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Moral-Political Polarity and Its Origin

Left or right thinking may depend on perceptions of abundance or scarcity.

Key points

  • Research has identified a broad ideological polarity that cuts across politics, morality, aesthetics, educational theory, and psychology.
  • The existing polarity in thought and feeling has been labeled as humanistic or left thinking versus normative or right thinking.
  • The left-right polarity is associated with personality, but also varies according to economic security.
  • Safe, bountiful environments may incline us toward the left and dangerous environments with scarce resources toward the right.

My very first scientific publication was an article, co-authored with my graduate school advisor, Robert Hogan, and our colleague, Nicholas Emler, presenting a new version of Hogan's theory of moral development (Hogan, Johnson, & Emler, 1978). One portion of the theory suggests that adults tend to follow one of two moral positions: an ethic of personal conscience or an ethic of social responsibility.

People who follow an ethic of personal conscience tend to rely more on their personal intuitions of right and wrong than on their culture's rules. They question social norms and laws that do not make sense to them. On the other hand, people who follow an ethic of social responsibility trust that there is wisdom in traditional, conventional norms and laws. They are therefore more likely to accept and follow established norms.

Hogan (1970) had created a scale, the Survey of Ethical Attitudes (SEA), to assess a person's tendency to lean toward one of the two ethical orientations, and he found that scores on the SEA were strongly associated with personality. Persons endorsing an ethic of personal conscience were described by peers as rebellious, uninhibited, complicated, cynical, and progressive. Persons endorsing an ethic of social responsibility were described by peers as thoughtful, good-natured, conventional, conscientious, and conservative.

Upon reading research by the psychologist Silvan Tomkins (1965), Hogan, Emler, and I came to realize that the ethical orientations assessed by the SEA were only a portion of a much larger psychological polarity described by Tomkins. The humanistic or "left" pole in Tomkins' polarity sees human beings as ends in themselves, intrinsically valuable, and capable of naturally developing their innate potential and worth. Tomkins' normative or "right" pole is the position that human beings have no intrinsic value, but, rather, achieve value by living up to external standards of excellence.

The ethics of personal conscience fits perfectly within Tomkins' left pole, while the ethics of responsibility lies within the right pole. But Tomkins demonstrates that this polarity goes far beyond ethics and can be found in many forms of human thought: mathematics, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, jurisprudence, political theory, aesthetics, educational theory, psychology, psychiatry, and child development.

Tomkins (1963) had developed a scale to measure the polarity he had recognized, but the scale has been rarely used in research. However, the work of Tomkins has been recently rediscovered amidst the current concern with political polarization in the United States. Frank and Wilson (2020) have authored an open-access book that summarizes Tomkins' thinking, and that book includes a bibliography of studies using Tomkins' polarity scale. Another recent open-access publication (Nilsson & Jost, 2020) applied Tomkins' ideas to recent ideological conflicts within the United States and Sweden.

New observations to explain polarized thinking

All of the above is meant as an introduction to a book written by an individual outside of academic psychology, Stephen Martin Fritz (2020). I discovered this book quite accidentally when I was asked to review a paper Fritz had submitted to Academia Letters, a new publishing initiative by This excellent paper, "Dual Morality: A Hypothesis," is a several-page summary of his much longer (1102 pages) book. I immediately recognized the central idea of the paper as similar to Tomkins' polarity.

Because Fritz provided a freely downloadable, abridged version of his book, I examined this treatment of his hypothesis of dual morality. I found that, indeed, Fritz presented ideas similar to Tomkins' polarity. In some regards, he extends the Tomkins polarity into many specific areas not covered by Tomkins. He also added an additional variable to explain extreme versus moderate versions of the left-right polarity. The book is more of a theoretical than an empirical piece of work, yet Fritz carefully cites relevant academic researchers to support his ideas. One does not necessarily have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to make valid observations about the human condition. And Fritz, as far as I can tell, has made many valid observations about a basic polarity in our species.

One relatively unique insight from Fritz's book concerns the larger ecological and evolutionary origins of leaning left or right. His insight is simple, but not simplistic. He suggests that leaning left or right is a function of whether we perceive the environment to be relatively safe, with enough resources to support everyone, or relatively dangerous, with not enough resources to ensure everyone's survival. In the first condition, individuals, groups, and entire cultures can afford to lean left, including all sorts of diverse people as brothers and sisters, because there is plenty to go around, and everyone can survive and flourish. Under these conditions, we emphasize equality and cooperation over competition and differences based on merit. We can relax, play, and be creative.

But if the world feels dangerous and lacking sufficient resources to support everyone, we become more exclusive and conservative. We look to strong leadership and the traditions of our hierarchically organized in-group, excluding people who are different from us. Tough decisions must be made about who will live and who will die because there is not enough for everyone. We can't afford to treat everyone equally, so individuals must demonstrate their merit and their value to be included in the group who will receive resources and live.

Fritz notes that, over the long stretch of human evolution, humans have created safer environments in which there are more and more resources for everyone, such that there has been a general trend from hierarchical organization of cultures to a more egalitarian organization of cultures. While primarily a book about the decline of violence over human history, Steven Pinker's (2011) book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, similarly describes the overall historical trend toward egalitarianism and humanistic acceptance of diversity. However, that trend has been uneven across space and time. There are still some cultures today that are literally struggling for survival, and they lean strongly to the right. Even within the relatively democratic, egalitarian United States, historical economic fluctuations between prosperity and hardship appear to be accompanied by shifts between leftist and rightist attitudes.

Fritz claims that these shifts can occur even at the individual level because we all have a capacity for both moral/political orientations. In times of plenty, I might be generous and accepting of diverse others, but if I perceive threats to my economic security (from climate change, immigration, terrorism, pandemics, etc.) I might become less inclusive. This is an interesting but relatively untested idea in psychology because we psychologists have tended to look at liberal/conservative orientation as something that is relatively fixed for each individual. Hopefully, the resurgence of Tomkins' ideas and their extensions by writers like Fritz will lead to new research studies that will help us to improve the human condition.


Frank, A. J., & Wilson, E. A. (2020). A Silvan Tomkins handbook. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Project MUSE

Fritz, S. M. (2020). Our human herds: The theory of dual morality (D. Morel, Ed.). Columbus, OH: Gatekeeper Press.

Hogan, R. (1970). A dimension of moral judgment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 35(2), 205-212.

Hogan, R., Johnson, J. A., & Emler, N. P. (1978). A socioanalytic theory of moral development. In W. Damon (Ed.), New directions for child development: Vol. 2. Moral development (pp. 1-18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilsson, A., & Jost, J. T. (2020) Rediscovering Tomkins’ polarity theory: Humanism, normativism, and the psychological basis of left-right ideological conflict in the U.S. and Sweden. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0236627.

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature. New York, NY: Viking.

Tomkins, S. (1963). Left and right: A basic dimension of ideology and personality. In R. White (Ed.) & K. F. Bruner (Collaborator), The study of lives: Essays on personality in honor of Henry A. Murray (pp. 389–411). New York, NY: Atherton.

Tomkins, S. (1965) Affect and the psychology of knowledge. In S. Tomkins & C. Izard (Eds.), Affect, cognition and personality: Empirical studies (pp. 72–97). New York, NY: Springer.

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