Why Are We So Polarized?

Why Are We So Polarized?

Bradley Doucet

5 mins
April 20, 2010

September 5, 2009 -- As if we needed more proof, the ongoing dustup over health care reform in the United States has made it painfully obvious that the “culture wars” are alive and kicking. President Obama’s overtures to bipartisanship notwithstanding, there is little love lost between the Left and the Right. Liberals and conservatives routinely suspect one another of base motives and substandard intelligence—and on occasion, I am sorely tempted to conclude, like H. L. Mencken, that both sides are correct.

But although there are rubes and rogues among us, it rings hollow to me to think that they comprise any large percentage of the population, especially given that other explanations are readily available. For one thing, psychologists have learned that confirmation bias is a widespread phenomenon. Part of the reason we have a hard time understanding why smart, ethical people would believe the things they believe is that we don’t really try to understand. Most of us have a tendency to seek confirmation for our ideas when we should instead try to falsify them, retaining only those that survive the challenge. Specifically, we tend to expose ourselves more to ideas we already agree with, and also to give less credence to those instances of disconfirming evidence and arguments that we do happen upon. Avoiding these pitfalls takes will, commitment, and conscious training in the art of thinking straight.

There is another good reason why it makes little sense to condemn large swaths of the human race as either stupid or evil. Far from one side or the other being immoral, conservatives and liberals both tend to want to do the right thing. According to evidence unearthed by University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt, they just honestly have different notions about what that means.


Professor Haidt, whose ideas were profiled last week in the 25th anniversary issue of The Utne Reader , has been studying “the moral foundations of politics.” He thinks that the bitter, partisan culture wars keep both sides from seeing the big picture: “I do believe that if liberals ran the whole world, it would fall apart. But if conservatives ran the whole world, it would be so restrictive and uncreative that it would be rather unpleasant, too.” On his home page , Haidt expresses hope that his work can help us transcend partisan feuding. He stresses, “We must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own.”

Haidt analyzes moral beliefs in terms of five sets of fundamental moral intuitions:

1) Harm/care

2) Fairness/reciprocity

3) Ingroup/loyalty

4) Authority/respect

5) Purity/sanctity.

These intuitions, which he believes are innate but malleable, underlie our ethical views. While one could think of other categories that might even seem more fundamental, these five were selected for their wide dispersion across cultures and their links to “plausible and published evolutionary explanations of related psychological mechanisms.”

With greater liberty, a more civil, peaceful world is within our reach.

In several studies , Haidt and his colleagues found that liberals were primarily concerned with the first two categories, harm and fairness. Conservatives’ concerns, on the other hand, were more evenly distributed across all five categories. While concerned about harm and fairness, they were also concerned with group loyalty, respect for authority, and issues of purity and sanctity. Haidt and his coauthors conclude, “These findings help explain why liberals and conservatives disagree on so many moral issues, and often find it hard to understand how an ethical person could hold the beliefs of the other side.”

Interestingly, the one study that tracked libertarians found that they, too, are primarily concerned with harm and fairness. The authors conclude, “Libertarians may support the Republican Party for economic reasons, but in their moral foundations profile we find that they more closely resemble liberals than conservatives.” No word, however, on where exactly we Objectivists, who are libertarian in our politics but don’t always share the morals of other libertarians, would line up.


Does this “Moral Foundations Theory,” as Haidt calls it, provide a means of toning down the political shouting match? Understanding where your opponents are coming from does indeed have the potential to help. The alternative—impugning their motives or intelligence—is certainly no way to bridge the gap.

At best, though, this is merely a beginning. Disagreements over the five moral foundations can only be moderated through a rational examination of their basis in reality. What does adherence to the foundations accomplish? How does each of them contribute to the long-term needs of rational beings like ourselves? Reducing harm is a laudable goal, to be sure, but is the robust welfare state favored by modern liberals the best way to do it, or does it instead breed dependency? Fairness is also clearly important, but is inequality necessarily unfair, or is economic liberty the best way to even the playing field?

As for the three moral foundations eschewed by liberals, once again we must examine them rationally. It is true that group loyalty can degenerate into racism or blind nationalism, but are there not some voluntary group memberships that are more significant than ethnicity or citizenship? Respect for authority can similarly devolve into an abdication of responsibility, but we do need leaders in some sense of the word, and we all need to use information from experts and authoritative sources. Finally, although excessive concern with purity and sanctity can be distracting if not blatantly irrational, a reasonable amount of cleanliness is certainly a minor virtue. And what would life be worth if nothing were sacred? Indeed, one could say that being concerned about principles and moral integrity is itself a form of concern for purity and sanctity.

These questions have answers. As in all things, we must rely on reason as our guide, and reality as our final arbiter. To get the most out of life, we must be on guard against common lapses of thinking, and we should approach our fellows with an attitude of respect and benevolence. Disagreements will remain, though, and therein lies one of the principal arguments for liberty. As long as we are battling to see who gets to impose his will on whom, there will be endless strife. If, on the other hand, we have freedom, we can settle our disagreements scientifically, with each of us trying different “experiments in living,” to use John Stuart Mill’s phrase. With greater liberty, a more civil, peaceful world is within our reach.

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