The Moral Foundations of Political Divisiveness

What is the cause of Political Divisiveness? Well, let’s first define politics, for the purposes of our discussion, as the activities associated with the governance of a city, state or country. Political thought and ideas are what drive the decisions that are being made every day to keep our cities, states and countries running. That sounds like something we all need to agree upon so why is it, then, that political discussions most often end in divisiveness.

We think there is a three-step progression that generally leads to divisiveness in political discussions.
1. We all give different weight to the six fundamental moral foundations.
2. Since these foundations are fundamental to our self-determination, the political positions resulting from them are very deeply entrenched in our being.
3. As a result of these deeply held positions, we take a “no prisoners” approach to defending them and defeating any opposition.

The unfortunate result of this progression is that political discussions become framed as fights to defend deep-rooted positions instead of searches for truth and/or understanding.

Let’s take a closer look at the fundamental moral foundations that drive our political viewpoints. The Moral Foundations Theory was first proposed by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, building on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder. The Theory was subsequently developed and popularized in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.
Six Fundamental Moral Foundations were proposed:

1. Care/Harm – Being kind, gentle and nurturing and protecting people from harm.

2. Fairness/Cheating – Treating people with equality and justly, in proportion to their actions.

3. Liberty/Oppression – Giving people freedom and protecting them from tyranny.

4. Loyalty/Betrayal – Being patriotic, self-sacrificing and loyal to one’s group, family and nation.

5. Authority/Subversion – Respecting leadership, tradition and legitimate authority.

6. Sanctity/Degradation – Living in an elevated, noble way and avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions.

In a future post in this series we will examine how Democrats and Republicans in the US political system generally give weight to these foundations. However, each one of us has our own take on how we weigh each foundation. This informs our political positions and also guides many of life’s major decisions including parenting, work roles and crisis management. In short, these foundations go to the very core of our essence.

Since the political views that are informed by these moral foundations reflect our very being, they are deeply held views. When someone challenges our positions, they are challenging who we are and it is easy to view that as an attack on us as individuals. As a result, people will strongly defend their views and attack opposing views.

It is ironic that our views are based on strong moral foundations, yet we will often discard those moral values and use strong, sometimes insensitive rhetoric when discussing politics. Perhaps if we stop to think about this deterioration process, we can get back to meaningful political discussions founded on our shared moral values.