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Moral Reframing for Conservative/Liberal Conversations

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

Empathy and respect. That is what will result in better conversations between conservatives and liberals according to 2015 research by Robb Willer, sociologist at Stanford University and Matthew Feinberg, Assistant Professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, co-authors of How to Make Effective Political Arguments.

Research suggests such moral rhetoric is largely ineffective for persuading those who do not already hold one’s position because advocates advancing these arguments fail to account for the divergent moral commitments that undergird America’s political divisions.”

Willer cited a 2007 study by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek: Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations. They found that liberals consistently showed greater endorsement and use of the Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity foundations compared to Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect and Purity/sanctity foundations, whereas conservatives endorsed and used the 5 foundations more equally.

Put another way, liberals should appeal to values of moral purity, patriotism, respect for authority and loyalty in trying to persuade conservatives, while appealing to the values of fairness, preserving the environment and doing no harm are more likely to persuade liberals.

Daniel Schultz writes about How Liberals Should (and Should Not) Talk about Values: “Start with a story. Drop the labels, the identities, the principles, and tell a story. As it unfolds, let the values come through…People will listen to a concrete story and absorb its message much more quickly than an abstract argument. The goal is to find powerful stories that prompt people to understand the world in a different way. It’s really hard to do.”

“Morality contributes to political polarization because moral convictions lead individuals to take absolutist stances and refuse to compromise.” But moral reframing (being more careful about how we communicate) can lead to greater cooperation and collaboration. After all, we are all in this together.


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