In politics, as in war, everyone believes morality is on their side. And the mingling of political beliefs with moral certainty makes compromise all but impossible, according to Jesse Graham, assistant professor of psychology in USC Dornsife.
“No one wants to find the middle ground between good and evil,” Graham said. “Moral concerns have consequences in today’s political debates because people see them as principles that should not be compromised.”
Graham and a team of researchers created a scale to map the full range of human moral concerns by surveying 35,000 self-identified liberals and conservatives. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study’s questionnaire on moral foundations tested universal sets of moral intuitions, including care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The questionnaire can be taken at YourMorals.org
The study found that issues people often classify as political have become issues of morality. As an example, Graham cited the recent debate over the debt ceiling, which turned into a fight between programs for the needy versus being good stewards of money.
“We don’t normally see bookkeeping as a moral issue,” Graham said. “These convictions make people draw ranks and vilify opponents.”
The study found that political partisans value morals differently, he noted.
Liberals placed the individual as the locus of morality, with concerns prioritized around protecting people from harm or unfair treatment by individuals or society.
In contrast, conservatives center morality on the family unit and proper relationships between a person and the divine, man and woman, and parent and child, the study found.
While liberals would be more likely to consider equal pay a moral issue, conservatives more likely would say it was immoral for a soldier to disagree with a commanding officer, Graham said.
“The most intractable political debates involve respect for tradition and authority and physical and spiritual purity,” said Graham, citing gay marriage laws that involve concerns of tradition and purity pitted against issues of fairness.
While strong morals often inspire admiration, they also can lead to righteous extremism, Graham said.
“There can be a danger to moral convictions,” Graham said. “What gives a person convictions also make them less likely to reach a compromise.”
The study attempted to measure morality, which is difficult when people disagree about what morality means.
“Studying morality in all its complexities is essential to understanding it,” Graham said. “We feel we are getting closer to a scientific explanation for the ways our moral nature can both unite and divide people.”
The study, he added, showed that this divide played out across countries and regions around the world.
Graham’s co-authors included Ravi Iyer and Spassena Koleva of USC, Brian A. Nosek and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia and Peter H. Ditto of the University of California, Irvine.
The National Institutes of Health provided funding for this study.