Over the last two years, pundits and novelists have raised the possibility of a second U.S. civil war. An actual civil war is unlikely, but people rightly feel that life in the U.S. is increasingly political and that politics in the U.S. is becoming more hostile. Political scientists confirm that people in the U.S. have been sorted into opposing camps. Even over the last two decades, political polarization has grown.

What is behind this? It’s a complicated story, but, as usual, internet memes can be revealing.

On issues like immigration, people rightly sense that political differences are resulting from deep moral disagreement. But too many of our debates on these issues assume that we only disagree about procedures or tactics.

To give one example, someone might claim that their support for a parent-child separation policy is because “that’s the law.” Later on, it becomes clear that they actually don’t even like current legal levels of U.S. immigration anyhow. Some deeper moral belief is involved.

Admitting that we have deep moral disputes can help us to get to the root of issues like this. But how can we do that?

Moral Taste Buds

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers one useful framework. I disagree with most of Haidt’s ideas about politics and ethics, but his perspective on psychology is helpful.

He argues that morality is a sense with a palate that has different taste buds. In Haidt’s research, these “moral taste buds” fall into six categories: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

Haidt finds that people on the left-leaning side of politics mainly value three of these areas (caring, fairness, and liberty, with caring as the highest value). People on the right-leaning side of politics also see the other three values (loyalty, authority, and sanctity) as inherently good.

That doesn’t mean that left-leaning people don’t believe in, say, loyalty at all. It just means that when a value like fairness conflicts with loyalty to a group, they will typically lean toward fairness and equality over group identity.

And right-leaning people aren’t completely opposed to the value of caring, but they are likely to place it in the context of a value like loyalty (e.g., the Wounded Warrior Project) or sanctity (e.g., supporting a religious charity).

Haidt offers a complex explanation of political differences that is rooted in evolutionary psychology. Despite its limitations, this framework is a good, evidence-based starting point in understanding what divides people in the US today.

Two Approaches to Morality

We can simplify Haidt’s explanation by identifying two major moral frameworks. While one is centered on love and caring as always inherently good, the other is grounded in the need for a moral authority to tell one what is good. (There are always other people who simply don’t have much concern about moral values, while some hold to a mix of the two major approaches.)

Approach 1 is what philosophers would call “consequentialist.” In this framework, every action is judged based on its consequences. If the consequences of an action promote well-being and avoid harm, it’s seen as obviously good. From the perspective of Approach 1, anyone who advocates for a moral rule that seems to promote harm and hinder well-being seems willfully evil.

Approach 2 is what philosophers would call “deontological,” or rule-based. This approach is sometimes mixed with an ethical theory known as “divine command theory.” A deontological approach to ethics relies on the authority of universal rules to achieve ultimate well-being and avoid wide-scale harm. This might involve some greater (at least imagined) good beyond the obvious well-being of human beings, such as particular ideas about what human beings should be like or the idea of a glorious nation-state or deity.

Unlike Approach 1, Approach 2 sees authoritative texts (e.g., the Bible or the U.S. Constitution) and authority figure roles (e.g., military personnel or law enforcement officers) as inherently good and necessary.

From the perspective of Approach 2, the care-based and equality-oriented framework of Approach 1 may be well-intended, but will ultimately result in chaos. From the perspective of Approach 1, the authority-driven framework of Approach 2 leads people to unthinkingly follow orders in ways that do obvious harm to others.

Most people don’t think about things from the perspective of the opposite framework. Instead, they end up believing that people who take the other approach must be either wicked or ignorant. (The fact that people are generally both somewhat wicked and fairly ignorant provides plenty of evidence for this when people selectively see those traits in those who disagree with them.)

Theological Approaches

In my opinion, we can make this explanation even more concrete by putting it in a theological context. About 70% of people in the US claim to be Christian, and those who aren’t are often familiar with Christian moral frameworks. People taking each moral approach often have their own way of interpreting Christianity and the Bible (at least within that 70%).

People leaning toward Approach 1 point to the obvious anti-“law” aspects of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and Paul. One of the key points of the New Testament in particular would seem to be that loving people and working for their well-being is more important than keeping even the most sacred rules. There’s also the key theme that love is the highest command and something even identified with God.

In addition, it seems apparent that, from the Torah to the early church, the Bible tells a story of the weak and humble being lifted up and the mighty being brought down. The teachings of Jesus particularly emphasize that the usual order of things is overturned by God, resulting in greater equality (“the first will be last,” etc.).

People leaning toward Approach 2 emphasize the idea that God is “holy” and enacts judgment against people who step out of line. The notion that God is loving and that people should love others is balanced against the belief that rules are made to be kept.

