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The Influence of Moral Beliefs

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In almost every article discussing the moral and values-based foundations from which conservatives derive their policy-making principles, how can liberals do/think/say/advocate questions are usually not too far behind. Of course, those of us on the left view policy-initiatives (or lack thereof) on the part of Republicans with the same disdain and confident assurances that the other side is mean-spirited, crazy, or INSERT preferred insult here _.

As George Lakoff noted in this excerpt from his 2002 book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (Second Edition):

To conservatives, liberals seem either immoral, perverse, misguided, irrational, or just plain dumb. Yet, from the perspective of the liberal worldview, what seems contradictory or immoral or stupid to conservatives seems to liberals to be natural, rational, and, above all, moral.

It is this near-complete failure to understand, respect, or appreciate the moral beliefs underlying the behaviors and actions of the other side that fuels the hyper-partisan and seemingly irreconcilable policy and governing philosophies we're exposed to every day. Finding a way past or through the haze becomes more critical every day. The big and small problems of the day will grow even larger if we don't stop the bickering and find a comfortable place in the great middle that now divides us.

It can be done. The question is: Will it?

There are any number of moral, emotional, and psychological motivations that govern how liberals and conservatives approach governing, and why their respective approaches are so often contradictory.

As others much more knowledgeable about the psychology behind political partisanship have attested to, nuance is not a preferred component of policy analysis by those on the right. One of those elements is the tendency of conservatives to come to quick and certain conclusions without devoting much time at all to the intricacies and variety of influences that are part and parcel of any meaningful policy-making.

The Lakoff quote above is indicative of that approach, and provides often-overlooked observations about why that's a problem. He also adds this, indicative of another common approach employed by those on the right:

How can liberals claim to favor the rights of children, when they champion the rights of criminals, such as convicted child molesters? How can liberals claim empathy for victims when they defend the rights of criminals?

Why either-or? Why such a broad brush? The unspoken implication--that liberals as a group are always sympathetic towards child molesters, is insane! No rational or even semi-rational adult of any political persuasion finds anything redeeming about that behavior! But consistent with our primary moral foundations of care and fairness [see this], we expect that--regardless of how reprehensible one's behavior--the process will be fairly and justly employed.

So advocating for a fair and just judicial process for criminals does not equate with our support in any manner for what they've done, nor does it suggest after even a moment's pause for thought that we're hypocrites looking to score political points.

Arguing from a one-note foundation does simplify the process of blaming and ridiculing evil liberals for their destroy-all-that-is-good philosophy. It also frees up a lot of time that might (should) otherwise be devoted to introspection and understanding.

It doesn't help at all, but it does save time. Perhaps a different priority might be worth considering?

Adapted from a recent blog post of mine.
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Looking Left and Right: Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows I remain a firm believer in late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone's observation that "We all do better when we all do better." That objective might be worth pursuing (more...)

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