Gay Marriage, Abortion and the Moral Foundations of Political Issues

Americans are becoming progressively more accepting of gays and lesbians.  According to polling from Pew Research, a majority of Americans now support legalizing same sex marriages.  This is a dramatic reversal from the public’s attitudes towards gay marriage just 15 years earlier, where a solid majority (57 percent) of Americans opposed same sex unions.  On the surface, this shift in public attitudes regarding whether homosexuals have a legitimate place in society seems to provide evidence that Americans are becoming increasingly socially liberal.  This view is bolstered when you look at Americans’ attitudes towards the legalization of marijuana, which like same sex marriage, have become increasingly more liberal over the past several decades.

However, Americans’ attitudes on a number of other social issues, such as abortion and gun control, have not become more liberal during this same period.  American’s have not simply shifted to the left on the social dimension. Rather, Americans’ opinions towards specific social policies have shifted to the left while others have remained highly stable.  The divide amongst Americans on the question of whether abortion should be legal is virtually the same as it was in 1975.  The divergence of opinion on these issues raises the question of why Americans’ position on gay marriage has shifted so dramatically while abortion has not?

I believe that some exciting new research from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (among others) might provide some answers to this question (and many others).  Haidt’s research is geared towards uncovering the moral foundations of that structure human psychology.  According to Haidt and his colleagues, there are 5 distinct dimensions that structure a human being’s moral matrix.  They are 1.) care/harm 2.) fairness/cheating 3.) loyalty/betrayal 4.) authority/subversion 5.) sanctity/degradation.  An individuals’ moral outlook is shaped by some combination of concerns about all of these dimensions.  What is especially interesting from the perspective of a political scientist is that how much emphasis individuals place on these specific moral foundations varies depending on their political ideology.  Liberals’ moral matrices are shaped by an overwhelming concern for only two of the five moral foundations: care/harm and fairness cheating.  On the other hand, conservatives’ moral matrices are structured by a concern about all five moral dimensions.

Thinking about the moral foundations of political ideologies in this way helps to explain the structure of American political debate and the issues that individual’s care or do not care about.  For instance, appeals to patriotism (e.g. support our troops) typically engender a passionate response from conservatives but typically fall on deaf ears among liberals.  The reason being is that concerns about patriotism fall squarely on the loyalty/betrayal dimension, which conservatives emphasize more than liberals.  Other issues strike a moral cord with both liberals and conservatives.  Debates over social welfare programs often evoke debates about fairness from both liberals and conservatives.  Liberals are concerned about policies that ensure the poor receive help as well as making sure other social underdogs get a fair shake generally.  Conservatives are also concerned about the issue of fairness surrounding these same programs, just in a different way.  Concerns about fairness guides conservatives to look to protect the earnings of those who labored for their money from those who did not.   I contend that thinking about political issues in the context of these five moral foundations can help to explain the change (or lack of change) in Americans’ attitudes towards same-sex marriage and abortion.

The way I see it, attitudes towards gay marriage are shaped by two of the moral foundations, fairness/cheating and sanctity/degradation.  Individuals on the left view the gay marriage as an issue of fairness: gays should be treated fairly and have the same rights as everyone else.  The conservative position on gay marriage is based upon sanctity/degradation.  Same sex marriage threatens sanctity in two ways, it challenges taboos about traditional sexual relationships as well challenges the institution of marriage.  The concerns regarding these moral foundations are revealed in the language that each side employs when discussing gay marriage, “we must ensure social justice for gays and lesbians” versus “we must protect the sanctity of marriage.”  I suspect that the reason the public has become more liberal on the issue of gay marriage is that an increasing number of individuals have come to view gay marriage as an issue of fairness (which both liberals and conservatives care about) opposed to a threat to sanctity.  The debate over gay marriage is essentially a moral debate about fairness versus sanctity.

The moral foundations that shape our attitudes towards abortion are much more complex, and I suspect this complexity is the reason why attitudes towards abortion have changed so little since Roe v. Wade decision over 40 years ago.  For liberals, abortion falls squarely on both of the chief moral foundations, fairness (justice and equality for women) and care/harm (health of the mother).  Conservatives care about both of these moral foundations as well (rights of the fetus—fairness and “abortion stops a beating heart”—harm).  In addition, the abortion debate touches about issues of sanctity (“the sanctity of life”) and respect for authority (defying God’s law).   Thus, attitudes towards abortion are not shaped by a tradeoff between two competing moral foundations like gay marriage.  Rather attitudes towards abortion are shaped by a whole host of moral concerns—and I contend this moral complexity is what makes attitudes towards abortion so stable.


About Joshua Zingher

Josh Zingher is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections, and representation.

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