Love and caring, then, can only truly happen within the context of rules, some of which involve social hierarchies (husband-wife, master-slave, employer-employee, soldier-civilian, citizen-foreigner etc.). The higher person in the hierarchy tends to be seen as an authority figure who shares some of God’s ability to make rules and decide what people lower in the hierarchy can do.

If you follow Approach 1, you might be wondering why anyone would lean toward Approach 2. It can seem so intuitive that care and equality are simply what human goodness is. So why do people hold to Approach 2?

A friend once pointed out to me that a lot of people (especially many addicts) want some kind of moral authority to simplify morality in ways that keep them out of trouble. On an individual level, Approach 2 can be very helpful, although there’s a question of whether it involves some kind of repression rather than addressing psychological issues in a healthy way.

Approach 2 can also help people gain protection from others. For instance, some anthropologists have found that women in Guatemala often converted to Pentecostalism to bring men in their families into a strict value system that is opposed to alcoholism. Again, there’s a question of whether this use of Approach 2 is actually dealing with the root problems, which may be economic or psychological, but it is a way of meeting real human needs.

Similarly, people who follow Approach 2 usually have a hard time believing that people can seriously hold to Approach 1. For instance, many prominent creationists believe that if you reject their specific theory of the origin of life you must be doomed to moral anarchy. If you don’t have their exact perspective, then you must “believe that life was ultimately meaningless and purposeless—and morality could be whatever a person determined,” as Ken Ham puts it. The idea is that, without an easily-understandable, divinely-authored book to tell you what is right, no one could ever have a basis to say that something is right and something else is wrong.

Quite often, people who hold to Approach 2 can’t comprehend that Approach 1 actually exists. People protesting in defense of values like care and equality must actually be getting paid by a wealthy Jew, one popular conspiracy theory says. Surely no one’s values can be reducible to altruism alone without threats from some higher authority. Of course, human motivation is complicated, but that doesn’t change the fact that many people really do feel that they should be guided by Approach 1 as a moral framework.

So are both sides partly right and partly wrong? That’s basically what Jonathan Haidt says, but his unusual approach to morality is based on the idea that human beings have evolved an optimal range of moral tastes that all need to be taken into account. From his perspective, the fact that people hold a set of moral values means that it’s inherently a valuable part of the broader human mix.

There are a lot of reasons not to hold to this kind of moral relativism. The simplest may be the idea that we should take people’s values seriously enough to consider that they may be wrong.

How Did We Get Here?

Why then are people in the US increasingly sharply divided on basic moral values? The popularity of Approach 1 is relatively new, and it previously wasn’t widely held enough to seem like a serious alternative to Approach 2.

Ideologies that hold some aspect of Approach 1 have existed for a long time: abolitionism, socialism, feminism, etc. The roots of Approach 1 go back to ancient writers like the Hebrew Prophets or Enlightenment thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft. When Friedrich Nietzsche condemned the “slave morality” of Judaism and Christianity, he was arguing against this morality of care and equality (what he advocated for is… complicated).

Still, until very recently, there wasn’t a potential majority of the US population interested in making the entirety of Approach 1 a possible alternative way of organizing society. Approach 1 was present enough to cause a Civil War in the 1860s, but not enough to even finish that war with a decisive shift in moral values.

Recent demographic and social shifts toward Approach 1 are an evident threat to the values of people in the US who hold to Approach 2. From secularization to gender equality to increasing ethnic diversity, there’s a strong trend toward Approach 1 in popular opinion. In some ways, extreme groups like the alt-right see this more clearly than others, characterizing Approach 1 as “cultural Marxism.”

At the same time, Approach 2 is deeply ingrained in US social and economic structures. Even political institutions from the Supreme Court to the Senate are indelibly marked by dynamics of authority and hierarchy, rather than care and equality. That is part of the reason for the current deadlock in US politics and culture.

Issues like immigration and abortion are especially volatile, since they raise the question of just how far our moral community should reach. Who is even part of our moral community? Are fetuses? Are foreigners? An ethics of care vs. harm will often come to different conclusions than an ethics of authority vs. rebellion on those issues.


So what should we do about this? Knowing that this deep moral difference exists should not make us moral relativists. We should still do our best to figure out what is right and to advocate for it.

But we too often angrily lash out against people with differing values on the assumption that they are consciously wicked. They might be, but it is also likely that they simply have a completely different moral framework.

If that’s the case, it might be best to not only avoid arguing but even avoid getting caught in pointless discussions. Unless we acknowledge that our deepest core values differ, we’ll waste our time and energy while becoming needlessly hostile toward each other. Sometimes dialogue about policies or issues isn’t helpful or even possible if it doesn’t deal with our different underlying moral frameworks.

Rather than arguing about who respects the flag more or who cares more about refugees, we should be honest (with ourselves and others) about the ways that we might or might not even value those things. Where will that lead? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it can’t make things much worse than they already are.