The public is understandably weary of partisan demagoguery. Virginia’s gubernatorial race was on the national stage this season, and the choice voters faced was framed in the familiar rhetoric of Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, Right vs. Left. The effects of such political divisions are far-reaching, as last month’s congressional gridlock and subsequent government shutdown made all too clear. The divisions we face aren’t merely political, either. The so-called “culture wars” pit science against religion, the educated elite against the working class, the 99% against the 1%. All of these divisions work to make consensus-building increasingly difficult.
Interestingly, one response to this polarization is coming from the field of social psychology. In the past twenty years, researchers have come to learn quite a lot about how human beings respond to partisan issues. It turns out that it is exceedingly rare that any of us responds to good reasoning. Instead, we are primarily social and emotional creatures when it comes to the issues that divide us. Faced with a tough issue like immigration reform, our positions are almost entirely determined by the thinking of our social ingroup and by how we emotionally respond to the issue. Reasoned argument plays almost no role in our decision-making.
The renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likens the situation to a rider atop an elephant. Our rational minds can do little to steer the social and emotional behemoth underneath, and at best reason serves to carry out the aims already decided upon by our emotions. The situation was described almost three centuries ago by the philosopher David Hume this way: “Reason is, and ought only to be, slave of the passions.”
This might appear to be a pessimistic conclusion, but Haidt sees a path out. In his bestselling recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2012), Haidt describes his own research into the moral foundations of our thinking. Looking at studies conducted over more than a decade and involving hundreds of thousands of test subjects, he and his colleagues have concluded that differences in how we think about moral values are at the heart of our divisions around politics and religion. They identify five distinct dimensions of moral thinking, and political and cultural divisiveness over just about any issue can be understood in terms of how the various sides in a debate frame the issues in terms of different moral dimensions.
For example, liberals tend to frame almost all issues in terms of one dimension: care and harm. This dimension of moral thinking puts right and wrong in terms of our duties to care for others, particularly those who are worse off than ourselves, and frames public policy questions in terms of who might be benefitted or harmed. To a lesser degree, liberals consider fairness and cheating important to our moral evaluations, and conservatives also think about morality in these terms, as well as about care and harm. Unlike liberals, however, conservatives also tend to think in terms of loyalty and betrayal, and authority and subversion. The loyalty/betrayal dimension places high value on positively contributing to one’s in-group and defending that group from outside threats, whereas the authority/subversion dimension considers respect for those in authority an important value. Likewise, the sanctity/degradation dimension plays a role in the thinking of religious conservatives, in particular. This dimension considers some bodily actions as “polluting” and places value on cleanliness and purity, especially as defined by religious precepts.
If ideological divides result in part from our different ways of thinking about moral values, where is the path out? Haidt has some recommendations. Those in the Roanoke area had a great opportunity to hear Haidt give a free public lecture at Hollins on November 4. The core of his recommendation is this: we need to surround ourselves with people who think differently than us, learn to relate to them and understand them. This changes the elephant’s course, since it allows for connections on a social and emotional level. Members of Congress should do this, but the lesson applies to each of us, in our daily lives, at work, at home, in our communities. The goal isn’t consensus and agreement, but respect and understanding. Whatever the outcome of any election, that will go a long way towards healing our divisions.