Why Good People Are Divided by Politics

Liberals and conservatives are instinctively and passionately moral, but the differences in the moral principles we value polarize us and make it difficult to see the merit in each other’s approaches to human society, according to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Writing in 2012 in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, Haidt draws on past and present scholarship in psychology, philosophy, political science and cultural anthropology to offer a moral theory foundation to explain why we humans have so much trouble getting along. I read Haidt’s book as part of my continuing search for a way beyond polarization. Haidt does a great job of explaining why we might be in this mess; he doesn’t offer any better solution than others have: we need to do a better job of listening to each other.  

Morality emerges from a combination of innateness (adaptations we acquired through human evolution to survive as individuals) and social learning (adaptations we developed to thrive in tribes/communities). He argues that social and political judgments depend heavily on quick intuitive flashes with strategic reasoning following to justify our instinctive assessments. He uses a metaphor of an elephant to convey the weight of our intuitive and instinctual judgement and the rider to convey the role and limitations of strategic reasoning. “To change someone’s mind, you have to talk to the elephant first….If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion,” Haidt advises.

To simplify his theory for a blog post shortchanges his scholarship and reduces a compelling piece of analysis to insights that might seem obvious. Haidt is a University of Virginia professor and works with many colleagues developing his theory. The book is well worth reading for that complexity. He lays out six moral principles and explains their basic purpose in human evolution. Haidt and his colleagues then researched the preferences people of different political persuasions have by administering a psychological survey instruments to thousands of people.

Liberals are most committed to two principles; conservatives value six principles to different degrees; the ones they value are different and how they relate to these principles can also be different. Here’s his short description of these six principles with my even shorter summary in italics of how liberals and conservatives relate to them. He makes the case that each principle plays an essential role in a well-functioning society. 

  1. The care/harm foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering. This principle with liberty/oppression are the two that most define liberals. These principles motivate us to pursue social justice.
  2. The Fairness/cheating foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.  Conservatives believe good citizens should be rewarded in proportion to their deeds; this is why conservative poor people resent social welfare.
  3. The Loyalty/betrayal foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group. This principle explains the power of patriotism and religion for many conservatives.
  4. The Authority/subversion foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position. This principle helps explain how conservatiives relate to family structure and values, as well as their greater willingness to serve in the military and other law and order institutions. 
  5. The Sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites.  It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objectives with irrational and extreme values—both positive and negative—which are important for binding groups tougher. Liberals are more open to novel experiences and this increases their tolerance for differences; for conservatives religion and other consistent systems of ordering human behavior offer assurance and create group cohesion.
  6. Liberty/oppression foundation, which makes people note and resent any sign of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants. This foundation supports the egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism of the left, as well as the don’t- tread-on-me and give-me-liberty antigovernment anger of libertarians and some conservatives. It’s intriguing to see that we fear very different threats to our liberty. As liberty is the founding US principle,disagreeing about what liberty means must be at the heart of many policy fights. 

Haidt’s pronouncement is that morality binds and blinds. “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depends on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of god people who have something important to say.”

The greatest contribution of psychology may be helping us understand ourselves so that we can be in better relationship with ourselves and with others. The greatest contribution of moral psychology as Haidt is advancing the field, may be giving us a language for recognizing and discussing our differences. 

The next time I am in a conversation with someone of a different political persuasion I will be listening for which moral principle is motivating that person, pausing to think about how I relate to that principle, and then I will try pressing for common ground somewhere among the six principles that we all need to thrive on this planet.