The Moral Psychology of the Political Right and Left: A Plea for a Listening Ear

Being something of a psychology nerd, as well as a philosopher gives me goosebumps when I get to share something that is approachable and enlightening.

Why is it that the political left and political right talk past one another. Simply put, we have different moral categories on which we focus. The existence of these categories is experimentally confirmed and reliably predict where a person will lean politically. One of the most publicly visible researchers in this field is Jonathan Haidt. His biography notes that he,

… received a BA in philosophy from Yale University in 1985, and a PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. He then studied cultural psychology at the University of Chicago as a post-doctoral fellow. His supervisors were Jonathan Baron and Alan Fiske (at the University of Pennsylvania) and cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder (University of Chicago). In 1995, Haidt was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, where he worked until 2011, winning four awards for teaching, including a statewide award conferred by the Governor of Virginia.

So, he’s no slouch in the field of psychology.

In a paper of a study conducted in Haidt and a fellow researcher noted that,

Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves. For this reason, liberals often find it hard to understand why so many of their fellow citizens do not rally around the cause of social justice, and why many Western nations have elected conservative governments in recent years. 

Haidt summarizes the results of the research in this TEDTalk

The simple fact is that the politically conservative consider more aspects in relationship to one another in order to draw moral conclusions and draw decisions related to political actions. This doesn’t mean that those on the political left are wrong, in fact they often see problems that conservatives often miss, the problem is that there is a tendency to want to “do something” that ultimately has negative effects. This reality spreads out across multiple categories of life.

The problem is that those on the political left see the deliberateness of consideration present in the political right as callousness, and so they react as if conservatives aren’t concerned about moral matters when conservatives care more and so seek to be careful so as not to swamp the boat. Conservatives are slow and deliberate because we appreciate what we have and do not see it as something to be thrown out willy-nilly. Most on the political left, once they percieve something as broken or deficient have no need of it any longer. 

We need each other to survive, but we have to talk to each other, and not in condemning terms.

See also, How Reasonable People Should Interact


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