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Civility is the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency. Civility begins with understanding. We can best understand our political differences by first understanding the moral foundations upon which political views are built. This site features research, resources, and commentary related to the pursuit of Civility through understanding.



“This is a contest of values. This is a choice about who we are and what we stand for.”

                   - President Barack Obama, in comments regarding his Jobs Bill.


The New York Times cheered the President’s value based message, calling Republican values “elitist and narrow”.  Commentators on both sides have take up the clarion call of moral authority.  Paul Krugman recently observed “…something I don’t think most political commentators have fully absorbed: at this point, American politics is fundamentally about different moral visions.”   That it’s a moral question is one thing Mr. Krugman and Karl Rove can agree on.  Mr. Rove recently wrote, ”Politicians would be wise to remember that high taxes also are a matter of principle… This makes taxation a moral issue as well as an economic one.”

Are they right?  Can we really equate politics and morals?

Politics is Morals

The New Republic had this to say about Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan “His basic moral premises are foreign, even abhorrent, to liberals. He seems like a person you’d like to negotiate with, but there’s nothing to negotiate over.”

Amen to that, according to Dr. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia.

Dr. Haidt’s research has shown that in the presence of moral motivations, thinking and reasoning aren’t worth much.  His groundbreaking Moral Foundations Theory demonstrates that our political beliefs are a reflection of our moral beliefs.  Dr. Haidt found that we start with intuition, and for the most part use moral reasoning  not to determine, but to justify our intuitive perceptions of right and wrong.  We then tend to bind ourselves into social groups with similar values, which reinforce our intuition but tends to blind us to other groups intuition/morals.

Dr. Haidt theorized that the resulting groups bound together by shared morals could explain our political differences.  Building on prior research  and his own international field work, Dr. Haidt articulated 5 dimensions of morality; Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect, and Purity.  When applied to American political ideology, he found that Liberals prioritize Harm and Fairness, while Conservatives value all five more equally (this does not mean Liberals disregard the other 3, only that they give more weight to Harm and Fairness).   The result is our political views are a reflection of our morals, which themselves are explanations for our personal intuitions regarding right and wrong, and simply put there is nothing more to talk about.

If there’s nothing to discuss, what are Mr. Krugman and Mr. Rove to do about their moral disagreements? Shall they keep at it until one of them persuades or panics a majority into adopting their moral viewpoint?   Are moral beliefs subject to majority rule?

History doesn’t think so.

Moral Belief is a Human Right

It was the Stoics of antiquity (3 BC) that first recognized the independence of man’s mind, as Seneca the Younger wrote ” …but the mind is independent, and indeed is so free and wild, that it cannot be restrained even by this prison of the body, wherein it is confined.”   By 1 BC this idea evolved into recognition of the inherent equality of all men.

The recognition of men’s equality led to the Reformation age (circa 1500′s) concept of the liberty of conscience.  As Martin Luther wrote, “Since, then, belief or unbelief is a matter of every one’s conscience, and since this is no lessening of the secular power, the latter should be content and attend to its own affairs and permit men to believe one thing or another, as they are able and willing, and constrain no one by force.”

By the late 1600′s  John Locke (the intellectual forefather of modern Liberalism) articulated the concept of natural rights, “life, liberty, and estate”, as rights belonging to all without limitation. Even Thomas Hobbes, who developed the concept of the social contract and was the antithesis of Locke regarding natural law, respected the right of man to think for himself;   “For moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good and evil…Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different…men are different: and diverse men differ not only in their judgment on the senses…but also of what is conformable or disagreeable to reason…”.

In the 1700′s  Francis Hutcheson called these natural rights unalienable, or rights that no law or social contract can separate from an individual.  As Hutcheson wrote, “Thus no man can really change his sentiments, judgments, and inward affections, at the pleasure of another; nor can it tend to any good to make him profess what is contrary to his heart. The right of private judgment is therefore unalienable.”

Hutcheson’s “unalienable” was made famous with the Declaration of Independence, which declared in 1776 that  “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.   Just a few years later The Declaration of the Rights of Man, part of the French Revolution in 1789, includes Article 10, “No-one shall be interfered with for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their practice doesn’t disturb public order as established by the law.”

John Stuart Mill continued the intellectual heritage in the 1800′s, writing in On Liberty (1859)

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty.  It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. (emphasis added)

And in the mid 1900′s  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948 with Eleanor Roosevelt playing a central role, would codify the statement that remains both law and inspiration today.  The Guinness Book of Records  has called it the most translated document in the world.  Article 18 states

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

In 1971 John Rawls, a liberal widely considered one of the 20th century’s most important political philosophers, considered moral and religious freedom an unalienable right existing in the original position

Now it seems that equal liberty of conscience is the only principle that the persons in the original position can acknowledge. They cannot take chances with their liberty by permitting the dominant religious or moral doctrine to persecute or to suppress others if it wishes…

Moreover, the initial agreement on the principle of equal liberty is final. An individual recognizing religious and moral obligations regards them as binding absolutely in the sense that he cannot qualify his fulfillment of them for the sake of greater means for promoting his other interests.

