Righteous Politics: Do our morals influence our political views?

Every Thanksgiving brings a slew of “how to talk to your family about politics” articles. This year, we’re going a little deeper.

November 24, 2019

In 2017, one poll found that nearly half of Americans avoided discussing politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Americans haven’t exactly started agreeing with each other more since then, so it’s safe to assume that politics will not be landing on more menus this year.

There will be plenty of other useful articles in the next week with tips on how to talk to your cousin’s boyfriend about Ukraine. Instead, we’d like to take a closer look at how people form their political opinions and how we can use that insight to have better conversations with them.

One fascinating framework comes from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at the New York University Stern School of Business. In his 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt writes that our ideas about human nature and the role of individuals in society shape our political views. Two different worldviews, he says, produce two different kinds of partisans:

  • Some people believe that humans are inherently flawed and need external structures and constraints – such as institutions, customs, traditions, patriotism, and religious beliefs – in order to cooperate and thrive. People who hold this view of human nature feel that we need the authority of institutions to keep society in order, and turn to entities like families, faith communities, and nations for leadership. To them, the idea that people can pursue their individual goals in the absence of larger connections weakens institutions that are critical to the success of society as a whole.
  • Others believe that humans are inherently good and can reach their highest potential when they aren’t burdened with arbitrary rules and constraints. To them, society is a collection of mostly autonomous individuals who satisfy their wants and needs as each sees fit. People who view society this way place greater value on individual rights, liberty, and justice, ideally allowing people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s lives.

Worldviews in Action
To understand how these worldviews translate into political opinions, consider this example: Are welfare programs and feminism positive forces that liberate women from their traditional dependence on men? Or are they negative movements that increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children?

According to Haidt, our answers to these questions depend primarily on our views of human nature and where we place individuals in society. People who view society as a collection of autonomous individuals are more likely to hold the first view, while those who believe the pursuit of individual goals can weaken our institutions will more likely adhere to the second.

Moral Arguments
Haidt says that understanding these competing worldviews is key to having more productive political conversations. These worldviews are based on our intuitive beliefs and personal experiences, which means that no matter how many statistics and white papers you bring to the Thanksgiving table, you can’t reason them away.

Reasoning, Haidt argues, can take us to almost any conclusion we want. When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves “Can I believe it?” The answer to this question is almost always yes. But when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves “Must I believe it?” The answer to this question is almost always no.

In practice, this means that swaying someone else’s opinion through rational argument is nearly impossible. We end up discrediting the opinions – and too often, demonizing the people who hold them. Our moral views, says Haidt, bind us to people who share them, and blind us to the merits of people who don’t.

If we truly want to understand another person or group of people, Haidt explains, we must look beyond their rational arguments to the moral values behind them. If you’re talking to someone who is concerned about caring for the less fortunate or bringing freedom to the oppressed, an argument based on respect for authority will probably not compel them to agree with you.

Similarly, if you’re talking to someone who believes that traditions and institutions are valuable in promoting the overall welfare of society, they may be uninterested in reforms that benefit one small group of people at the expense of the whole.

If we genuinely want to disagree more constructively, we must acknowledge that there is no one right answer. On the contrary, our political life will be healthier when we can find ways to disagree more constructively, and to frame solutions to problems in ways that acknowledge more than one set of moral values.

Learn More

In Conversation: Jonathan Haidt considers labels like “liberal” and “conservative” to be more like personality types than political affiliations. In this podcast, Haidt discusses how his own research has changed him – via On Being

Moral Foundations Theory: Do your morals determine who you voted for in the 2016 presidential election? Haidt joins the libertarian Cato Institute’s director of polling in saying yes – and explaining how – via Vox

Desirability Bias: Three researchers argue that political polarization is a result of peoples’ conflicting desires rather than their conflicting beliefs – via New York Times

Moral Politics: In this interview, language expert George Lakoff explains how politicians can and do leverage the moral systems in our brains to get their messages across – via Marketplace

I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Republican and a Democrat talk about how invoking personal experience, rather than data, helps them have more meaningful political conversations – via The Atlantic

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This article originally appeared in the November 24, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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