Sunday, November 16, 2014

Getting along with moral disagreement

Thanksgiving is around the corner for Americans. It’s a time for food, family, and thanks, but also arguments about politics. This used to be tolerable to some, but now the country feels so polarized that many find it too exhausting to engage in discussion with those who have different views.

This is just one way in which the unhealthy divide in this country manifests itself. Even if there is a sense in which we have always been so divided, it’s toxic. And one side is not more to blame than the other. Liberals think conservatives are certifiably insane and vice versa. Neither camp seems willing to locate or concede any common ground. The government shutdown we dealt with this time last year is one consequence, thanks to our pathetic “do nothing” congress. Obama and McConnell have recently vowed to get along better, but we can only hope these aren’t empty promises from Washington.

Regardless of how the new congress behaves, we should do better. Often we cast our moral and political opponents as evil and unreasonable, rarely making a serious effort to understand why anyone would think differently. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, most everyone is motivated to do what they think is right. Liberals, for example, err when they “understand conservatives as motivated only by greed and racism.”

Haidt’s own research suggests that both ends of the political spectrum tap into moral ideas that fit with human nature, resting on evolved moral intuitions generated by our “righteous minds.” Perhaps surprisingly for an academic, he suggests that if anyone it’s liberals who discount certain values, such as in-group loyalty, purity, and authority, which a flourishing society cannot completely abandon. Liberals care about only harm and fairness, so they can’t fathom why anyone would place great moral weight on, say, loyalty to one’s own country.

Haidt and others think this is the key to getting along better. However, even if Haidt is right about how liberals and conservatives think about morality, understanding moral disagreements as grounded in fundamentally different moral values would presumably make disagreements more entrenched. As Jesse Prinz points out, this would make political debate across parties “a bit of a charade,” as one’s opponents must be viewed as either morally bankrupt or ignorant. But we shouldn’t underestimate the common moral ground we have and how often the sticking points are non-moral facts.

Consider abortion, still one of the most contentious issues in America. Liberals and conservatives tend to agree that we shouldn’t sacrifice a person’s life for mere convenience. Much of the disagreement is about when a fetus becomes a full-blown person, with basic inalienable rights. Conservatives tend to believe that life begins at conception. Many liberals instead say that, while a human organism may begin at conception, a person does not exist until at least the organism can suffer. If the abortion debate hinges greatly on when personhood begins, then this is not primarily a dispute about fundamental moral values.

Other moral debates likewise seem to boil down to non-moral facts. Liberals and conservatives can both value social stability, for example, but disagree about whether same-sex marriage is likely to erode it. The great opposition to human cloning is often due to misunderstanding the science (e.g. cloned individuals are not mindless servants or even exact copies of people, but rather very much like twins). Often people just have different beliefs about the likelihood of various threats (e.g. climate change, mass shootings, government take-over, terrorist attacks) and about the best ways to avoid harm (e.g. whether capital punishment deters crime). Other disputes stem from different religious beliefs about the nature and origin of the universe (consider the debate over creationism in schools) or about whether a practice (e.g. divorce, contraception, homosexuality, premarital sex) is unacceptable to one’s deity.

Conservatives and liberals might seem to exhibit fundamentally different values concerning social programs. But often these disputes turn on disagreements about the severity of lingering racism or innate differences between the sexes. These beliefs effect, for example, the heated debates about the killings of unarmed black men (in Ferguson and elsewhere), welfare, and equal pay for equal work. Conservatives care about fairness and people’s wellbeing, but the opposition to special treatment for certain groups often seems driven by the non-moral belief that racism is no longer a substantial problem in America. (This is precisely what led the Supreme Court last year to overturn a core part of the Voting Rights Act.)

The point is this. If moral disputes often turn on disagreements about non-moral facts, then we are in a better position to get along. First, with common moral ground, we can focus on the arguably more tractable issues. Second, even for those numerous disagreements that will undoubtedly remain, a proper perspective on one’s opponents can aid in compromise. No longer believing the opposing side is evil or insane should make one much more willing to debate the issue in a civilized manner and concede certain points, even without agreement on all the non-moral facts of the case. Compromise, not agreement, is often the more attainable goal, especially given our stubborn nature. (Congress, take note.)

Perhaps the primary prescription is humility. Whether we should increase taxes on the rich or whether disadvantaged groups are entitled to social services, it all depends a great deal on complicated historical, sociological, and economic facts that are difficult to settle. Deferring to experts is often required, then, even if that means the moral verdict may be influenced by our best science, for example.

So this Thanksgiving remember that, just like you, your fellow citizens on the other side of the issue also want to do what’s right. And by and large they value life, liberty, fairness, happiness, family, kindness, respect, honesty, property rights, desert, justice, just like you. More than half the battle is figuring out how these values apply to the complex issues of our day. We should expect in advance that reasonable people may disagree.

