral Foundations of Environmentalists

April 4th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

I was recently asked about the Moral Foundations scores of those who are more concerned about the environment and so I analyzed the 15,522 individuals who took the Moral Foundations Scale on and also answered a question on the Schwartz Values Scale concerning how much of a guiding principle of their life it was to “Protect the Environment”.  I limited this analysis to those who placed themselves on the liberal-conservative spectrum, so that I could also control both for ideology and extremity of ideology, to some degree.  The results (beta weights controlling for other variables) of the regression analyses, predicting a desire to “Protect the Environment”, are below.

Moral Foundations of Environmentalism

My initial intuition was that ideology would be the greatest predictor, given how political the issue has become, but it appears that the Care/Harm foundation actually predicts as much unique variance as ideological identification.  From an intuitionist standpoint, this makes sense as the specific care you feel for Polar Bears may drive one’s values more than more abstract concerns about the ocean’s water level, similar to the way that charities appeal to emotions with specific cases of need as opposed to statistics.  Still a great deal of variance is indeed predicted by which ideological team you are on.

Also interesting to me was the significant, but small, negative relationship between ingroup loyalty and attitudes toward the environment.   The item I used from the Schwartz Values scale is part of a subscale designed to measure Universalism, which relates to Peter Singer’s idea that we should expand our moral circles.  While it is certainly possible to care both about one’s smaller circle/family and one’s larger circle/animals/trees, there is some tension there, especially in a world with limited resources where environmental choices that benefit the world at large, may negatively impact one’s local community.

There are certainly limitations to these results taken from a particular sample, so take them with a grain of salt.  And there remains a healthy debate about which moral concerns are more central, so there certainly are moral concerns that may predict environmental attitudes that are not measured here.  Still, these results converge well with what we see in the world.  Environmentalists tend to be liberals who are particularly concerned about the welfare of distant others, perhaps expanding their moral circle to include animals, oceans, and trees.
– Ravi Iyer

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One Response to “The Moral Foundations of Environmentalists”

  1. Craig Critchfield says:

    I wouldn’t attribute such compassionate anthropomorphistic tendencies to environmentalists. I’m guessing they see things from a very selfish cost-benefit perspective. They just think they’re living in the same world as those distant animals, oceans and trees.

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