, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 153–169 | Cite as

Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively? Moral Foundations, Moral Reasoning, and Political Disagreement

  • Hanno Sauer
Original Paper


Can’t we all disagree more constructively? Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in political partisanship: the 2013 shutdown of the US government as well as an ever more divided political landscape in Europe illustrate that citizens and representatives of developed nations fundamentally disagree over virtually every significant issue of public policy, from immigration to health care, from the regulation of financial markets to climate change, from drug policies to medical procedures (Koleva et al. Journal of Research in Personality 46:184–194, 2012). The emerging field of political psychology brings the tools of moral psychology to bear on this issue. It suggests that the main conflict shaping politics today can be explained in terms of people’s moral foundations (Graham et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96(5):1029–1046, 2009; Haidt 2012; Graham et al. PLOS One 7(12):1–13, (2012); cf. also Rai and Fiske Psychological Review 118:57–75, 2011): progressive liberals, it is argued, view society as consisting of separate individuals with differing values and life plans, whereas conservatives rely on a thicker notion of political morality that includes traditions, communities, and values of purity (Haidt and Graham Social Justice Research 20:98–116, 2007). In this paper, I explore the normative implications of this theory. In particular, I will argue that its proponents take it to support an asymmetry of understanding: if deep political disagreements reflect differences in people’s moral foundations, and these disagreements cannot be rationally resolved, then overcoming them makes it necessary to acknowledge the moral foundations of the other side’s political outlook. But conservatives, the theory suggests, already do acknowledge all of the liberal moral foundations, and not vice versa. To overcome partisanship and the resulting political deadlock, then, it seems to be up to liberals to move closer towards the conservative side, and not vice versa. I wish to analyze what the argument for this asymmetry is and whether it holds up. In the end, I shall argue that the available evidence does support an asymmetry, but that it is the opposite of what Moral Foundations theorists think it is. There is such an asymmetry - but its burden falls on the conservative side.


Moral cognition Moral foundations Political disagreement 



I would like to thank audiences in Groningen, Tilburg, and Rotterdam for helpful feedback on this paper. Special thanks go to Tom Bates, Daan Evers, Joshua Greene, Frank Hindriks, Dominik Klein, Pauline Kleingeld, Bert Musschenga, Jan Sprenger, Bruno Verbeek and two anonymous referees for Neuroethics.


  1. 1.
    Berker, S. 2009. The normative insignificance of neuroscience. Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(4): 293–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Foot, Ph. 1967. The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Oxford Review 5: 5–15.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Graham, J., J. Haidt, and B.A. Nosek. 2009. Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96(5): 1029–1046.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Graham, J., Nosek, B., Haidt, J. 2012. The moral stereotypes of liberals and conservatives: Exaggeration of differences across the political spectrum, PLoS One 7(12): 1–13.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S., & Ditto, P. H. 2015. Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Graham, J., Nosek, B., and Haidt, J. 2015. The moral stereotypes of liberals and conservatives: Exaggeration across the political divide. PLoS One.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Greene, J.D., B.D. Sommerville, et al. 2001. An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science 293: 2105–2108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Greene, J. D. (2008). The secret joke of Kant’s soul. In: Moral Psychology. Vol. 3. The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development. W. Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.). Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Greene, J.D. 2014. Beyond point-and-shoot morality. Why cognitive (Neuro)science matters for ethics. Ethics 124(4): 695–726.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Hall, L., Johansson, P., and Strandberg, T. 2012. Lifting the veil of morality: Choice blindness and attitude reversals on a self-transforming survey. PLoS ONE 7(9).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Haidt, J. 2001. The emotional dog and its rational tail. Psychological Review 108: 814–834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Haidt, J. 2004. The emotional dog gets mistaken for a possum. Review of General Psychology 8(4): 283–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Haidt, J. 2012. The righteous mind. Why good people are divided by religion and politics. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Haidt, J., S. Koller, et al. 1993. Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65: 613–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Haidt, J., F. Björklund, et al. 2000. Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished Manuscript, University of Virginia.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Haidt, J., and F. Bjorklund. 2008. Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In Moral psychology. Vol. 2. The cognitive science of morality: intuition and diversity, ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, 181–217. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Haidt, J., and M. Hersh. 2001. Sexual morality: the cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31: 191–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Haidt, J., and J. Graham. 2007. When morality opposes justice: conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research 20: 98–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Haidt, J., & Kesebir, S. 2010. Morality. In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.) Handbook of social psychology, 5th Edition. Hobeken, NJ: Wiley. Pp. 797–832.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Heath, J. 2014. Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives, HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Henrich, J., S.J. Heine, and A. Norenzayan. 2010. The weirdest people in the world. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2–3): 61–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Iyer, R., and Koleva, S. P., Graham, J., Ditto, P. H., and Haidt, J. 2012. Understanding libertarian morality: The psychological dispositions of self-identified libertarians. PLoS One.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Jacobson, D. 2012. Moral dumbfounding and moral stupefaction. Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 2: 289–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Kennett, J., and C. Fine. 2009. Will the real moral judgment please stand up? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12(1): 77–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Knobe, J. 2010. Person as scientist, person as moralist. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(4): 315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Koleva, S.P., J. Graham, P. Ditto, R. Iyer, and J. Haidt. 2012. Tracing the threads: how five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes. Journal of Research in Personality 46: 184–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Levy, N. 2007. Neuroethics, Challenges for the 21st century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Musschenga, B. 2013. The promises of moral foundations theory. Journal of Moral Education 42(3): 330–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Nisbett, R.E., and T.D. Wilson. 1977. Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84(3): 231–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Nisbett, R.E., and T.D. Wilson. 1978. The accuracy of verbal reports about the effects of stimuli and behavior. Social Psychology 41(2): 118–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Paxton, J.M., L. Ungar, et al. 2011. Reflection and reasoning in moral judgment. Cognitive Science 36(1): 163–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Prinz, J. 2006. The emotional basis of moral judgment. Philosophical Explorations 9(1): 29–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Prinz, J. 2007. The emotional construction of morals. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Rai, T.S., and A.P. Fiske. 2011. Moral psychology is relationship regulation: moral motives for unity, hierarchy, equality, and proportionality. Psychological Review 118: 57–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Railton, P. 2014. The affective dog and its rational tale: intuition and attunement. Ethics 124(4): 813–859.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Rossen, I., C. Lawrence, P. Dunlop, and S. Lewandowsky. 2014. Can moral foundations theory help to explain partisan differences in climate change beliefs? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISPP 36th Annual Scientific Meeting, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy. Israel: IDC–Herzliya, Herzliya.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Sauer, H. 2012. Educated Intuitions. Automaticity and rationality in moral judgement. Philosophical Explorations 15(3): 255–275.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Thomson, J.J. 1976. Killing, letting die, and the trolley problem. The Monist 59(2): 204–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Uhlmann, E.L., and G.L. Cohen. 2005. Constructed criteria: redefining merit to justify discrimination. Psychological Science 16: 474–480.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Uhlmann, E.L., D.A. Pizarro, et al. 2009. The motivated use of moral principles. Judgment and Decision Making 4(6): 476–491.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Philosophy PhilosophyUniversität Duisburg-EssenEssenGermany

Personalised recommendations