Josh May
Department of Philosophy
University of Alabama at Birmingham


  1. Hi Josh. Great post! I agree with all of this. One question I have is: Do you think that conservatives tend to have a different view of fairness from liberals? I can imagine that fairness might be the most fertile ground for solving many partisan arguments between educated people because it is congenial to being discussed in terms of reasons by both sides. So liberals and conservatives who are genuinely trying to find middle ground might move the conversation to fairness. But, if conservatives view fairness as retributive justice and liberals take a more luck egalitarian view, then fairness might not help. Maybe we should stick to complimenting the stuffing?

    One last little point. Imagine if at Haidt's family thanksgiving dinner the partisan divide became evident. Would he discuss a "turkey-lover" example to help explain how bi-partisan moral debates can be fun?

  2. Thanks, Dan, and nice point about the relevance of turkeys at Thanksgiving to Haidt's other work on human interactions with foul!

    Haidt does have some evidence (or at least opinions to the effect) that liberals and conservatives think of fairness a bit differently, roughly along the lines you suggest. Liberal fairness often involves equality while conservative fairness emphasizes proportionality, he says.

    But I think my points above also require us to be cautious here. It could well be that we share the same notion of fairness but that liberals' non-moral beliefs (e.g. rampant racism, sexism, etc.) tend to make them think the fair thing to do is to make things more equal, whereas conservatives' non-moral beliefs (e.g. most people have earned their wealth through hard work and without privilege) lead them to think redistribution of wealth is unfair. I mean, even liberals think someone should get more of the pizza if she paid for it. The hard questions for both sides about the fairness of taxes, redistribution of wealth, social programs, etc. seem to come down to how everyone got to where they are.

    That's not to deny that some proportion of liberals might be more likely to endorse certain views that employ a rather different notion of fairness (e.g. Marxism?), while some portion of conservatives might be more likely to employ a different notion (e.g. via libertarianism?). But, by and large on both sides, I wouldn't be surprised if the notion of fairness we value is basically the same.

  3. Hi Josh, thanks for this post. I hope things are going well in Birmingham. Santa Barbara, to Melbourne, to Alabama, is quite a tour.

    I don't recall Haidt ever addressing this question, but do you think there is any difference between conservatives and liberals with respect to the whether it is possible to rationalize (meaning improve) our system of values? In other words, are conservatives or liberals more or less open to the possibility that they have not optimized the relative weights they assign to the foundational values, and that the world could be improved significantly if their system of values were changed?

    I have two reasons for thinking that liberals are more open to it than conservatives. One is that liberals tend to be more secular, and therefore open to the possibility of a super-value like utility or rationality in virtue of which to assess different weights.

    Second, it seems like liberals (and even moderates), by virtue of the separation of harm and fairness from the other values might actually be closer to subscribing to such a super value now. That is, perhaps it is a reasonable interpretation of Haidt's data that for most liberals authority, purity and loyalty are only important insofar as they promote utility and/or justice. Is there any empirical work bearing on this latter speculation?

  4. Great question and speculation, Randy. I'm not aware of research on exactly that question, except the kind of stuff suggesting liberals are higher on the trait of openness to experience, etc. But that probably doesn't address whether they're more likely to want to improve existing values, especially in terms of some fundamental overarching value.

    An answer might be found in a less data-driven way, though. Conservatives are, pretty much by definition, more inclined to defend the status quo while liberals push more for change. That alone strongly suggests to me that liberals are more likely to think there's a need to improve on our values or at least on the current situation.

    However, I'm not sure that helps us determine which is more likely to involve a better moral perspective. It sort of begs the question either way (e.g. conservatives will balk at the idea that we need to make radical changes to time honored traditions). But, fitting with the theme here, I suspect liberals are not focused exclusively on changing fundamental values. Liberals might describe themselves as abandoning traditional values, but often this seems to really involve only abandoning certain traditional practices (e.g. prohibitions on premarital sex) based on drawing out implications of existing shared values (e.g. healthy relationships, long-lasting marriages, stable families and societies).

  5. Josh, right, interesting. It seems to me that conservative respect for tradition is captured to some degree in their apparently high respect for authority, though it strikes me that a more nuanced picture of conservative and liberal values might result from distinguishing between the authority of tradition and the authority of rank, etc. (Liberals, especially liberal intellectuals, have always struck me as being particularly susceptible to criticism on the latter criterion, often explicitly ascribing to principles of equal care and consideration while acting quite conservatively in their private lives.)

