Science Asks: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Katherine Mangu-Ward - Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor for Reason magazine.

On this, my last day guestblogging for Megan -- thanks again for reading and leaving great comments -- I'd like to engage in a little shameless self-promotion which is actually promotion of someone else's very interesting work.

Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He's also Reason magazine's cover boy this month. He has been working on a big project that asks these questions:

Why do people disagree so passionately about what is right? 

Why, in particular, is there such hostility and incomprehension between members of different political parties?

(Megan has written about Haidt here and here.)

Haidt calls the system he has built to help answer those questions Moral Foundations Theory, and he has been breaking off chunks of this big idea for the last several years. The latest chunk is his new book The Righteous Mind, which was released this week. Along with his colleagues, he posits that the moral appeals upon which political cultures and movements are based can be broken down into six basic categories: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. As he puts in it his Reason story, adapted from the book:

Political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object). Libertarians, true to their name, value liberty more than anyone else, and they value it far more than any other foundation.
In an effort to figure out why conversations across the aisle so often degenerate into shouting matches, Haidt (along with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek) asked liberals and conservatives to try on each others' ideological shoes, answering a series of questions as they thought their opponents would:

The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as "one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal" or "justice is the most important requirement for a society," liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.
Haidt theorizes that this kind of blindness to the real motivations of others is driving discord in Washington and around the country. Our political personalities emerge from a stew of nature, nurture (which is in part a result of feedback from the world on our natures), and the narratives we build up to explain the progression of our own lives and the working of the world around us. But they also wall us off from others:

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. Morality binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say
Want to read the whole thing? It's not online yet, but the issue hits newsstands this week. Or you could just go ahead and subscribe to Reason today!

Full disclosure: Here are my results on the basic Moral Foundations survey (me in green, liberals in blue, conservatives in red):

My results conform with what Haidt has found about libertarians elsewhere -- they appear to have no morals. But that's actually misleading. As he notes in the passage above, libertarians simply value liberty most highly, a moral value that doesn't show up in his five standard measures.

(Go take the survey! It's for science! And it is almost as fun as taking the Myers-Briggs test and then talking smack about people who get results that differ from yours. Doh! Haidt is right again.)