President Obama has a unique opportunity to unite Americans behind him and redefine liberalism. But if he is to succeed, he must find a new political language—and broaden the moral register of the political leftby Jonathan Haidt / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
At President Obama’s inauguration, did we finally witness the beginning of the end of America’s long and bitter culture wars? The two conservative ideologies that joined forces in the 1980s—free-market fundamentalism and the religious right—are severely weakened, while liberal ideas about the role of government, the limitations of markets and the value of international cooperation are newly ascendant. Yet, as the new leader of the victorious left, Obama has been a gracious winner. From his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention to his 2009 inaugural address, he has promised to transcend the old partisan divisions and reach out to the other side.
As president, however, he’ll have to be much more specific. With the Democrats firmly in control of Congress, he’ll be faced with enormous pressure to prosecute a strongly liberal agenda—not only on the economy, but also on many morally controversial issues. The temptations to do so will be great; his base is expecting a lot from him, and he has a convincing electoral mandate for change. Yet if he moves firmly to the left on moral issues, he will reinvigorate conservatives and find himself as bogged down by domestic opposition as was President Clinton. This is why, although the economy may be the most pressing issue, it may ultimately be his handling of social and cultural issues that defines his presidency. Here, I offer three ideas from moral psychology that might be useful to him, and to those trying to understand him.
First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won’t find a human culture that doesn’t notice and care about harm and fairness.
Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but…