The Science of an Argument

In between the flurry of radio interviews today, I had the pleasure of introducing my friend Jonathan Haidt before his discussion here at AEI. For those of you not familiar with his work, Haidt is a moral psychologist who studies the way our brains process moral decision making. His work has greatly influenced my own, and I highly recommend his newest book, “The Righteous Mind.”

His discussion at AEI focused on the differences between conservative and liberal morality, which stems from he calls our “moral taste receptors.” Each person responds to six moral dimensions – harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity, and liberty. But even though we all possess these six moral dimensions, everyone feels each one to a different degree. Liberals tend to rely most heavily on care, fairness, and liberty, while conservatives feel all six foundations relatively equally. 

When pressed for a decision or faced with a new situation, our executive function processes the relevant moral information first. Haidt compares our moral sense to an elephant, while our reason is merely the elephant’s rider. We may be able to steer our moral judgments and reason toward correct decisions, but it is incredibly hard to overcome our initial direction. 

You can see the important implications this work has for anyone entering a political discussion with an unfriendly listener. Your opening line can make or break the entire conversation. In other words, once the elephant starts down one path, it’s incredibly hard to get him turned around and on another. You have to establish common moral ground, particularly if you are going to advocate for a policy your listener may associate with causing harm or creating unfairness. We all possess common moral ground, and the best way to arrive at an agreement over policy is to start there. 

This leads to the second important take away from Haidt — some moral arguments won’t resonate with every listener. While everyone can agree that it’s immoral to harm the poor and vulnerable or that it’s best to create equal opportunity, we possess different levels of openness to ideas about loyalty, authority, and purity. These are important dimensions, to be sure, but using them to try to convince someone who doesn’t respond to these “taste receptors” won’t get you far, and can even be counterproductive. To drive the change we need to solve America’s problems, free enterprise advocates should focus on effective arguments that echoes across the board.

Arthur Brooks