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A Different Look at the Political Divide on Morality

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

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In your last post you talk about the political divide in morality in terms of the groundbreaking Moral Foundations Theory, which demonstrates that political liberals place greater emphasis on the values of fairness and harm avoidance whereas political conservatives place greater emphasis on purity, respect for authority, and loyalty. This pattern of differing preferences for moral foundations between liberals and conservatives in appears to emerge in virtually all societies in the world, from municipal dump inhabitants in Nicaragua to  Croatians, Italians, and Chinese  individuals surveyed in online studies.

Moral Foundations Theory has provided a tremendously insightful way of conceptualizing the culture wars between liberals and conservatives in terms of liberals’ preferential concerns for the well-being of the individual versus conservatives’ more group-based concerns, respectively. Now, a new paper published by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman and Nate Carnes, provides a different take on how to slice up morality across the political divide by presenting a Model of Moral Motives (MMM).  The most distinctive observation of the MMM is that liberals and conservatives care equally about group-based morality (moral concern for the group of people to which they belong), but they show it in different ways.

"Social justice for our people... now". March as part of the nationwide two-day strike called by the Workers' United Center of Chile.

Whereas conservatives tend to express their concern for group in terms of protecting the social order and keeping the group safe from threats, liberals tend to express their concern for the group in terms of emphasizing communal responsibility to help each other, with an emphasis on social justice.  Of course, my simple recapitulation of this theory is an over-generalization of differences in political ideology that fails to capture extensive complexity of how liberals and conservatives express group-based concerns. Nonetheless, this view is undoubtedly useful in identifying common ground between liberals and conservatives.

Rather than painting a picture of liberals as destroying the fabric of America through promoting immigration reform, gay marriage, and assistance programs for low income families, the MMM views liberals as doing what is best for the group through concerns for social justice.  Rather than painting a picture of conservatives as unabashedly jingoistic, resistant to outsiders, and hostile toward the rest of the world, the MMM views conservatives as doing what is best for the group through concerns about maintaining the social order.  Both sides care about the country, with liberals focusing more on providing for the group and conservatives focusing on protecting the group.

With a new theory on hand, I am wondering how we might use this insight practically to reduce moral disagreement between liberals and conservatives.  More generally, I think the “provide versus protect” distinction that Janoff-Bulman and Carnes make is at the heart of much intragroup conflict.  We all love the group to which we belong, but when different motives guide the way different group members show that love–actively helping the group versus preventing the group from being harmed–these motives get misconstrued.  I wonder how we might resolve these misunderstandings to reduce moral disagreement more broadly.

Image courtesy of Simenon Simenon via Wikimedia Commons

Adam Waytz About the Author: Adam Waytz is a psychologist who studies the attribution and denial of mental states to other agents, and the moral and ethical implications of these processes. Follow on twitter: @awaytz

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

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  1. 1. ktkeith 3:39 pm 05/31/2013

    I think these are not just two ways of approaching moral questions, or of assigning moral priorities, but rather two different ways of *conceiving of moral principle or moral obligation* itself. And, to the extent that they are mutually exclusive (which perhaps the are not entirely, but likely are to some degree), this contrasting characterization must be true.

    That is, if it is true that morality consists in protecting individual rights or interests, then it is *morally wrong* to sacrifice individuals to group needs. Contrariwise, if it is morally necessary to protect group interests and enforce obligations to the group, then it is morally wrong to assert individual interests against the needs of the group. Compromises may be available, but it is impossible to reconcile these two perspectives in principle. And I suspect that these differing views of morality are in fact seen as being, or arising from, distinct moral principles (and thus fundamental) not just goals or priorities (and thus negotiable).

    This possibility – that liberals and conservatives have incompatible principles of morality, and not just differing values – is baked into moral theory at a fundamental level. It tracks closely with the traditional distinction between “teleological” and “deontological” ethics, which in turn loosely (though not strictly) corresponds to a liberal/conservative divide. It similarly tracks with the difference between humanistic and theological ethics, again a rough proxy for liberal and conservative perspectives.

    The “Model of Moral Motives,” as described above, does not seem to address the question of at-bottom principle underlying different approaches to ethics. It seems to treat liberal and conservative mindsets both as “doing what is best for the group,” with different priorities or areas of focus. It seems to me the differences are much more fundamental than that, and that the question of motives is secondary to the question of basic moral allegiances. Seeking more congenial similarities between these perspectives, as the MMM seems to do, papers over their real, and to a real degree irresolvable, differences.

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  2. 2. JoeJeffrey 9:37 am 06/1/2013

    There is a different, and in some ways more useful, formulation of the facts about moral judgments, due to P.G. Ossorio. It has the advantages that 1) It is simply an articulation of the facts, not a theory, and 2) It provides a systemtic framework for all the various facts about morality. He calls it the Judgement (or Jusification) Ladder: Level 1 = custom: X is right because that’s how we do it; level 2 is Theory: X is right because this overarching theory says it is, and theories are used to adjudicate custom disagreements; level 3 is Principle: X is right according to the Principle P, and we use principles to adjudicate theory disagreements; level 4 (top level) is competence; the straightforward appeal to the other’s competence to see what is right, regardless of formulated principle, and we use it to adjudicate disagreements about principles.

    But there is no over-arching single theory or principle, and appeals to competence do not always work. This is not a case of analyzing forces in an engineering structure; it’s a case of articulating the facts about the moral concepts that people act on. Some moral disagreements cannot be resolved, and the best that can be achieved is mutual understanding of the other’s position in terms of custom, theory, principle, and competence. Sometimes both sides say, “Well, he’s wrong, bu he just can’t see it.” But being able to understand where on the Justification Ladder the argument is rooted helps immensely to avoid talking past one another.

    Most of the disagreements between social/political groups are arguments between groups using different levels of justification, by far the most common being custom vs. principle, though some, like the abortion debate are at the theory vs. competence level: those who hold to the theory that a fetus is a full person vs. those who say, “But can’t you see that damaging women that way is wrong?” Religions and even churches in the same religion commonly differ on this scale: those who define what is morally right by custom vs. principle. The Muslim head scarf rule is a perfect example: women are supposed to wear a head scarf (the custom) for “modesty” (the principle). And it’s very hard for them, due to how they grew up, to really realize that uncovering one’s head does not in fact make one less modest — they’ve completely conflated custom and principle.

    See Ossorio’s Behavior of Persons (available on Amazon) for a more extensive discussion.

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  3. 3. A J Smith 1:02 pm 06/22/2013

    Isn’t any discussion of where the USA ought to go from here dependent on what we accept as the moral underpinnings of each individual’s right to Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness? (As well as having clear concepts of them?)

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  4. 4. Jim Macafee 1:45 am 09/21/2013

    It’s impolite to say so, but I think it’s becoming more and more undeniable that conservatives fluctuate along an anxiety/fear/paranoia spectrum (amygdala-dominant) and liberals are more likely to be deliberative (anterior cingulate and pre-frontal cortex mediated). My devious hope is that younger people will become more aware of this, and find conservatism unappetizing.

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