Home All Navigating the Moral Divide in Politics (Book Review)

Navigating the Moral Divide in Politics (Book Review)

written by Jeremy McCarthy 28 June 2012

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

Editor’s Note: As part of our editorial policy, PPND does not publish political articles and does not host political debates in the comment section. While Jeremy does talk about his personal political viewpoint, it is purely to set the stage for a review of Jonathan Haidt’s new book. We have reviewed this article and view it to be appropriate for this site since it talks about the psychological underpinnings of political view points. But we will not host comments that argue with Jeremy about his particular political opinions.

I am a political liberal. Generally speaking, I’m anti-war, pro-immigration, pro-universal health care, pro-gay marriage, and so on. Like most liberals, I have a strong reaction to issues that center around two specific moral foundations: care and fairness. In other words, I tend to believe that a moral society is one that cares for people (including those that are in a minority position or less able to care for themselves) and I believe in equal rights and opportunities (fairness) for all.

In fact, these values seem so obviously important that I am often exasperated at my conservative friends who may hold different positions. If I’m completely honest, I can’t help but thinking that conservatives must either lack intelligence (i.e. they don’t understand the issues) or lack morality (i.e. they care about other things, like wealth, more than people).

      Jonathan Haidt
     Picture taken by Tom Cogill

But Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, holds a different view, and one that can help bridge the ever-widening gaps that occur in politics.

Moral Foundations Theory

His research on Moral Foundations Theory suggests that there is more to morality than caring and fairness. In fact, he describes the moral landscape as being like a tongue with six taste buds. Most liberals only have a “taste” for three foundations of morality: care (versus harm), fairness (versus cheating) and liberty (versus
oppression). Issues outside of these three either go unnoticed or are simply not given much importance in comparison.

Using All 6 Taste Buds

Conservative morality, on the other hand, is guided by all six moral foundations. In addition to care/harm, fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression, conservatives have a deep respect for authority (versus subversion), loyalty (versus betrayal), and sanctity (versus degradation). They believe more passionately in respecting traditions, hierarchical organization, and loyalty to their groups. This makes them more patriotic, more protective of territory (and willing to resort to force if necessary to defend it) and more religious (tradition, hierarchy, group loyalty, sanctity, and so on).

Debates Resume in the European Parliament

Through the course of Haidt’s book, he shows how each of these moral foundations has evolved and how all of them can play a role in contributing to a better society. This is not one of those books where a researcher boils down a complex subject into a simple tag line. Haidt takes readers on a journey through that complexity, so that we can understand the nuances and contradictions inherent in human morality.

I was interested to hear Haidt talk about his own personal reactions to his work in this area. He said understanding the diversity of moral foundations had broadened his thinking and pulled him more politically towards the center. I felt the same way. Understanding the moral foundations of the conservative philosophy helps me to appreciate their viewpoints on certain issues, even if I disagree with some of their strategies.
This gives me great hope for the future of politics. Perhaps there is a way to infuse greater understanding into the issues so that all can better appreciate the moral foundations of opposing viewpoints.

Does Understanding Bring Change?

But Haidt is not as optimistic as I am. When I asked him about the possibilities of this, he had discouraging news. He said the common reaction from his students is not really a shift towards the middle. They don’t really change their views, although they might “hate the other side less.”

Unfortunately, Haidt describes morality as “the intuitive dog wagging the rational tail.” In other words, we have gut instincts (heavily influenced by our genes) about what feels right. And we tend to ignore evidence that doesn’t support this inner compass.

Gather a Million Signatures…

“Morality binds and blinds” says Haidt, encapsulating both the challenge and the opportunity.

We blindly follow our moral instincts, and the foundations are hard to shake even in the presence of rationality.

But morality also brings people together with others who hold similar values. So while there is no single way to define or describe a moral life, we all have the ability to transcend self-interest in different ways and contribute to the greater good of our own communities.



References and recommended reading:

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.

Haidt, J. (2008). On the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. TED Talk.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.
Psychological Review. 108, 814-834

YourMorals.org – a site with questionnaires for assessing your own moral foundations.


Photo of Jonathan Haidt used with permission from Tom Cogill
European Parliament and Gather a million signatures both courtesy of European Parliament

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Sean 28 June 2012 - 8:58 pm

Thanks for this review and your thoughts Jeremy. I am not too concerned about whether understanding brings Haidt’s college students to the middle on hypothetical issues. But, based on my experience negotiating tens-of-thousands of agreements over almost twenty years, I whole-heartily believe that understanding, empathy and (frankly) recognizing that we are all hypocrites, can help us bridge the most deeply entrenched disputes. Haidt’s work can hep in this regard. I am constantly amazed how (more often than not) the people I work with who start out screaming, insulting and being patronizing to one another, end up apologizing for their unreasonableness and reaching agreement. The divisions in politics are troubling, but not hopeless.

