In the early days of the pandemic, I read a tweet suggesting that public health authorities seeking to overcome conservative skepticism about the virus should heed the lessons of Cultural Cognition. Cultural cognition is a theory, coming out of Yale Law School, that perception of factual issues is shaped by normative commitments. In other words, our moral beliefs shape how we understand facts.
Around the same time I read that tweet, a conservative friend warned me about various Governors’ lock down orders and local officials’ enforcement of social distancing measures. He said that once government assumes a new power, it is unlikely to give it up. It seemed absurd to me to imagine governors and state health officials as crypto-fascists eager to control citizen’s lives. I have, however, ranted at and to my friends and family about federal government surveillance powers using the exact same argument.
Talking with the same friend months later, we both lamented the increasing tolerance of political violence on both ends of the political spectrum. But he was worried that if the election devolved into confusion and turmoil, it would be the Antifa types running wild in Portland who would precipitate violent outbursts. I was more concerned about Proudboys who’d been told to “stand by.” Maybe those differences sound like nothing more than partisan biases playing out in our imaginations. It could just be that we were both defaulting to the talking points of our respective media ecosystems.
The climate change discourse is a more paradigmatic instance of cultural cognition at work. The likelihood of a life being seriously disrupted by the impact of climate change is essentially an empirical question. Put a climate scientist and an actuary in a room and they can generate an estimate of the likelihood that any given person will be impacted by climate change. Nevertheless, cultural cognition research suggests that conservative climate change skeptics are unpersuaded by scientific facts because accepting those facts would compromise their deeply rooted philosophical commitments to an individualist worldview. Because climate action will require top-down government interventions and a significant degree of collective action, individualists perceive the very facticity of climate science differently than more collectively oriented thinkers. To be clear: this is not a conscious process. There may be overlapping skepticisms about expert opinion or scientific methods that compound the effect. But cultural cognition operates arationally.
Given that framework, the ostensibly practical application of cultural cognition is this: if you know the deeply rooted values of your target audience, you may be able to frame an issue to limit disputes over empirical truths. You might not overcome all opposition just by messaging in this way. But doing so might eliminate one important, potential site of conflict.
However, that strategy requires that you know what worldview an audience holds. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a proponent of Moral Foundations Theory, has argued that our moral psychology is formed by varying mixtures of six different moral complexes: Care/Harm; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; Authority/Subversion; Sanctity/Degradation; and Liberty/Oppression. Painting in broad strokes, progressive moral psychology often emphasizes Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating complexes. Conservative moral psychology often focuses on Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation complexes.
Combining the insights of Cultural Cognition and Moral Foundations theories, an advocate for climate/COVID interventions might frame inaction as a betrayal of a world that we were supposed to protect. Or a destabilizing change that could subvert traditional ways of living and structures of society. These may more effectively engage conservative moral psychologies than jeremiads against the inequitable impact of climate change.
Even though there is noticeable overlap between climate skepticism and COVID skepticism, it is not as clear to me how public health authorities could have messaged around conservative opposition to masking and social distancing. Early on—probably prematurely—administration officials started referring to Robert Redfield, the CDC Director, the “MAGA whisperer on coronavirus.” He took to conservative radio outlets to extoll the “powerful weapon” of social distancing. He asked conservatives to “close their eyes” and picture vulnerable people like his grandson whom conservatives’ “sacrifice will protect, and maintain their life.” He grounded his appeals in his Christian faith. Ultimately, Redfield’s efforts did not seem to move the needle much.
I have hypotheses about why Redfield’s appeals failed to resonate with his conservative listeners, but that’s a post for another, less politically fraught time. Still, the question of how to productively engage with conservative moral psychology is not going anywhere. Even if disputes over normative commitments are inevitable, we have to find a way to settle on a set of shared empirical facts in order to get any half-decent policy-making done.
In one-on-one conversations with my conservative friend, it often feels like we are talking past each other. There’s still value in the exposure to a different view. But I don’t have any hope that we are going to magically forge a consensus view or that we should try to split the difference between our respective positions. Isaiah Berlin explained it better than I ever could, so I’ll quote him at some length:
I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values which I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite—let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 27, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference this makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.
Human understanding of this kind has an intrinsic value. It is an end in itself. But it also has a strategic value. Cultural cognition suggests that we need to understand the other at a deeper normative level. That understanding undergirds effective communication and persuasive advocacy. Especially given the judiciary we are now facing, progressive advocates must consider how their arguments will echo in a moral landscape quite different from their own.
Ian Ramsey-North is a second-year student. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.