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Eliminating political divides through morality: The case of climate change

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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AW –

You mention two practices that are widespread today but might be viewed as morally offensive in the future: boxing and ageism. I want to think about another one: our treatment of the environment.  A recent meta-analysis confirms what lots of us already know, which is that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports an anthropogenic—or man-made—model of climate change.  The effects of choices people make every day, such as driving instead of taking public transportation or eating meat, which is hugely energy-inefficient, are difficult to see now.  As this changes, future generations might view these now-mundane behaviors as bewildering and immoral.  (Full disclosure: I too drive and eat meat, so future generations can feel free to judge me as well.)

One thing that makes environmentally irresponsible actions so interesting is that they are variably taboo.  Practices such as fracking and offshore drilling trigger moral outrage among millions of people, and seem totally acceptable to millions of others.  This divide falls along party lines, with liberals, but not conservatives, typically expressing deep moral convictions about the environmental.

What creates this moral split?  One typical answer is that conservatives, as compared to liberals, are more interested in the financial benefits of practices like offshore drilling, and this limits their concern about these practices’ environmental side effects.  Recently, however, Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer elegantly argued for a different reason for this divide: environmental protection messages might appeal to uniquely liberal moral principles.

First, some background.  A few years ago, Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian Nosek demonstrated that not all people’s morals are created equal.  Instead, liberals and conservatives appear to hold different profiles of moral values: whereas liberals especially value fairness and the avoidance of harm, conservatives value other principles—loyalty to one’s group, respect for authority, and purity—just as much.  (Interested readers can test their own moral profile here.)

Feinberg and Willer’s (fantastic) insight was that the split between liberal and conservative environmental attitudes could reflect these different moral principles.  Specifically, damaging the environment is often viewed as wrong because of the harm it causes, to animals, ecosystems, and future generations.  In fact, Feinberg and Willer found that environmental campaigns (such as video and print public service announcements) overwhelmingly take a harm-based approach to casting green living as morally correct.   If this is the case, then these messages might simply not get through to conservatives because they’re aimed at the wrong moral foundations.  Feinberg and Willer tested this prediction by instead showing conservatives messages that portrayed environmental damage as impure, such as an image of someone swimming through trash-filled water.  After viewing these messages, conservatives became just as concerned with the environment—and willing to support pro-environment policy—as liberals.

When pollution is described as impure, conservatives are just as likely as liberals to support environmental protection. Image courtesy of Matthew Feinberg.

This provides an example of how morals operate “under the hood” of political attitudes, and—more powerfully—how savvy tweaking of moral reasoning can eliminate political divides.  But it’s just one example of very, very, many.  Do you think that moral foundations likewise shape our country’s political divides in other domains?


Jamil Zaki About the Author: Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, studying the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior. Follow on Twitter @jazzmule.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. John A. 6:45 pm 05/18/2013

    Of course conservatives not made of straw don’t want to allow factories to dump toxic waste into the water supply. However that is not the same as liberal “environmentalism,” such as carbon taxes, unscientific opposition to fracking and nuclear power, and attempts to stop North America from producing its own energy. The environmental argument with those things is more of an argument about socialism and capitalism than anything else.

    People who speak of overcoming political divides usually represent one side of the argument. The idea that carbon emissions will be seen as immoral is dependent on either technology not yet developed, or voluntarily going back to the stone age.

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  2. 2. John A. 4:46 pm 05/19/2013

    Why was my comment deleted?

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  3. 3. yoinkel 9:22 am 05/21/2013

    Didn’t realize that Feinberg found that, is it published? Also, you might want to check out the latest “This American Life” on climate change. It features a full length story on the Conservative entrenchment on the issue and the ways people are trying to break through on the other side of the isle. There are two approaches suggested by that story, either: 1) convince the conservative wing, through targeted messaging (the Feinberg approach) to come the table on this issue, or 2) take the Bill McKibben approach and actually use the opposition in the same way that the civil rights movement did, by actually exacerbating and defining themselves against the opposition in a way that brought the taboo of racism onto the public stage as a moral crisis.

    I left more convinced by the second approach because I think that when societies divide so widely on issues involving the principles of the enlightenment, a certain drama usually has to play out on a public stage to generate a catharsis and build a new moral concensus. Then the taboos are very fast to change.

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  4. 4. PhyreSpirit 11:14 pm 03/28/2015

    I have to agree with John. I have no problem supporting a proven environmental issue. I find it strange though that all this talk is about “bringing the ‘conservatives’ in” by manipulating the message. How about a few “liberals” take a field trip to a fracking mine? Can’t get more real than that, and un-manipulated too! I was concerned about the environment, but I don’t believe every piece of garbage media hype that comes out, so I took that trip. I visited a fracking mine for a bit. I did some research. Let me just say, you people shouldn’t talk about what you know absolutely nothing about. You keep buying your Saudi oil, that you are buying from the middle east for starters, that spills into the soil, the ocean, and elsewhere when the “screw up” which kills plant & animal life, it can sometimes catch fire, killing people, loosing oil, pushing up prices because of lost product, it’s impure because it is simply “sucked up” with whatever sediment is in the oil pocket and again, you are buying Saudi oil…

    I will look for my much LESS harmful to the environment fracked oil, because it NEVER spills being that it is a completely CLOSED SYSTEM, it’s homegrown so no paying the middle east, it leaves PURE WATER as it’s only byproduct in the soil where it was removed from, it’s more pure than drilled oil because the process of fracking filters out sediment so the soil is left primarily in-tact, and it is cheaper because it is right here.

    I’m not a “liberal”, not a “conservative”, but an informed member of society who refuses to believe ANYTHING without researching it myself. This is why.
    Thanks! :)

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