Apr 272009
Authors: Erik Anderson

Let me ask you a question. Hypothetically, there are two dogs up for adoption: One is independent-minded and relates to its owner as an equal, the other is extremely loyal and doesn’t warm up well to strangers.

Which of the two would you prefer to adopt?

Now what if I told you that based on your choice, I could predict who you voted for in the last election?

That is the assertion of Jonathon Haidt, a researcher at the University of Virginia. Based on a survey of more than 30,000 people, Haidt has concluded that liberals and conservatives differ in a fundamental way – they do not share the same morality.

To liberals, morality is based on two principles: fairness and not harming others. Conservatives agree with those two principles, but also hold in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity or sanctity as moral virtues.

Everybody is concerned with issues of fairness and harm to others. However, liberals tend to reject the conservative virtues because those are often the justification for oppressing others or restricting their rights (think gay marriage).

When a conservative uses arguments based on those virtues to persuade a liberal, the two will never understand one another.

Here’s an example Haidt uses to illustrate this.

Imagine a woman standing on the corner of College and Mulberry holding a sign that says “Cable television will destroy society.”

You ask her to explain, and she says that cable television is an affront to the god Thoth and that cables radiate theta waves that make people sterile. You think, obviously here’s a candidate for Thorazine.

Now imagine a man holding a sign that says “Gay marriage will destroy society.” He explains that homosexuality is an affront to God and that gay marriage will undermine the institution of marriage, which our society is built upon.

He can’t be schizophrenic because many people agree with him; but to a liberal, he’s just as crazy as the first lady.

This fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals creates a chasm in which most moral arguments are lost. In the end, conservatives get painted as bigoted fascists and liberals as idealistic whack-jobs. In reality, both are probably rational human beings with the sincere intention of doing what is right. They just have very different ideas of what that is.

Conservatives are willing to sacrifice the well being of some people at the margin to preserve social order. Liberals will risk anarchy and chaos to promote fairness for everybody. As you can imagine, these two strategies can butt heads often, but neither strategy is necessarily wrong.

Civilizations were not built on fairness and caring for others alone. To get people on the plains of Africa or in the jungles of South America to cooperate required a combination of all moral values. What mixture of those values is optimal at this period in our history is for you to decide.

By rejecting conservative values outright, many liberals have overlooked the great conservative insight – order is hard to achieve and can be lost easily. However, social order is not always at risk. There’s a time for protecting order, and a time for promoting fairness.

Many of the issues of our day require us to bridge the chasm that separates us and see the world from the other person’s point of view.

We need not forever be enemies in the battle of good and evil. We can step outside of the cosmic battle and appreciate each other as fellow moral beings. Then we can get to the work of changing each others’ perspective.

You can take the survey at http://yourmorals.org and find out where you fit in the moral/political spectrum. You can also sign a pledge to promote civil discourse on political issues at http://civilpolitics.org.

Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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