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Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe -- And Here's Why It Matters

Liberals and conservatives have highly different moral priorities. And we have to understand them if we want to accomplish anything.
 
 
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Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: "Support our troops: Bring them home" and "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

"No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, 'Hmm -- so liberals are patriotic!'" he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. "We liberals are universalists and humanists; it's not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic -- or that we're supporting the troops, when in fact we're opposing the war -- is disingenuous.

"It just pisses people off."

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere -- they're also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.

In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has created a framework that codifies mankind's multiplicity of moralities. His outline is simultaneously startling and reassuring -- startling in its stark depiction of our differences, and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.

He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in recent decades as a massive failure in moral imagination. We assume everyone's ethical compass points in the same direction and label those whose views don't align with our sense of right and wrong as either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due norths.

"I think of liberals as colorblind," he says in a hushed tone that conveys the quiet intensity of a low-key crusader. "We have finely tuned sensors for harm and injustice but are blind to other moral dimensions. Look at the way the word 'wall' is used in liberal discourse. It's almost always related to the idea that we have to knock them down.

"Well, if we knock down all the walls, we're sitting out in the rain and cold! We need some structure."

Haidt is best known as the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, a lively look at recent research into the sources of lasting contentment. But his central focus -- and the subject of his next book, scheduled to be published in fall 2010 -- is the intersection of psychology and morality. His research examines the wellsprings of ethical beliefs and why they differ across classes and cultures.

Last September, in a widely circulated Internet essay titled Why People Vote Republican, Haidt chastised Democrats who believe blue-collar workers have been duped into voting against their economic interests. In fact, he asserted forcefully, traditionalists are driven to the GOP by moral impulses liberals don't share (which is fine) or understand (which is not).

To some, this dynamic is deeply depressing. "The educated moral relativism worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the way 50 percent of America thinks, and stereotypes about out-of-touch elitist coastal Democrats are basically correct," sighed the snarky Web site Gawker.com as it summarized his studies.

But others -- including many fellow liberal academics -- have greeted Haidt's ideas as liberating.

"Jonathan is a thoughtful and somewhat flamboyant theorist," says Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University research psychologist and award-winning author. "We don't have that many of those in academic psychology. I really appreciate his lively mind."