Opinion | How Could Human Nature Have Become This Politicized?

The formulation of what has come to be known as moral foundations theory has been crucial to a deeper understanding of this process. The theory

proposes that the human mind is organized in advance of experience so that it is prepared to learn values, norms, and behaviors related to a diverse set of recurrent adaptive social problems.

Leading proponents argue that there are

five foundations of intuitive ethics: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation.

The theory is described in detail in “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism,” a 2013 paper by Jesse Graham of the University of Utah; Jonathan Haidt of N.Y.U.; Sena Koleva, a research consultant; Matt Motyl of the University of Illinois at Chicago; Ravi Iyer, chief data scientist for Ranker, a consumer internet platform; Sean P. Wojcik, a senior data scientist at the news site Axios; and Peter H. Ditto, of the University of California-Irvine.

What makes moral foundations theory especially relevant now is that in recent decades liberal and conservative partisans have divided over the importance they place on these five moral foundations:

Liberals valued Care and Fairness more than did conservatives, whereas conservatives valued Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity more than did liberals.

These differences mattered little for politics when both parties included liberals and conservatives, but beginning around 1964, this disagreement between left and right on moral values began to coincide more strongly with party affiliation.

A number of scholars have put forth ideas in an effort to understand these developments.

Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska whose research explores “the biology and psychology of individual-level differences in political attitudes and behavior,” emailed in response to my inquiry:

Fights about abortion, gay rights, gun rights etc. are less about policy than about underlying core values, values that for many are not up for discussion or compromise because they are deeply held — indeed, given the genetic influences on such attitudes, it’s probably fair to say they are at least partly biologically instantiated.

Smith, who is a co-author of “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences,” argues that as political parties have coalesced along ideologically consistent lines, especially on issues related to race, they have

created a political environment where genetically influenced predispositions, what most people would experience as gut feelings that one side or the other is right or wrong on a given set of issues of the day, made partisanship something that was much more likely to become a central part of someone’s identity.

Smith is quite explicit that he does not posit that there is biological determinism of political views or anything else, but he does contend that

there’s little doubt that ideological orientations are genetically influenced, and to a surprisingly high degree — studies consistently estimate roughly 40-60 percent of the population level variance in ideology is under genetic influence.

The ideological realignment of the parties that has pushed many liberal Republicans into the Democratic camp and conservative Democrats in the opposite direction, Smith writes, has created a political environment in which

those with strong predispositions to lean one way or the other can readily mate those instinctual feelings to a political party that espouses and affirms those predispositions.

At that point, he continues,

You’ve got a recipe for deeply polarized politics that is going to feed on its own dynamics and be hard to change. And that sounds awfully like the political environment we have right now.

In “Predisposed,” Smith and John Hibbing and John Alford, his co-authors, stress “that we are not making a nature versus nurture argument.”

Instead, they write, “innate forces combine with early development and later powerful environmental events to create attitudinal and behavioral tendencies.” A predisposition can be altered. Nonetheless,

predispositions nudge us in one direction or another, often without our knowledge, increasing the odds that we will behave in a certain way, but leaving plenty of room for predispositions to be contravened.

Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple, stressed in an email that

It is important to resist the tendency to see heritability of eye color, for example, as the same thing as the heritability of an attitude. I cannot change my eye color, but I can change my attitudes.

Some of the most interesting work in the field of behavioral genetics, Arceneaux continues, shows how

context interacts with genetic influences. If you change the context, the heritability of behavioral constructs changes. So, I would caution against drawing a straight line from heritability to unchanging/intractable.

Along the same lines, Yuan Chang Leong, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at Berkeley, emailed me that

What is heritable is unlikely to be ideology per se, but something more akin to personality traits or a predisposition to respond to certain information in a particular way.

The relationship between these factors and policy positions, Leong continued,

are not set in stone. There is evidence that partisans can be persuaded by political messages, especially when the messages are framed in a manner that appeals to them, so efforts at persuasion are not futile.

Ariel Malka, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, believes that “religiosity, authoritarianism, and conservative cultural attitudes” are rooted in personality traits that have some heritable components.

In an email, Malka noted that

Increased partisan polarization in the U.S. has coincided with the parties placing greater (and opposing) emphases on racial and ‘culture war’ positions. So it’s certainly plausible that American polarization stems from partisan conflict having expanded into the racial and cultural areas, aligning this heritable attitude syndrome with partisanship.

Malka cited the work of Amanda Friesen and Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz, political scientists at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Illinois-Urbana, who are the authors of “Do Political Attitudes and Religiosity Share a Genetic Path?”

Friesen and Ksiazkiewicz are persuaded that

certain religious, political, and first principle beliefs on social organization can be explained by genetic and unique environmental components, and that the correlation between these three trait structures is primarily due to a common genetic path.

Malka also points to the work of Steven Ludeke, Wendy Johnson and Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., psychologists at the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Minnesota, whose findings are described in the title of their 2014 paper, “ ‘Obedience to traditional authority’: A heritable factor underlying authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness.”

In Malka’s view, the strength of these predispositions to authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism has been crucial to the success of Republicans in winning support from white middle-class and working-class voters, many of whom hold strongly liberal views on economic policy.


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