Don Fox 28 June 2012 - 9:41 pm

This is an interesting article that, if my understanding is not too flawed the emphasis of the book being described is to bring civility back to political discourse, based on ethical considerations. I agree with that goal, and feel positive psychology has a role to play in this. If politicians had to follow the Fredrickson rule, at least three positive statements for each negative one, much could be achieved. I don’t mean three good things about the people we like versus one bad thing about the people we hate. Rather to attempt to examine principles followed and not followed which may lead to flourishing of the body politic, rather than destroying it. Politics is in many ways the most visible bastion of negativity, and this needs to be addressed. The values conservatives and liberals share are more important than those they differ on, and i’m not so sure the set quoted in either case is complete or definitive. Nevertheless it is important to have this debate, for the sake of democracy and decency. Let’s begin by recommending a reduction in attack ads.

Jeremy McCarthy 29 June 2012 - 9:29 am

Thanks Sean and Don, I agree with your comments, and I’ve heard Jon Haidt say similar things in interviews: that perhaps if we could understand each other a little better, we might not change our views but at least political discourse might be facilitated and perhaps we would more easily find common ground. Haidt, (who also describes himself as a liberal,) seems to think that liberals have a bit more to learn as conservatives generally understand the liberal position more than the other way around. Since conservatives share the same moral taste buds as liberals they “get” the concerns that liberals have although they may not prioritize them the same way. On the other side of the aisle, liberals have a hard time understanding the conservative position and consequently, they have a hard time explaining their position in a way that will appeal to a broader base.

It does seem like our political system tends to divide us along differences rather than focusing us on areas of agreement so I think Don makes a good point that PP could play a role in informing this. May be hard to overcome as Haidt points out this is a part of who we are as “tribal” animals. Haidt says that we are “90% chimp and 10% bee” to describe our hive-like tendencies.

Angus 2 July 2012 - 12:36 am

Excellent Jeremy. PPND’s line on not talking about politics is understandable, it should be no-one’s platform, but haste not to deal with reality. Jonathan Haidt’s book is terrific. I am not sure it works fully on politics. Many folk, not just Haidt, move over their life course from the left to the centre; maybe that’s good, maybe it is the diminishment of idealism. I, of done, have greater faith in the next generations than I feel any pride in what we (baby-boomer I) have done.

Central to Haidt (pace Kahneman) is the point that intuition cannot be switched off. It always operates. How to lead and manage it is, for me, the central question – how to be better riders? Not pretending to be riders all the time, too much – the elephant dos not rule but is always there.

Best aye

Peter Perkins 8 July 2012 - 8:12 pm

Jeremy, well done, and Angus congratulations on noting the connection to Daniel Kahneman’s work. Sean, I believe has identified the key to the “political divide”, be it be in commerce, law/politics, family or tribes. My experience is that so long as we label and attach emotion to most of the words we use in debates, they’ll be more harsh and extreme. Dispute resolution requires both intuition and rationality, but the final “judgement” rarely creates unanimous agreement. Progress in politics will emerge over time as more people see value in the PP appraoch to challenges and issues, and decide that “fighting” is a thing of the past.

Ben O'Neal 11 July 2012 - 7:31 am

Jeremy, thanks for your discussion of what I believe is the most important and influential book in psychology in years. In the introduction to your article, you identified yourself as a political liberal (one of the “tribe” as Haidt would say) and your editor elaborated on the political philosophy of the site. As you probably know, Jonathon Haidt once identified himself as a liberal, but one of his primary concerns is the lack of conservatives doing research in social psychology. I suspect that, like you, the researchers in your field are primarily liberal or left of center in their political beliefs.

Following is an excerpt from an abstract of a working paper from Tiburg University that reports research on this issue for the fields of social and personality psychology: “…we find that conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, we find that conservatives are right to do so. In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.” The full paper, entitled Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, can be downloaded from this site: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2002636.

In your opinion, is there a lack of a conservative perspective in positive psychology and does this have a negative effect on research topics, results and publications? Sorry to put you on the spot but this is an important issue.

Jeremy McCarthy 11 July 2012 - 10:01 am

Thanks Ben, I think this is true, not only of positive psychology but of academia in general. I heard Haidt say early on as he was presenting his research that it was hard for him to gauge the conservative reaction to it because it was hard for him to find a conservative audience within his realm of influence. Haidt talks about how liberal academics are always trying to figure out “what’s wrong with conservatives?” And “why are they conservative?” as if it stems from some kind of trauma in childhood. He suggests that liberals may be better off by trying to understand why they are liberal (why, for example, do we not have the same moral sense on some of these other moral taste buds.)

I’m not well informed on how the liberal skew in academia affects research (although I’m sure there is data [and debate] on this.) But I think it’s safe to say that there are biases (and not only along political lines–Haidt describes progressive academics as WEIRD–i.e. they are Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic–hardly representative of the world population) and yet research results on this WEIRD demographic across a variety of sciences get ascribed to all humanity.

I have seen some data suggesting that percentages of conservatives don’t change through a university education (in spite of having a liberal emphasis) which ties in to Haidt’s idea that our moral sense is largely intuitive and not rational. This would indicate that we are wasting A LOT of time and energy trying to “educate” or “convince” the other side rather than accepting the fact that we will have different views and trying to figure out areas of common interest to make progress on.


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