The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong

Eliminating political divides through morality: The case of climate change


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?


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

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