Importantly, the human right to moral belief is not contingent on the source of those beliefs.  Morals may be thought of as originating from intuition, reason, or environment.  The origin of those beliefs has no effect on the right of the individual to hold them.   Man’s right to moral beliefs based on intuition, reason, or environment are just as inviolate as religious beliefs based on intuition, reason, or environment.

So if Mr. Krugman and Mr. Rove’s opposing political beliefs are reflections of their fundamental human right to moral belief, they might as well be arguing about religion.  But we don’t argue about religion in this day and age, we respect and tolerate differences.  It wasn’t always so.

A (very) Brief History of Religious Toleration

Religious tolerance in the western world got its start in the late 1600′s.  Prior to that, religious persecution was the rule.

Christians were a minority religion in the Roman Empire and were persecuted until Constantine I converted to Christianity in the 300′s AD.  Christianity embarked on a 1400 year quest to rid the western world of heresy.  In 1215 the Catholic Church declared “Secular authorities…shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled…to exterminate…all heretics pointed out by the Church”Persecution was supported by intellectuals including Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who once wrote heretics deserved “not only to be separated from the Church, but also to be eliminated from the world by death”Martin Luther in 1543 described the Jews as “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” He wrote they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut”.

Though there were always dissenting voices, persecution’s decline began in the mid 1600′s led by John Milton and others.  By the mid 1700′s, the path to religious toleration would be pioneered in the fledgling United States, with the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment.

The inviolability of religious belief is today enshrined in our culture and our law. Our protection has two dimensions, 1) The Establishment Clause prohibiting the government from establishing a national religion, and 2) The Free Exercise Clause guaranteeing free exercise of religious practices.

We are protected in the holding and practice of religious beliefs, and we are protected from having religious beliefs imposed on us by the government or anyone else.

Moral Tolerance

By recognizing moral belief and religious belief as analogous human rights, we simply substitute moral/morality anywhere we use the terms religious/religion with respect to rights.  Hence we could say we are protected in the holding and practice of moral beliefs, and we are protected from having moral beliefs imposed on us by the government or anyone else.

John Rawls expresses the equivalency of morals and religion and their independence from the government in Theory of Justice

The government has no authority to render associations either legitimate or illegitimate any more than it has this authority in regard to art and science. These matters are simply not within its competence as defined by a just constitution. Rather, given the principles of justice, the state must be understood as the association consisting of equal citizens. It does not concern itself with philosophical and religious doctrine but regulates individuals’ pursuit of their moral and spiritual interests in accordance with principles to which they themselves would agree in an initial situation of equality. By exercising its powers in this way the government acts as the citizens’ agent and satisfies the demands of their public conception of justice. Therefore the notion of the omnicompetent laicist state is also denied, since from the principles of justice it follows that government has neither the right nor the duty to do what it or a majority (or whatever) wants to do in questions of morals and religion. Its duty is limited to underwriting the conditions of equal moral and religious liberty.

And if Dr. Haidt is correct that our morals are our politics, we can also say we are protected in the holding and practice of political beliefs, and we are protected from having political beliefs imposed on us by the government or anyone else.

Aspects of both liberal and conservative ideologies demand obedience.  Mr. Krugman and the liberals demand our money to support their conception of social justice.  Mr. Rove and the conservatives demand our money to support the military-industrial complex.  Both demand our childrens money by funding their visions with debt.  Would Mr. Krugman and Mr. Rove give up obedience in favor of moral/political tolerance?

Thomas Jefferson would; from the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical


Changing the World

In this article we made the case for moral belief as a fundamental  human right.  Everyone has a right to their own beliefs, and to have all beliefs that don’t cause harm to others respected and tolerated.

Our political leaders encourage us to self identify as Democrats or Republicans, willingly binding ourselves to a collection of beliefs which we may not fully share, and blinding us to understanding of the other party.  We can find ourselves defending positions we don’t fully support against opponents we don’t fully understand.

But we are increasingly rejecting the simplistic two party categorization and instead participating in many networks that support  our many interests.  These networks, often local, sometimes virtual, bring us in closer contact with other people who may share our passion for the subject, but approach it from a different perspective.   Cooperation overcomes our blindness and erects bridges built on toleration and understanding that are helping us find solutions.

In our next article we will take you on a tour of remarkable ideas and experiences in modern toleration. We think you will be amazed at both the research and practical experiences taking place throughout our country and the world.   A recent Rasmussen survey showed about a third of us already refuse to label ourselves as Republican or Democrat.  Contrary to what self serving politicians and the media encourage us to believe, our research suggests that the real conflict today is between an emerging post-partisan culture disgusted with and struggling to free itself from the confines of petty partisan politics.


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