Political Morality: The Ethics of the Other Party

Last Updated on December 2, 2020 by

political morality

Political Morality is the topic of today’s blog. It follows the previous blog about Political Apathy and will lead to another article about Political Loyalty. So this forms the second of a set of three.

Sectarianism is usually used to describe religious affiliation. Political sectarianism refers to affiliation with a passion that we usually associate with religion, but instead directed toward a political party. And sectarianism is alive and well in the US. You have probably seen many examples. I’ll quote two headlines at random:

Public figures benefit from uttering extreme statements. But even the non-public rest of us might subscribe to statements like the following:

  • I voted for candidate X. How come over 70 million of my fellow Americans are so stupid or immoral that they voted for candidate Y?
  • Why do Democrats and Republicans seem to hate each other so much? Don’t we share many values and goals? Whatever happened to cooperation?

Here are links to the main sections of today’s blog:

Voters Want Cooperation

The “Stupid Voter” Problem

The Connection Between Political Morality & Political Allegiance

Morals Explain Politics

Reaching Across the Political Morality Divide

A Reason for Hope

Voters Want Cooperation

One thing that seems clear: voters want their political parties to cooperate. Gallup Poll tracks public approval of Congress, which has been under 32% all this year. Specifically, approval currently runs at 19% with disapproval at 77%.

And exactly what do voters disapprove of? A detailed analysis in 2013 ranked many reasons. The top three were party gridlock, lack of action, and putting politics before country. The sum of these items was a dominant 60% of all reasons. And a bipartisan panel of experts convened by Harvard just after the November election agreed that voters are weary of winner-take-all politics. Per the election results, they want less divisiveness and greater unity.

The “Stupid Voter” Problem

political morality

So let’s examine the “stupid voter” problem, namely, other people are STUPID because their votes disagree with MINE.

When we study this dilemma, we soon discover that the stupid voter may not be stupid at all. He or she may be acting sensibly to support their personal values. And that is even more alarming. Because it implies that the other person is not just ill-informed, but basically through-and-through EVIL. Meaning that his political morality appears immoral to me.

We can’t explain partisan differences as simply jockeying for power and prestige. Nor do they arise from a logical analysis of risks and benefits of our actions. In fact, the emotions that accompany these discussions are acutely felt and can lead to harmful action.

How did we get to this point, where political opponents fear and hate each other so viscerally? Don’t we as Americans share many values and goals? Have we lost the fundamental ability to cooperate?

– Can Social Science Help?

This is a science-based website. However, some of us have been told to mistrust scientists. To give preference to the advice of economists and politicians.

In my experience, people who spend the years to acquire a science education and pursue science as a career are fundamentally honest. They value the quest for truth. They may have conflicts of interest as anyone might, and when we listen to them we always need to consider what conscious or unconscious biases they may carry. But a good starting point is to assume that a scientist speaks the truth as he or she understands it, without intentional distortion.

Social science is a term embracing many disciplines, all dealing with the crazy, surprising behavior of human beings. Astute readers may recall us discussing other instances of useful results from social research: protection from the “vampire boss”; and gender bias in science.

And we will now look at recent studies that give insights into political morality as evidenced by the Stupid or Evil Voter, and even point to possible solutions.

The Connection Between Political Morality & Political Allegiance

The word “evil” reveals that the way we feel about political positions relates to our personal code of ethics, what we consider to be right and wrong. This is a complicated subject, so we will summarize the research at a top level, then move immediately to practical implications.

We will discuss three approaches to understanding political morality. Each of them offers different insights, and together they suggest ways to reach across the chasm that pushes our society apart:

  1. Moral Foundations Theory focuses on our personal values and how they relate to our beliefs.
  2. An alternate view focuses on our political affiliations and how they shape our moral views.
  3. Citizen assemblies are a means to directly attack our differences, without questioning how they arose.

Today’s blog on political morality describes approach #1 above. The following blog on political loyalty will address items #2 and #3.

Morals Explain Politics

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) is a social psychological theory that describes human morality. It has been developed by Prof Jonathan Haidt of NYU and others. MFT has been used to study how political morality arises from fundamental differences between people, including those that are hereditary, and how political morality in turn relates to political beliefs.

