Up or down?

Jonathan Haidt has done some fascinating research into how people arrive at their stances on moral issues. His findings bear directly on the problem of our divided society, explaining much of the gap between Left and Right. At the core, Haidt postulates a set of foundational but largely subconscious values, where individuals place differing amounts of importance on each particular area. Haidt’s value areas (the first 5 anyway), are the following:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

We each have our visceral feelings on care, fairness, loyalty, etc. Subsequently, our actual moral stances on specific political and cultural issues arise out of these low-level views. This is an important psychological/sociological finding in and of itself.

One might wish such research could provide solutions to the issues that divide us, but so far none have emerged. This hasn’t stopped some follow-on researchers from trying their hand at synthesizing solutions however. For example, Kate Johnson and Joe Hoover comment on the sanctity/degradation axis here: Do conservatives value ‘moral purity’ more than liberals?

The sanctity/degradation axis is significant, as it is a primary separator of liberals and conservatives in the United States. From moralfoundations.org, Haidt’s definition of this axis is:

“[The sanctity/degradation axis] underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).”

In describing this axis, neither Haidt nor anyone else can avoid invoking images of higher versus lower, clean versus dirty, noble versus base. And despite the question in Johnson and Hoover’s title, Haidt’s research proves that conservatives do care more about sanctity and purity than liberals.

So what is Johnson and Hoover’s suggestion for bridging the growing divide in America? Their quote:

“Perhaps by focusing on values we all share, such as care and fairness, and avoiding the purity rhetoric that divides us, we may be able to communicate our needs with the other side to work toward a common goal.”

There it is: avoid the purity rhetoric. Sounds simple. Of course the burden of changing would fall on conservatives, as they are the ones that care about this particular value.

Aside from the fact that Haidt himself has observed that people rarely budge on their fundamental values, this suggestion unfortunately fits well with the spirit of our age: At an individual level, the very idea of striving upward to some higher standard has never been less popular. (After all, that would require the existence of a higher standard, and that idea is becoming anathema also.) We lack shared, noble goals for our country’s future. This lack of any uniting vision is a key part of why we are fracturing into groups that cannot relate to each other.

But consider the alternative, which Johnson and Hoover did not propose: What if our leaders lifted up those now unconcerned with personal purity, showing them the advantages of living a life that strives for higher things? This could be in areas such as the arts, entertainment, our general level of discourse, or education. What if we were led to care more for others—not just for their mere economic status, but for their personal lives, perhaps even building back some of the social capital our society has lost?

Just a thought.


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