    I agree with you that the claim to have abandoned traditional values is always an exaggeration, but it seems to me that when we permit ourselves to grade the relative importance of values the way Haidt does, then we can also countenance, not just a change of practice by reference to a standard valuation, but a change of practice by reference to a change in the weights we attach to specific values.

  6. Thanks from me, too, Josh, for this nice post. I think you're right that most people share the same notion or understanding of basic values and see them as genuine values. But they differ significantly in their relative rankings of them and I'm more skeptical than Randy seemed to be about people of either disposition viewing them as things fully/directly commensurable or fungible. I'm also not encouraged much by the idea that most moral disagreement is based on certain kinds of empirical disagreement since people tend to interpret empirical facts in light of their moral or epistemic commitments.

    But even if we don't have as much as you think by way of common ground, we can still acknowledge areas where we've converged on social norms from our different points of view. My optimistic spin on this is that we've done this a lot more often than one might have thought we could given all our differences. Even more significantly, I think, is that we actually have seemed to converge on social norms that soften the effect of moral disagreement. I mean, people actually do live in relative peace, and have Thanksgiving dinner, with others who they think are advocating, e.g., the murder of innocents, etc.

  7. Kyle, this is a very interesting point:

    "and have Thanksgiving dinner, with others who they think are advocating, e.g., the murder of innocents, etc.,"

    Perhaps it is a mark of my own basic intolerance, but I don't think I would ever be able to comfortably share a Thanksgiving meal with someone whom I really believed that about (I mean, of course, unless I'm really hungry and they have pecan pie and excellent bourbon). I would at least have to believe that they were doing so unwittingly. But, generally, I would be inclined to say that my willingness to engage with such a person in this way is some evidence that I do not really believe that, even if I believe I do.

  8. Kyle and Randy, thanks for pushing me on the idea that fundamental disagreements in moral value are substantial, even if just a difference in relative weight. I agree that this plays an important role, and there is after all empirical data backing this up from Haidt. But we should keep in mind that these results are largely comparative and focus on averages. So, for example, while liberals *in general* don't place as much value in authority *as conservatives*, this may mean that the difference is not very large and that for any single liberal authority might be quite important. So I just wanted to suggest that we don't underestimate the role non-moral beliefs play in moral disagreements.

    And I do really worry that conceiving of the disagreements as largely fundamental will make it more difficult to get along. True, given confirmation bias, belief polarization, and so on, we aren't likely to change many people's minds about the non-moral facts (at least if they're "old dogs"). But I'm really hoping the benefit at least comes with compromise, in that we'll be more likely to concede points if we realize the issues turn on complex non-moral facts and that our opponents share many fundamental moral values. It's a great point that we've already done this to a great extent given how we can all get along for the most part in such large and diverse societies, but I think we've got much room for improvement.

  9. Josh, this is an interesting comment:

    "And I do really worry that conceiving of the disagreements as largely fundamental will make it more difficult to get along."

    Do you mean to suggest that there is an element of decision, as opposed to discovery, here, and that it would be better to decide that disagreements are not fundamental?

    Anyway,we want to preserve a difference between substantial and fundamental, right? A substantial disagreement is just a real one (rather than, say, a semantic one) not one that can't be overcome with enough interaction.

    I actually do believe that the vast majority of so-called moral problems are mostly empirical in nature, though. I would really like to see ethics classes taught that way, not only to show how much real agreement exists, but to underscore how essential scientific inquiry is to resolving these controversies, and how foolish it is to have strong commitments to the answers to these questions when the science is just not there yet.

  10. Perhaps there could be an element of choice here, which is an interesting idea. Maybe it could be like Pascal's wager! But I meant discovery for sure.

    By calling the disagreement "fundamental" I just meant as short-hand for: a disagreement in fundamental moral values. And by "substantial" I just meant something like: large or play a large role (e.g. in the disagreement). I figure there are probably are some moral or political disagreements that are mere verbal disputes, though.

  11. Josh, this is a great and timely post--welcome to the dance. I have two quick thoughts to add.

    First, civility in getting along during Thanksgiving across all manner of ideological lines may be interestingly different than the Congressional gridlock issue, especially if we believe that the designers of our political system viewed a certain propensity to gridlock as an virtue or feature of the system rather than a bug--brakes on and balances of power, etc. (Whoever designed Thanksgiving meals, on the other hand, presumably wanted a smooth and fast line around the table from the mashed potatoes to the gravy to the cranberry goo…)

    Second, and admittedly related to the first point, perhaps systemic gridlock and personal acrimony need not track one another; kind, respectful, sympathetic, astute, polite, mild-mannered gridlockticians (experts in gridlock) may be not just possible but good to have around at times. I suspect we sometimes will warm up to the wisdom of such political chess to different degrees, depending on who is in power in which part of government at a given moment: for example, if my views are likely to be reflected in a fast-moving domino chain of decisions in some part of government, I am more likely to want that change to happen yesterday; if, on the other hand, such speed is more likely to result in what I regard as morally undesirable outcomes, I'm more likely to hope for a slower, more deliberative route.

