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The moral divide

This morning’s New York Times includes a most illuminating essay by Thomas B. Edsall titled “The Gulf of Morality.” In it he argues unexceptionally that liberals and conservatives see the world through very different eyes. What drew my attention was his five dimensions of morality: care, fairness, loyalty, respect, purity. 

Following the work of Jon Haidt and others,  Edsall argues that liberals tend to focus their attention on the first two dimensions: care for others and fairness in society. They tend to ignore virtues such as loyalty, respect and purity that are important issues to the conservative. The result is two groups of Americans who simply talk past one another.

That might not be so bad were it not for his two added contentions. The first is that the language gulf leads to moral disdain in which each group sees the other as corrupt and unworthy. The second, which seems to me a separate and more disputable argument, is that moral arguments are just a cover for an argument over the distribution of material goods. In an age of austerity, he suggests that the moral arguments will grow even sharper because they reflect the unspoken arguments about who will get what.

The bottom line in all this for a person like me who believes in reconciliation (does that make me a liberal?) is that we have to learn to speak in one another’s language. Liberals need to learn to speak the language of loyalty, respect, and purity; conservatives need to learn to speak the language of fairness and care. The point that I have made repeatedly is that we are all in this together. We can wrestle all we like over the oars but our little boat is perilously close to the falls when who has the oars in their hands is of little importance.

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