The Moral Psychology of Politics

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This is Superbowl time for politics. 45 days. Just over a month. The nation’s future is at stake. The world’s future. The Supreme Court. Taxes. War. Health care. The price of gas. Your child’s education.

People who regularly eschew partisanship and politics now spit at their televisions and scream and drink and choke up when they hear the candidates speak. They gather with strangers to knock on doors. They wear T-shirts and affix bumper stickers. They answer questions from children not yet old enough to read: “Mommy? Daddy? Do you like McCain or Obama?” And the kids learn. They must decide to play for team blue, or team red. This stuff matters. It is, in short, a wonderful time for our country, a time when the nation comes alive to do the one thing that has always defined us, to cast a free vote. And that is an emotional act. You can overhear it in the conversations at bars or in the office. You can hear it in the roar of arenas that the candidates fill. As Americans, we weigh the issues with our minds, but we tend to decide with our guts. Among those who vote, we care a great deal.

I mention all this because I watched a lecture this morning by Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in something called “moral psychology” and the “moral foundations of politics.” The lecture is called “The Real Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives,” and it examines how we organize ourselves into political teams, and why a “moral matrix” sometimes makes political debate so difficult. Haidt talks about how conservatives have strict restrictions for sex, and how liberals have strict restrictions for food. He explains, I think quite convincingly, how our minds approach politics, and argues not for a lessening of partisanship, but for a greater understanding of how the other side works. The lecture is 19 minutes long, and not boring at all. Since it’s Friday and the markets are rebounding, I hope you can find the time.

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