  12. Russell, thanks so much for the comment. I like how you're suggesting that the very problems I'm hoping to identify (polarization, gridlock, etc.) may be seen as problems depending on whether one is, say, liberal or conservative. Kind of turns my own critique against me!

    I wouldn't tend toward evaluating these problems (gridlock, etc) based on what the framers intended, but I can definitely see how it might be independently desirable in certain circumstances. However, I'd think most liberals and conservatives would be united in thinking the current situation is undesirable at least just because both see much need for change. Liberals of course naturally want various changes (the progressives that they are), but many conservatives also want changes that fit their agenda---minimize government, cut taxes further, reinstate DOMA, and so on.

    Furthermore, maybe I can use my very critique to save myself from your attempt to turn it on itself. If we approach this issue with humility, compromise, and respect, we should likewise try to meet toward the middle and not prefer gridlock simply for partisan reasons, especially if those reasons are just that a member of the opposing party controls the executive branch.

  13. I am fully on board with the project of finding common ground, both in the virtues we already manage to share, and in the projects we already manage to agree on, and in the principles and ideals that we already manage to join hands for. Interestingly, whatever one thinks about political parties and their tendency to polarize the nation as a whole, they often have a peculiar way of galvanizing large numbers of people to focus on common ground with each other!

    I suspect that one reason people are suspicious of folks like you and I, when we beat the drum of 'compromise,' is that they suspect that 'compromise' is code for '(you) compromise' (in the polite imperative mood), or 'compromise for thee but not for me.' And since political and moral debates are dynamic enterprises whose contours have the feel of shifting over time, I may fear that today's compromise will be tomorrow's starting point for debate, and even though it's not a slippery slope it's still appears like an unwise strategy.

    To use a football analogy here (since you are from Alabama now, and as such must love football…wink wink), a compromise today may feel like letting the other team get a first down; today's compromise is merely the starting point for tomorrow's debate; and iterated compromises result in, well, the other team winning. Of course, there are many differences between a moral/political debate and the line of scrimmage in a football game. Still, this may be part of what explains how it feels to anticipate making a compromise in an area one cares deeply about.

  14. Sorry, my first paragraph in the immediately preceding comment may have given the impression that my reason for being in favor of finding common ground is that I like the fact that political parties galvanize people. Not my intended meaning. The points should have been made in completely separate paragraphs!

  15. Great points, Russell. Iterative compromises that lead to one side winning certainly wouldn't be much of an overall compromise at all. Going with a simpler analogy than football (Roll Tide!), if I want 100% of the pie and you want only 50%, then a 70/30 split isn't fair (assuming we both contributed equally to its acquisition). We're in a real pickle if both sides of a moral/political disagreement cast the other as wanting 100% (or otherwise far too much) in the first place. That seems like a serious hurdle.

    I'd bet at least some disputes wouldn't present this way, though. Moreover, if we're really being humble and recognizing that the other side may be onto something, we'd really have to take seriously that the other side wanting, say, 100% *might* be reasonable. That may sound ludicrous but only because it's so obviously unfair in the simple pizza case. With real moral and political debates it's not so clear and depends on many, many other factors that we could be wrong about. Part of the very problem, I think, is oversimplifying these complex debates, which leads to being overly confident that the other side is already asking too much from the get go.

  16. There is moral turmoil and political viciousness within the U.S. these days, but let’s take a look at the bigger picture. The period between the Civil War and World War II were highly contentious, with fierce partisan battles among the U.S. political parties over slavery, reconstruction, trade, money, and, in the 1930s and 40s, Roosevelt’s New Deal. The decades from 1950 to about 1980 were the exception. So, the recent fierce battles between red and blue that seem to be ripping the country apart are in fact just a regression to the mean.

  17. Thanks for the comment, Brad! It's really helpful to put this in perspective.

    I wonder, though, how much of this just seems normal given our country's (relatively brief) history. My impression living in Australia for a couple of years---and I emphasize this is just an impression---is that they are not as divided. The discourse among politicians can be vitriolic at times (compare Gillard's misogyny speech, which kind of went viral). But ordinary people, especially, seemed quite happy to discuss politics and to do so in a rather civil manner.

    America's origin story involves internal conflict rather than British convicts. That may make us feel like polarization is innocuous, but I worry that it causes serious problems, the results of which often make the rest of the world sneer.

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