The Relationship Between Politics and Morality

It might not be what you think.

Posted Dec 05, 2019

It sure feels as though American politics has become increasingly polarized in recent years. And there is good reason to think this is not just because you had to sit through a holiday dinner with that aunt and uncle. Moreover, it is not just happening here. Much ink has been spilled of late dissecting the rise of extreme political ideologies worldwide, especially on the far right. Despite the apparent threats to liberal democracy, it is tempting to take comfort in the thought that our shared humanity and moral commitments will keep the political tides at bay. People, it may seem, will only be willing to follow their political leaders so far before the moral brakes kick in.

A rising chorus of voices has begun sounding the alarm that this optimism amounts to wishful thinking. When the cruelty becomes the point, morality no longer functions as a guardrail for politics. Rather, people’s sense of right and wrong is coopted for political ends. When political ideology is in the driver’s seat, a more extreme, polarized political landscape readily gives way to a more depraved moral reality. In the name of ‘us,’ ‘they’ must suffer.

Bleak as it may be, this pessimistic warning is not without merit. It is founded on the thought that morality is no match for politics. And the available evidence suggests there may be something to this. Recent research suggests that political ideology likely shapes moral judgment, and not the other way around.

Justin Bautista/Unsplash
Source: Justin Bautista/Unsplash

The inspiration for this research is Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which posits five (or six) evolved psychological mechanisms that combine in various ways to produce rapid, intuitive evaluative judgments and explains differences in political orientation in terms of differential reliance on these foundations. Liberals tend to form judgments influenced predominantly by two (or three) of the foundations (Care, Fairness, and perhaps Liberty), whereas conservatives tend to form judgments influenced by all of them (including Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity). Importantly, MFT does not claim that people are consciously aware of the influence of these psychological mechanisms on their thinking. In fact, the theory follows on the heels of an account of moral thought in which moral reasoning mostly functions as post hoc rationalization of rapid, intuitive moral judgments: We seek reasons to make sense of our feeling that what someone did was bad, as opposed to feeling that way for these reasons. Extending this to the political realm, we arrive at something like the view that the reasons we give for voting one way or another are largely rationalizations of the ways our moral gut feelings have shaped our political leanings.

There certainly does seem to be a correlation between distinct political ideologies and distinct patterns of moral judgment. But correlation is not causation. Do moral judgments really cause or explain political ideology, or vice versa? This is the question three political scientists set out to test. And they found that the evidence did not support the dominant interpretation of MFT, according to which the causal-explanatory relationship runs from morality to politics. If anything, they suggest, political ideology influences moral judgments, not the other way around. Moreover, political ideologies appear more stable than moral foundations and are more strongly predictive of them than the reverse.

The emerging picture is in some ways very similar to the one painted by MFT. Political ideology may be understood in terms of rapid, intuitive judgments stemming from evolved psychological mechanisms. These mechanisms issue in judgments about politically relevant social issues (gay marriage, marijuana), economic issues (unions, school funding), and defense issues (military spending, particular wars) for which justifying reasons may be marshaled after the fact. The twist is that our moral judgments, it seems, may arise from the intuitive processes that shape our political orientations and rationalizations of them.

This picture supports a certain sort of pessimism about the current political moment. It seems we should not take comfort in the thought that worrying political trends will be kept in check by the better angels of our nature. It's possible that the political winds will blow the angels from our shoulders. If morality indeed follows politics, the way to shape what is considered beyond the moral pale is through shaping what is considered politically palatable.