While the leading Republican presidential candidates agree on many moral questions — from the divine foundation of ethics to the rejection of reproductive rights and marriage equality — new research suggests that the candidates differ when it comes to the focus their moral concerns.

According to the University of Southern California-run web site Election 2012, USC psychology professor Jesse Graham surveyed 35,000 self-identified conservatives and liberals to gauge their varying moral values (and by extension, those of their preferred candidates). What did he find?

Social conservatives, like Rick Santorum, care more about loyalty to family and nation, respect for tradition and authorities, and maintaining physical and spiritual purity. But libertarians, like Ron Paul, typically don’t care about these group-focused concerns. Their central moral value is liberty, according to Graham.

“Santorum has strongly endorsed the group-focused moral concerns of loyalty, respect, tradition and purity, even when politically disadvantageous (supporting government programs for families, going on about gay marriage when most voters care more about jobs). … Ron Paul has embodied the moralization of liberty above all other values, and he too has done so in ways that are politically disadvantageous (supporting legalization of all drugs, urging the dismantling of government agencies that no other nominee would suggest).”

Which leaves us to ponder an important question: is the difference between the Republican candidates’ moral inclinations one of degree, or one of kind?

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