JZ,

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