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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: We need to get morals out of politics

“Comprehensive immigration reform will grow our economy and keep families together — and it's the right thing to do.”

These words, spoken by Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, seem fairly unremarkable at first glance. The phrase seems to typify the usual, focus-group tested words of politicians — but it contains one glaring mistake that likely went unnoticed even by professional pundits and political commentators.

The sentence begins with an economic argument which, although debatable, is a statement grounded in fact. One could easily enumerate the economic reasons to allow an increase in immigration. And, although it certainly contains an implicit emotional appeal, one could build a factual case that maintaining family units has economic benefits.

But the third portion of Clinton’s argument contains the mistake — a mistake that was characteristic of not only her campaign, but the rhetoric found in most of mainstream politics. She moralized the issue.

Research in political science, including work by UNC professor Tim Ryan, has shown that as political issues are moralized, the likelihood of compromise on those issues decreases dramatically. That means that political polarization not only becomes stronger, but it becomes nearly impossible to overcome.

Furthermore, once an issue has been moralized, individuals are far less able to engage in cost-benefit analysis, meaning that the types of economic arguments that one could make about economic growth resulting from an influx of immigration, for example, are rendered effectively useless.

Now, one could make the argument that these findings do not suggest we should abandon moral arguments altogether, but rather that we should rely on moral frames that appeal to people of all political persuasions. But, research in psychology suggests that this may be far more difficult than it seems.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has developed what he calls the “moral foundations theory,” which seeks to explain apparent moral differences between conservatives and liberals. His work suggests that not only does the extent to which politics are perceived as moral differ between these two groups, but those on the left and right conceptualize morality in entirely different ways.

Haidt’s work suggests that there are five moral foundations: fairness, sensitivity to caring for and not harming others, loyalty to one’s group, respect for authority and awareness of purity/sanctity. Of these, liberals typically emphasize only fairness and harm sensitivity, whereas conservatives emphasize all five.

Because of these differences, bipartisan moralization tends to fall within the two shared moral foundations — hence why issues like caring for veterans (harm/care) and the right of citizens to vote (fairness) can typically be moralized with success.

But for most issues, resorting to moral arguments only has the effect of further cementing polarization and limiting productive dialogue.

This knowledge is useful not only for politicians in crafting rhetoric which will not fall on deaf ears 50 percent of the time, but it is also useful in our daily lives.

As politics become moralized to a greater extent, we may find ourselves feeling deeper animosity toward the opposing party. If we conceptualize our positions on policy as a function of our understanding of right and wrong, we fall into the trap of seeing our counterparts across the aisle as immoral, or even evil. But given what we know about the way in which people conceptualize morality, it is likely the case that both parties genuinely believe that they are acting morally.

So, if we wish to stop perceiving our political opponents as vile and valueless, or to simply be able to engage political dialogue more productively in an age of heightened partisan division, the path forward is clear.

We must consider that there might be an equally legitimate system of morality other than our own, decrease our reliance on moral arguments in politics and begin the work of making factual argument great again.

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