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We cannot open a news aggregator and fail to see the concepts of The Left and The Right bandied about. We often locate our own position on the spectrum, not by looking at our inner values but on where we stand in relation to other people’s views. The left-right continuum is a way of classifying people’s positions on matters like social equality and social hierarchy. 

Origins of the terms

The terms Left and Right came into use during the French Revolution of 1789. The supporters of the French King sat to the right of the President of the National Assembly and the supporters of the Revolution sat to the left.  The right is associated with conservatism, keeping things as they are, while the left wish to see reform and change. This distinction remains to this day.

Commonly, the left-wing is differentiated by ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism while the right-wing is portrayed by concepts such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism.

Left-Right labels

Some examples of Left-Right labelling are given below.

Terms often used to describe the Left

Terms often used to describe the Right

  • anarchists
  • communists
  • democratic socialists
  • left-libertarians
  • movements for racial equality 
  • progressives 
  • social democrats
  • social liberals
  • socialists
  • trade unionism
  • anarcho-capitalists
  • conservatives
  • fascists
  • imperialists
  •  monarchists
  • neoconservatives
  • reactionaries 
  • right-libertarians
  • traditionalists


Many people hold positions closer to the middle between these two poles. They are usually described as moderates. People who are to the left of centre are called centre-left moderates, and those to the right are centre right moderates.

Then there are a number of significant political movements that do not fit precisely into the left-right spectrum. These include Christian democracy, feminism, and regionalism. 

Nationalism is often regarded as a right-wing doctrine, and yet many nationalists support the egalitarian distribution of resources. Populist movements of various hues may have both left-wing and right-wing characteristics. 

The political spectrum

What does Left and Right mean in political terms?

People on the left have liberal views. They support progressive reforms, and want a society with greater social and economic equality. They are comfortable with some of the resources of the state being diverted to support the poor and the vulnerable. This usually requires bigger government and more taxes.

People on the right have conservative views. They wish to preserve existing conditions and institutions. Additionally, they want to restore traditional values and limit change. People on the right feel that citizens must take care of themselves and not rely on the state. Those who fail to do so are considered lazy or morally weak. Conservatives on the right want small government and few taxes.

From the description above, we can see that the poor and vulnerable are more likely to support a leftist government so that more social benefits flow to the rest of the population. In many cases the poor and vulnerable are in these life situations because of the structure of the economy and the society within which they live.

Wealthy, powerful conservatives on the right are likely to resist higher taxes, as this will curtail their wealth accumulation. They argue that they must not be asked to subsidise the poor and vulnerable who should work harder to take care of themselves.

A stratified, unequal society may create the conditions for populism. Populism may appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. These elites are usually wealthy conservatives on the right. Populist governments usually come to an uncomfortable end because the reckless printing of money required to support distributions to poorer people, destroys the fundamentals of the economy.

Five moral foundations

Jonathan Haidt has proposed five moral foundations which inform the nature of value. They are as follows: 

  1. harm/care  [Do no harm and care for others]
  2. fairness/reciprocity  [Treat people equally as you should wish to be treated]
  3. ingroup/loyalty  [Membership of the tribe, race, or language group must be preserved]
  4. authority/respect  [We must respect and obey institutions and people in authority over us]
  5. purity/sanctity  [We must keep our race, tribe, or grouping pure and free from outside contamination]

These moral beliefs and practices combine to form the unique value matrix of a human being (Haidt, 2012; Haidt & Joseph, 2004).

Haidt’s extensive research has shown that people with liberal views tend to more strongly associate with the values of harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity. The other three are not discarded but are not as important.

An example statement of this position might be. “I want to take care of the environment and I want to treat people fairly.”

Haidt’s research further confirms that the values of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity predominate amongst conservatives.

An example statement of this position might be. “My group is very important to me. I will follow their rules and I will prevent the group from being contaminated by impure ideas or people.” 

The table below enumerates the characteristics of each of these moral foundations. It also provides us with a useful heuristic within which to understand our own political stance and the stances of others.

Table retrieved from: Haidt, Jonathan, and Craig Joseph, The Moral Mind: How Five Sets of Innate Intuitions Guide the Development of Many Culture Specific Virtues, and Perhaps Even Modules, in Peter Carruthers, and Stephen Laurence (eds), The Innate Mind, Volume 3: Foundations and the Future (New York, 2008; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Jan. 2008), 2 September 2022.

Forming our political position

We come to our own personal position on the Left-Right continuum as a result of our upbringing, the values we have internalised and our life experiences. 

Family: Children tend to grow up and vote the way their parents do. Families are generally the first, and often the most enduring, influence on our developing political opinions.

Gender: Gender can play a significant role. Many women support equal work, equal pay, and equal legal rights and progressive education and health care. This puts many women to the left of the spectrum.

Religion: Religion can be a source of forming and maintaining conservative views. Matters such as a belief in god, abortion, purity, divorce, sin and women’s rights contribute to a right-wing view.

Place: Where you live can also play a role in your political views. A large seaport town with many immigrants may have a more tolerant, leftist view in general. Whereas a small, rural agricultural community may cling to conservative right-wing values.

As individuals we are unlikely to change our political stance. We are “dug-in” for life. But what we can do is be more tolerant and understanding of views different from our own. Jonathan Haidt’s Five Moral Foundations provides a useful prism through which to understand the views of others, and our own responses to them. An orderly society depends on most people getting along with one another. It behoves us to do just that.


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Author James Forson

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