A Rosetta Stone for Political Discourse?

Nicholas Kristof is my favorite liberal columnist, and his column in today’s New York Times further solidified that (admittedly small) distinction. Kristof focuses on a new book by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, a work that examines the moral and psychological foundations of liberal and conservative thinking. The subtitle of the book is Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and it’s encouraging to see a liberal columnist whole-heartedly endorse the idea that conservatives are good people, too. The Times op-ed page is not always so charitable.

The psychological research that went into Haidt’s book yielded a number of remarkable findings. Among them are that conservatives generally understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives (Kristof praises the book for helping to “demystify” the right).

Along the same lines is the idea, elucidated by Haidt, that conservatives are able to speak and think in the “language” of a larger number of values than liberals. Kristof explains:

“…For liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity….

Another way of putting it is this: Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three. And some (me included) mostly use just one, care for victims.”

Perhaps this is why liberal explanations of conservative thinking often sound like the findings of anthropological expeditions. In any case, I would highly recommend reading the whole column, which includes a handful of additional gems from moral psychology, such as how to tell someone’s political persuasion by the type of dog they prefer.

Duke Cheston

Writer/reporter for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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