How To Debate Politics And Win A Moral Argument

moral argumentA few weeks ago, a friend sent me an article called, How To Win Your Next Political Argument. It had some great takeaways. It pointed out that people rely more on emotions than fact, that belittling someone’s opinion will lead to them ignoring yours, and that it’s far better to have someone see the fallacies in their own argument than have you point it out to them. I found those points interesting. But there was one last point that I found absolutely fascinating, that completely changed how I view the opinions of people I disagree with. It’s called the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), and it might be one way to get past the intractable divisiveness facing our country today.

The Five Moral Foundations of Ethics

Moral Foundations Theory proposes that humans have  “universally available psychological systems” that form the foundations of human ethics. Each human culture, and sub-culture, then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, creating their own unique moralities. According to Moral Foundations Theory, the five foundations of human ethics are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.

When you’re done reading this blog post, take the Moral Foundations quiz. It’ll ask you to self-identify, if you choose, as a liberal and conservative. Then it’ll ask you questions that will help you identify where you fall on a range of moral questions. At the end of the quiz, you’ll see how your score compares to tens of thousands of self-identified liberals and conservatives who have also taken the quiz. You’ll see that, across the board, liberals and conservatives score very, very differently on the five different moral foundations.

  1. Care/Harm. We are mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel and dislike the pain of others. Kindness, empathy, protection, nurture, those are all built on the foundation of care/harm. Liberals score far higher than conservatives do on care/harm. It doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t care; it means that the moral matrix of liberals rests much more heavily on the care foundation than it does for conservatives.
  2. Fairness/Cheating. Fairness is justice rendered according to shared rules; cheating is the opposite of that. Liberals score higher than conservatives do on fairness and cheating, which might explain why conservatives and liberals can see equality differently. In the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, the author talks about conservative, white, lower-income Americans who believe that other groups – minorities, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people – are getting ahead with help from the government, while they themselves, who do not cheat, are being left behind. For liberals, of course, the formulation is different. As the MFT authors point out, on the left, fairness implies equality. On the right, fairness means proportionality, people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal. This is essentially your own devotion to your own in-group. Human beings, according to Moral Foundations Theory, are tribalist by nature and have survived over the millennia because of that tribalism. It’s a moral foundation that can lead to some very heated political debates, whether concerning standing for the National Anthem or refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. As the MFT authors point out, in Dante’s Inferno, the innermost circle of Hell is reserved for the worst group of all – traitors. And here again is a difference between how liberals perceive morality and how conservatives do. Liberals score a 2.2 on the loyalty spectrum; conservatives, a 3.1. It might be why one of the most provocative insults a conservative can use against a liberal is “traitor.”
  4. Authority/Subversion. This foundation focuses on anything that is construed an act of obedience, disobedience, respect, disrespect, submission, or rebellion, with regard to authorities perceived as legitimate. How much do you respect the police? The military? Your parents? Are you more in favor of Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter? Do you find it awkward to call older people by their first names? How much of a moral value do you place on obeying authority, and how much do you place on rebelling against it? Again, in the Moral Foundations Quiz, conservatives scored significantly higher on this foundation than liberals did.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation. This is yet another evolutionary benefit that kept humans away from eating rotting or disgusting food, or consorting with diseased and dying persons. The resulting “disgust” forms part of our behavioral immune system. The modern equivalent, according to Moral Foundations Theory, is that humans treat certain objects (flags, crosses), places (Mecca, The Holy Land), people (saints, heroes) and principles (liberty, equality) as though they were of infinite value. Conservatives, who score higher than liberals on this foundation, are more likely to talk about issues such as “sanctity of life” or “sanctity of marriage”, or chastity and virginity, and consider those that oppose them (abortion, same-sex marriage, promiscuity) as degrading and disgusting.

Moral Foundations Based Negotiation

So, conservatives and liberals think differently of morality. What’s the point? See, what I like about Moral Foundations Theory is that it moves a step beyond the usual interest-based negotiation. People have different positions that they believe are mutually exclusive. But if you focus on the interests behind those positions, you are more likely to get to a satisfactory outcome than if you focus on the positions themselves.

Let’s take an all too typical example now. There’s a speaker for an event that an organization is hosting. She makes a very controversial statement. The president of the organization wants to keep her around because they’ve already sold the tickets and advertised the event, and really what she said wasn’t too bad. The vice-president wants to uninvite her because what she said was horrible and does not adhere to the values of the organization.

If they focus on positions, then their two positions are diametrically opposed. One wants to invite the speaker, the other wants to uninvite her. However, what are their interests? The vice-president has an interest in not aligning their organization with the controversial views of the speaker. The president has an interest in ensuring that the organization not backtrack from a commitment. By focusing on interests over positions, the two are more likely to negotiate to a successful outcome.

And here’s why I like MFT. It takes that discussion a step further because at the end of the day, one person still thinks the speaker’s statement isn’t that bad, and the other person still thinks it’s horrible. Yes, we have interests, but in order to appeal to other people’s interests, we need to recognize the moral values underlying those interests. Have some doubts over whether this idea works? Go back to the article at the beginning and read the example from a Moral Foundations Theory experiment on same-sex marriage. The study’s authors were able to get conservatives to say they approved of same-sex marriage at a higher rate when they described gay Americans as proud and patriotic (loyalty/subversion). Similarly, MFT experimenters were also able to get liberals to support expanded military spending when they said it would provide career opportunities to low-income young people (fairness/cheating).

So take the Moral Foundations Quiz. See where you score. Then, the next time you have a debate with your grandchild or uncle or the person sitting next to you on the train, see if you can identify what moral foundations they are holding strongly to, compared to the ones you are. If you really want them to see your side of the argument, try appealing to their moral foundations instead. It’s worked for me. Let me know if works for you as well.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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