The pursuit of virtue & politics in Europe

TLDR: European Social Survey data suggests Leftwing people care more about being a virtuous person when it comes to values of altruism, humility & loyalty to friends. However people on the extreme end of the right care less than the leftwing, but more than moderate rightists. It’s important to be clear what we are considering here is the extent to which participants say these things are important to them- not the extent to which they actually implement these virtues. A possible framework to understand these findings is advanced. Important limitations include the nature of self-report. I also make a comment on how this all interacts with religion.

The survey: The European Social Survey (2016) is a massive survey (N>38,000), covering most of Europe. The survey contains an enormous variety of important variables. Included among these variables are questions about human values and questions about political alignment. The questions about political alignment are measured on a 0 to 10 scale. Among the questions about human values, there are some questions about how important the respondent thinks various virtues are. Note that these are not questions about how virtuous the subject is, but rather questions about how important these virtues are to them.

The analysis: For each of the positions on the left to right 0-10 political alignment scale and for each virtue, I looked at the percentage who said that it was either very like them or like them, to think that the virtue in question was important.

Results: Let’s start with belief in the importance of helping & caring for others. About 75% of those who claimed to be maximally leftwing say that it is very like them, or like them to believe that it is important to help others. This then generally descends until it reaches 9- the second most rightwing position possible where only 64% of respondents think believing in the importance of others is like them or very them. Then when we hit the maximally rightwing end of the scale it jumps up again, to a little over 70%.:

Belief in the importance of helping others

The picture is very similar when it comes to belief in the importance of humility:

Belief in the importance of humility

Belief in the importance of loyalty to friends is also similar, but the inflexion point is much earlier- around 6.:

Belief in the importance of loyalty to friends

So what is going on?: First of all this is all limited by the frailty of self-report, but if we take people at their word my hypothesis is that there are two great cultural ‘hubs’ of moral concern- the left & the right. These hubs either give people a framework to be moral or attract people who already have strong moral convictions. The more distant you are from these, the more tepid your moral concern will be on average. The rightwing hub seems to be weaker at least with respect to these values, so much so that you have to be in the maximally right-wing category for it to have an effect (except re: loyalty to friends).

These hubs provide a moral framework for looking beyond yourself and avoiding narcissism (the question about humility) and for concern about others generally (the question about caring) and friends in particular (the question about loyalty). Of course all this talk is more of a way of seeing things than an explanation, but I think it nonetheless has some value.

Note that this all implies that the “perfect” Machivellian is either right or centre-right, but not far-right, which about fits with  my preconceptions, tbqh.


There’s an interesting interaction effect regarding religion.  On the left, being non-religious doesn’t make you much less likely say that being concerned with kindness is like you or very like you. However, as you move further right, being non-religious makes you increasingly less likely to say that valuing kindness is like you or very like you.

Irreligious & others kindness politics comparision

So what’s going on here? Earlier I proposed that there are two moral “hubs” from which people can draw values- a leftwing hub and a rightwing hub. I suggested the rightwing hub is weaker, since, except regarding loyalty to friends, it only seems to kick in at the maximum of the right.

Well I think there’s a third hub as well- religion. For the left, whether religious or not, it doesn’t have much of an effect, since they can already draw their values from the leftwing hub. For the right, whose moral hub is weaker, religion often substitutes. Without religion the right becomes increasingly cynical, until one reaches the maximum of the right (and thus the core of the rightwing hub) and the trend is partially reversed.

One occasionally hears rightwing Christians suggesting it is difficult or impossible to be good without God. They may be projecting from their own case.

Notes: I wanted to say brief word on how I picked out what counted as a virtue from the list of values. After all, there are 21 entires and I only picked 3. I didn’t pick things that primarily denoted flourishing or success, e.g. “It is important to have a good time”, “It is important to think new ideas and be creative”, “It is important to live in safe and secure surroundings” since these aren’t really virtues, except perhaps in a Nietzschean sense. Politically loaded values like “It is important to follow traditions and customs” and “Important to care for nature and the environment” weren’t included for obvious reasons. “Important to behave properly” wasn’t included because it’s vague, and if you try to flesh it out, it tends to become politically loaded.

It’s also important to say something about effect sizes. Even our biggest difference- belief in the importance of caring for others- is not that big- 75% at its maximum and 64% at its minimum. However It’s worth remebering that both these measures (stated belief in the importance of helping others & 0-10 political opinion) are extremely imperfect, and the real unattenuated relationship between the underlying variables -controlling for both unreliability and invalidity of the measures- will be commensurately quite a bit larger. This is a generally true and underremarked point when it comes to these extremely noisy and imperfect survey type measures. A more theoretical point is that even differences which are not large enough to be good predictors at the level of the indvidual can make huge differences to things like group dynamics.

Appendix- Questions:

Political alignment: “In politics people sometimes talk of ‘left’ and ‘right’. Using this card, where would you place yourself on this scale, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?”

Caring: “l briefly describe some people. Please listen to each description and tell me how much each person is or is not like you. Use this card for your answer. It’s very important to her/him to help the people around her/him. She/he wants to care for their well-being.”

Humility: “Now I will briefly describe some people. Please listen to each description and tell me how much each person is or is not like you. Use this card for your answer. It is important to her/him to be humble and modest. She/he tries not to draw attention to herself/himself.”

Loyalty to friends: “Now I will briefly describe some people. Please listen to each description and tell me how much each person is or is not like you. Use this card for your answer. It is important to her/him to be loyal to her/his friends. She/he wants to devote herself/himself to people close to her/him.”

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