How to Win the Culture War: Sell a Better Version of Economic Fairness

The rise of the Tea Party permanently shifted the battlefield on social issues. Now all that's left is a fight over whether equality should be a starting point or an outcome.

In 1943, Allied forces achieved a hard-fought victory in the North African campaign, captured Sicily, and began to fight their way up the Italian peninsula. Victories in places such as El-Alamein, Salerno, and Anzio gave America some confidence that the Allies would ultimately prevail in Europe. That confidence allowed the American public to shift more of its attention to the Pacific Theater. Popular magazines such as National Geographic began to publish more maps and articles about the Pacific because Americans suddenly wanted to know a lot more about Saipan and Leyte Gulf.

The same sort of shift is happening now for the left in America's long-running culture war. From the 1980s until the birth of the Tea Party, most of the action was in the Social Theater, in which the religious right and the secular left waged an existential struggle for the soul of American society. Issues related to sexuality, drugs, religion, family life, and patriotism were particularly vexing, and many people over 40 can recall the names of battlefields such as Mapplethorpe, needle exchange, 2 Live Crew, and the flag-burning amendment. But the left won a smashing victory in the 2012 elections, including the first victories at the ballot box for gay marriage. These triumphs, combined with polling data showing the tolerant attitudes of younger voters, give the left confidence that it will ultimately prevail on most issues in the Social Theater. The power base of the religious right is older, white, rural Protestants, a group that immigration, demography, and urban renewal have consigned to play an ever-shrinking role in American presidential elections.

Both sides are now likely to shift several divisions and carrier task forces over to the Economic Theater of the culture war, where the single most important battle of 2012 was fought -- the battle over marginal tax rates for the rich. The left won that battle on January 1, when the House of Representatives voted to raise tax rates for the rich, but victory in the overall war is far less certain. Economic issues such as taxation are moral issues -- no less so than social issues like gay marriage -- and neither side has full control of the key moral foundations that underlie economic morality: fairness and liberty. Both sides are vulnerable to being outflanked and outgunned. Both sides could use a detailed map of the moral ground on which economic battles are waged.

In this essay I offer such a map, showing the territory currently controlled by Democrats (equality and positive liberty) and by Republicans (proportionality and negative liberty). What remains up for grabs is "procedural fairness": the integrity of the process by which we decide who gets what. Both parties are open to charges that they don't want everyone to "play by the same rules." Both parties have ways of answering this charge and persuading the broader public that its concept of fairness is the better one. The party that wins that point will have the upper hand in this new culture war.

The Six Foundations of Morality

My research in social psychology has focused on morality and how it varies across cultures. I conducted my early research in India and Brazil in the 1990s, trying to understand why so many cultures and religions moralize food and sexual practices -- think of kosher laws, or the widespread condemnation of homosexuality -- even when such behaviors don't seem to harm anyone. Why do many cultures treat rules about food and sex as seriously as rules about murder and theft?

I conducted interviews to find out how people feel about harmless taboo violations -- for example, a family that eats its pet dog after the dog was killed by a car, or a woman who cuts up her nation's flag to make rags to clean her toilet. In all cases the actions are performed in private and nobody is harmed; yet the actions feel wrong to many people -- they found them disgusting or disrespectful. In my interviews, only one group of research subjects -- college students in the United States -- fully embraced the principle of harmlessness and said that people have a right to do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt anyone else. People in Brazil and India, in contrast, had a broader moral domain -- they were willing to condemn even actions that they admitted were harmless. Disgust and disrespect were sufficient grounds for moral condemnation.

I had predicted those cross-national differences. What I hadn't predicted was that differences across social classes within each nation would be larger than differences across nations. In other words, college students at the University of Pennsylvania were more similar to college students in Recife, Brazil, than they were to the working-class adults I interviewed in West Philadelphia, a few blocks from campus. There's something about the process of becoming comparatively well-off and educated that seems to shrink the moral domain down to its bare minimum -- I won't hurt you, you don't hurt me, and beyond that, to each her own.

To make sense of these cultural variations, I created a theory in 2003 called "moral-foundations theory." My goal was to specify the "taste buds" of the moral sense. Every human being has the same five taste receptors -- tiny structures on the tongue specialized for detecting five classes of molecules, which we experience as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Yet our food preferences aren't dictated just by our tongues. Rather, they depend heavily on our cultures, each of which has constructed its own cuisine.

In the same way, I aimed to identify the innate psychological systems that were given to us all by evolution, and that each culture uses to construct its unique moral systems. For example, you'll never find a human culture that makes no use of reciprocity and has no conception of fairness and cheating. Fairness is a really good candidate for being a moral taste bud, yet cultures vary greatly in how they implement fairness. Consider this quote from the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian legal text: "If a builder builds a house and does not construct it properly, and the building collapses and kills the owner, the builder shall be put to death. If it kills the owner's son, the builder's son shall be put to death." You can see the psychology of fairness here, but this is not quite the way we'd implement it.

Drawing on the work of many anthropologists (particularly Richard Shweder at the University of Chicago) and many evolutionary biologists and psychologists, my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that there are six best candidates for being the taste buds of the moral mind: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.

Moral-foundations theory helped to explain the differing responses to those harmless taboo violations (the dog-eating and flag-shredding). Those stories always violated the Loyalty, Authority, or Sanctity foundations in ways that were harmless. My educated American subjects (who, in retrospect, I realize were mostly liberal) generally rejected those three foundations and had a moral "cuisine" built entirely on the first three foundations; so if an action doesn't harm anyone (Care/Harm), cheat anyone (Fairness/Cheating), or violate anyone's freedom (Liberty/Oppression), then you can't condemn someone for doing it. But in more traditional societies, the moral domain is broader. Moral "cuisines" are typically based on all six foundations (though often with much less reliance on Liberty), and it is perfectly sensible to condemn people for homosexual behavior among consenting adults, or other behaviors that challenge traditions or question authority.

The Older Culture War

After the 2004 presidential election, in which gay marriage, abortion, patriotism, and other "social issues" had played a large role, I began to apply moral-foundations theory to the American culture war. I wanted to find out if left and right in the United States were in some sense different nations, each with its own set of beliefs, facts, and values. Was it correct to say that liberal moral cuisine was based primarily on the first three foundations (which protect individuals), whereas social conservatives were offering a moral cuisine that drew on all six foundations, including Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity (which are more oriented to protecting a tight, binding moral order)?

Presented by

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and Thomas Cooley professor of ethical leadership at the NYU-Stern School of Business. His most recent book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

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