Nobody is right about everything, but everybody thinks they are. Take our elected representatives in D.C., who have shown an increasing willingness over recent years to put meaningful legislation on hold in favor of partisan gridlock. On both sides of congressional debate, constituents hold their representatives to the standard of moral absolutism, which is the undeniable assurance that there is a wholly correct answer to every ethical dilemma. This moral arrogance transcends our legislators. People hate to acknowledge that others are right, especially at the expense of their own beliefs.
Regardless of our individual values, arrogance affects us all. This is hardly surprising given how our moral outlook first originates. Social scientists have reached a general consensus that, when individuals are born into the world, they burst out of the womb with certain inborn tendencies. These tendencies interact with their childhood experiences as they begin to form their own identities. Imagine the original slate as a rough sketch of a portrait. The foundations of the picture are well established, but they can be edited to varying degrees in response to social expectations and personal transformations. Children develop their genetic sketches by learning values from their parents and peers as well as from whatever is heavily represented in popular culture. This trend is both beautiful and detrimental. While children learn to define and express themselves, they are simultaneously conditioned with the notion that their moral compasses are uniquely astute. When children grow into rational adults, they begin to challenge and be challenged by their morals. They mentally categorize others into ideological camps separating “conservatives” and “liberals.” After enough time passes in one group or another, individuals stop questioning why they believe what they do—why question what is unquestionably right, after all? Of course, I am making a generalization. Some individuals go through their lives with a fluid perspective on various issues, but the gridlock currently found within U.S. legislative chambers serves as profound evidence that there are many others who not only preach moral absolutism, but who also demand it.
The resulting close-mindedness results in the name-calling, ignorance and misunderstanding that summarize the current politicized state of affairs. The truth is—and this might be a hard pill to swallow—that on the cliché social, political and economic issues people debate every day, both sides’ arguments have merit. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt delivered a Ted Talk in 2008, in which he presented his research on the moral roots of both liberals and conservatives. He outlines five dual foundations of morality: harm and care, fairness and reciprocity, group belonging and loyalty, authority and respect, and purity and sanctity. Take a moment to consider these five, and you might postulate that liberals are prone to valuing the first two more than the others while conservatives emphasize the importance of the later three. This prediction is a generalization, but it is backed in research: Haidt polled over 23,000 people and found that while all five pairs of moral outlooks were valued by everyone, liberals worried more about harm and fairness than loyalty, authority and purity (and vice-versa).
In simpler terms, liberals believe in equity of individuals even at the expense of societal stability, and conservatives believe that stability provides maximized general utility even if the preservation of conservative values comes at the expense of some minority groups. At this point, readers will likely associate with one side of the bandwagon or the other and numbingly wonder how any rational individual could disagree with them. At Duke specifically, students live in a liberal bubble, unwilling to challenge each other for fear of being socially ostracized.
But this type of moral bubble does not leave room for open-mindedness. On abortion, we often ridicule those who think that life starts at conception; on the rights of LGBTQIA members, we scorn those who hold onto orthodox concerns about familial health; on immigration, we hold contempt for those who have the audacity to want enforced borders and a stable citizenry; on redistribution of wealth, we manipulate our limited economic knowledge and foresight with the certainty that welfare programs can advance our country; and on climate change, we baffle ourselves over the idea that anyone can put economic strength ahead of the environment. But when it comes down to it, on these issues and more, both sides have merit. Of course, “merit” is a subjective term—my own personal beliefs correspond more with liberal values—but there is a difference between standing up for your beliefs and ridiculing those of others. This blurred line is the one that can be most difficult to draw.
The path toward social progress should not begin with close-minded suppression of views that differ from our own. After all, we each play for the same team. Given the choice between the world we live in now and a theoretical perfect world without economic and social inequality, climate change or violence, what type of Republican or Democrat really would prefer the first option? If we want compromise in D.C. we must first set the example that we want representatives that value each other’s moral backgrounds. Attacking each other for our opinions does little but foster further division in our moral outlooks.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Tuesday.