Despite the bitter debate and sharp divisions of the just completed U.S. elections, a Canadian study says it is possible for liberals and conservatives to agree, especially on issues of fairness and caring for humanity.
University of Winnipeg Assistant Professor Jeremy Frimer says liberals and conservatives – despite what they say about each other – “share a surprising level of common moral ground.”
Frimer did not intend to study the often opposing groups. That happened only after he started asking himself questions about his research on what makes moral leaders.
“In the process of researching them, I was encountering reviewers, and other people are asking me, well, by moral leader do you mean a liberal moral leader? Do you mean a conservative moral leader? Get more clear on this. And I came to realize that wasn’t sure what I was researching at this point. Was I researching a kind of moral leader that conforms to my ideology, or is this something that maybe people of a different ideology and maybe the world over might share?”
About 400 people of different political persuasions were given a list of influential people. They were then asked to rate them as to whether they were moral and caring
“So we started with Time Magazine’s list of the most influential people of the 20th Century, which could good or bad. I mean there’s Hitler and there’s Gandhi in there. They could be left wing or right wing. You got Reagan and you’ve got Harvey Milk in there. So we thought that this was a good place to start where the emphasis was not on division. It was on influence. And so we felt like we had a good starting point then; and that would be a more representative way of testing people’s morals, rather than necessarily just starting with controversial issues where they highlight, they accentuate and emphasize disagreement,” said Frimer.
Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, served two terms as U.S. president between 1981 and 1989. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. The activist was shot dead by a co-worker in San Francisco in 1978.
The current political system in the U.S. may drive a wedge between liberals and conservatives.
Frimer said, “The politics of debate is about the differences. And so our attention is drawn constantly to how these people differ in how they think about things. It’s good to debate matters that are controversial, but at the same time, what we don’t debate are uncontroversial matters that we can all agree on. So matters about whether it’s ok to take care of you’re children, and whether society should be fair and just. Those sorts of things just don’t come up in the debates because we automatically agree with them. Those are the sorts of things that just don’t make the news.”
He said moral foundations of care and fairness are overwhelmingly the strongest predictors of what makes a moral person. Foundations of disagreement are much smaller contributors to making moral judgments.
“With people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa, liberals and conservatives both saw them as extremely moral and saw them as extremely caring,” he said.
He added that “progress on divisive social issues is more likely when the discussion is framed as a question of fairness and care for humanity.” That’s where common ground can be found.
“The suggestion coming from this research is that if we focus on issues of care and fairness, we’re more likely to be able to make moral progress in terms of moving forward, because that’s where we agree. Those are things that both liberals and conservatives agree about. When we focus on issues that come down to authority and hierarchy in society, sexual matters and so on, we should expect disagreement. Those are going to be much harder issues to make progress on,” he said.
The study was conducted at the University of British Columbia, where Frimer was a postdoctoral researcher. He later became an assistant professor in Winnipeg.