Here are some thoughts I had to write up tonight. I wasn't able to finish the book in time, but intend to keep reading it in hopes of finishing it by the time we discuss it on Thursday. I thought there would be several of you that would be interested in my thoughts on this.
In his work “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, Jonathan Haidt challenges our assumptions about morality – no matter where on the political spectrum you fall. Haidt begins by walking the readers through a brief history of the study of morality from multiple disciplinary perspectives – philosophical, psychological, anthropological, and political. He then moves into a discussion of where morality comes from, and some theories for how and why humans evolved systems of morality. From here, he defines a system of morality with six main components: Care/harm foundation, fairness/cheating foundation, loyalty/betrayal foundation, authority/subversion foundation, sanctity/degradation foundation, and finally the liberty/oppression foundation. Liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations.
Ultimately, the most important point that Haidt makes is the fact that these six foundations of our moral system exists, and that different people have a stronger attraction to different moral foundations. Without this new understanding of morality, it would be impossible to make his later claims pertaining to religious and political difference. It is this, rather than the definition of morality that he finally presents at the end, that gives policy students the most food for thought.
Understanding the different moral languages and triggers as outlined in the book can also help us to understand how to best communicate as policy makers. This can be particularly tricky for scientific thinkers or those within the environmental side of politics. We’ve seen time and again that people are uncomfortable with overly scientific language, are intimidated by politicians who appear to be cold or reserved because of their scientific leanings. It is difficult to present science in the context of any of these foundations – but important to appeal to these moral centers in presenting information.
Fortunately for the environmentalists in the room, there are ways to talk about environmental preservation in terms of morality. “We must care for the planet, as it supports our children.” “It is only fair to preserve clean air and water – they impact everyone equally.” This second statement even begins to move into the area of sanctity/degradation. These are powerful arguments, but how can we expand these arguments into frameworks of loyalty/betrayal or authority/subversion? One could argue the authority of the scientific method, but the upswing in anti-intellectual arguments among the most conservatives means this argument will fall flat.
It is this kind of thinking – using these tools as ways to understand how someone on the other side of the aisle views the issues – will help to create policy that can make real change. It is our job as students of public policy to learn how to find a balance of fighting for what we believe in, being able to stand behind our work and ideals, and also getting in the heads of those with whom we disagree. Ultimately, the government should represent all people, and if the people writing policy are unable to understand where a large percentage of the population comes from, they will make policies inappropriate to the real issue at hand.