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Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins)
Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins)

Andrew Steele

Ships in the moral night Add to ...

One of the only frustrating aspects of this wonderful experience of writing for The Globe is the comments.

Typically, there are a few thoughtful and interesting points of view expressed, along with a few factual or style critiques.

But after a few beats, the comments almost always devolves into a shout fest between the left and right. This is exacerbated when the topic is something that fits into the existing right-left partisan framework, like a critical analysis of the federal government or a divisive policy issue.

The experience takes me back to my days in student politics in university. One set of students were classic big-spenders and the others more tight-fisted. Both sides described the others as "crazy" because they simply couldn't understand why anyone sane would disagree with them.

That lack of not just intellectual understanding, but empathy and respect, resulted in a very miserable student politics experience for a middle-of-the-road type like me.

And it's the same challenge that often infects our civil discourse to this day.

Conservatives label their opponents " left-tards" while those on the left insinuate their counterparts were born in barns, and both descend instantly to empty ad hominem attacks.

The left and right appear not just deadlocked intellectually but actively ignorant of what motivates their opponents. In a world where the Internet, talk radio and micromarketing allow us to restrict our exposure to those with whom we share opinions, it is increasingly incumbent upon us to seek out other points of view and challenge our own assumptions.

Or, we can just resort to calling our political competitors crazy.

But rather than psychiatric, the differences between liberals and conservatives may be evolutionary in origin.

A recent article in the Utne Reader outlines some of the theories of psychologist Jonathan Haidt that "morality evolved not just to help individuals as they competed and cooperated with other individuals, but also to help groups as they competed and cooperated with other groups."

While liberals tend to focus on questions of individual interaction, conservatives are placing greater emphasis on binding together groups with essential institutions.

Haidt identified five foundation moral impulses:

Harm/Care - It is wrong to hurt people and good to relieve suffering.

Fairness/Reciprocity - Justice is fairness and people's rights must be upheld.

In-Group Loyalty - People should be true to their group and wary of outside threats.

Authority/Respect - Social hierarchy and order must be respected.

Purity/Sanctity - Cleanliness, chastity and piety are good; contamination, lust and greed are bad.

He found that those on the left feel strongly about the first two while being relatively indifferent toward the latter three. Conservatives however are drawn more to loyalty, authority and purity.

The result is a difference in lens between left and right when viewing issues.

For instance, Omar Khadr's plight activates the harm and fairness impulses in liberals while the emphasis on in-group loyalty among conservatives is wary of a potential external threat.

Appeals to continued Canadian involvement in Afghanistan can be successfully framed to liberals as easing suffering and protecting women, while those on the right tend to react more to appeals to in-group loyalty and authority; the "support our troops" approach.

In an effort to help people learn more about moral psychology (and collect research data), Haidt and other social and political psychologists developed this website where you can track your political values and compare them to idealized "liberal" and "conservative" scores.

The site also explores fundamental elements of morality, including disgust, health behaviours and relationships.

It's very useful to gain an understanding of the moral underpinnings of both your own and your debate opponents, primarily because it offers the realization that opposing forces on issues we see as clear cut are often just as rational and ethically guided in their beliefs as we are.

(To offer some transparency on my own moral dimensions, I scored 3.3, 3.2, 3.0, 2.5 and 2.2 on the moral foundations questionnaire. Apparently, I'm drifting toward more conservative position as I age. How original.)

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