MFT most often counts six foundation values that underlie peoples’ moral choices:

  1. Care: cherishing and protecting others; related to kindness, compassion, nurturance; opposite of harm.
  2. Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; related to reciprocity, justice, rights, autonomy; opposite of cheating; does not necessarily lead to equality of outcome.
  3. Loyalty or ingroup: supporting your group, family, nation; related to patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group; may support racism, fascism or totalitarianism; opposite of betrayal.
  4. Authority or respect: deference to legitimate authority, social order, respect for traditions; related to good leadership, magnanimity, wisdom; opposite of subversion.
  5. Purity or sanctity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; related to self-control and the body as a temple; opposite of degradation or contamination.
  6. Liberty: freedom of action; hatred of those who bully, dominate or boast; opposite of oppression.

– Comments About the Foundation Values

Above, I have added related terms based on articles by Haidt et al (2006, 2012, and 2017).

These values did not take root in humans arbitrarily or by accident. Rather, they evolved over millennia as our ancestors learned constructive ways to manage families, villages, regions and nations. The fact that moral values sometimes come into conflict with each other does not deny their validity. After all, life is complicated, and we should not expect to reduce it to one or two simple propositions.

The list above does not show the only possible values and their opposites. Nor are these distinct from one another or mutually exclusive. A person may subscribe to any or all of these values in various degrees, and may think of other people using similar terms.

– Correlation of Values with Politics

The first two values – care and fairness – are concerned with the protection and treatment of individuals. They are most strongly held by people who describe themselves as liberal or progressive, and who tend to be Democrats.

The next three values – loyalty, authority and purity – are group-focused, providing a basis for people to be bound together into larger groups and institutions. They are most strongly held by self-described conservatives, who tend to be Republicans.

The final value – liberty – is most strongly seen in political Libertarians.

Thus there are genuine, measurable moral differences between liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

– How Are We Alike?

The absolute and relative strengths of the six values vary quite a bit from person to person. Also, they may vary systematically between different racial groups. However, people of every political leaning are very much alike in one way: they consistently exaggerate the extent to which other people conform to stereotypes. That is, everyone consistently over-estimates the degree to which liberals disregard the group-focused values (#s 3, 4 and 5), and over-estimates the degree to which conservatives disregard the individual values (#s 1 and 2).

Bottom line: we all tend to stereotype other people, both the ones with whom we agree and the ones with whom we strongly disagree. We think that they are either “much better” or “much worse” than they really are. Differently stated, other people are not as extreme in their beliefs as we think they are.

It is important to note that Moral Foundations Theory looks at correlation between personal morals and political beliefs. However, it does not address causation, that is, does one of these factors cause the other?

Reaching Across the Political Morality Divide

The researchers note that liberals are much more heavily invested in the individual values (care, fairness) than in any of the others. Conservatives, although their respect for the group values (loyalty, authority, purity) is stronger, generally also have some allegiance to the individual values. Thus there is an asymmetry in the way that each group approaches moral issues.

Observing this situation, Haidt and Graham suggested that one way to bridge the gap is for liberals to consciously (albeit temporarily) voluntarily assign credibility to the three group-centered moral values, for the purpose of communicating with conservatives. This would give the liberals better insight into the conservatives’ point of view and help both groups toward mutual understanding.

Why are liberals the ones who should reach out to communicate? The researchers note that influential recent research in moral psychology was led by groups located in politically liberal communities: Berkeley, CA and Cambridge, MA. It was easy for these groups to accept care and fairness as moral values. It was more difficult for them to recognize the “group values” (loyalty, authority, purity) as moral values in their own right.

Because conservatives generally give some credit to all five (or six) values, they are already “partway there” in understanding liberals. So liberals need to also get partway there. Liberals can improve communications with conservatives by admitting the morality and social benefit of the conservatives’ “group values” in addition to liberals’ best-loved “individual values.” Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt (that he or she may be “moral” in some sense and not simply “evil”) is an important step toward mutual trust.

A Reason for Hope

Does this prescription for coming together work? If an extreme liberal encounters an extreme conservative, they are unlikely to have a constructive conversation. However, 40% of Americans self-identify as Independent. Most Independents lean either right or left but do not call themselves Democrats or Republicans. Therefore, if the extreme voices do not drown them out, there is a substantial fraction of the US population who might be able to reach out and understand one another.

This blog on Political Morality describes a particular model of morality that many social scientists find useful. However, it’s not the only way to explain how we feel about what is right and what is wrong. The following blog on Political Loyalty takes a contrary approach, which in turn suggests yet other ways to negotiate our political differences.

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Political Morality: The Ethics of the Other Party — 2 Comments

    • Thanks, Karl! I find that when I plan the blogs a week or two ahead, they improve with additional edits.