It’s no secret that guns and abortion are two of — if not the — most contentious topics in our politics. Where other issues center primarily on statistics and what policies may create the best outcome, abortion and guns find themselves grouped into a larger, more intangible idea: morality.
Morals are our understanding and perception of “right” and “wrong”. How we view morality is framed by various things, including how and where we are raised, what values we are taught, how we view relationships with family members and friends, and also our understanding of responsibility.
For this reason, when discussions that rely heavily on individual morals find themselves at the forefront of our politics, they are some of the most heated. Even for BridgeUSA students. How do we explain the value we each place on life? More importantly, how are we able to talk about these issues constructively?
On June 23, the Supreme Court struck down a proposed New York law that would’ve limited who could obtain a permit to carry a gun in public, stating that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. This decision comes after a series of mass shootings in May forced both legislators and the American public to re-address their view of gun laws in the U.S.
On June 24, the Supreme Court also released its ruling on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, overturning Roe v Wade. The ruling, which previously deemed a women’s right to an abortion a constitutional right in 1973, will now leave the decision up to individual states.
Both of these rulings undoubtedly have added to the continued debate on gun laws and abortion, and may make it seem like these issues are impossible to discuss. Not only are these discussions difficult, but they also require us to reflect on our personal morals and be more deliberate in how we express those beliefs. This might be where the problem lies altogether.
A crowd gathers outside the Supreme Court after a draft opinion leaks that judges are planning to overturn Roe v Wade (Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times. 2022)
The split in moral understanding is nothing new in the United States. As I said, there are many factors that help form our understanding of morality and what we deem “morally right”. Studies suggest the majority of that formation can be dependent on one’s childhood and one’s culture.
The Moral Foundations Theory was first proposed in 2004 to understand why morality varies so much across cultures. From their review of earlier research, psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham suggested that all individuals possess “intuitive ethics” that guide their understanding of morals. They labeled these foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal (Ingroup/Outgroup), Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation, with the latest addition including Liberty/Oppression – a nod to the influence of one’s political ideology on their perception of morality, as proposed by Haidt.
Each of these foundations centers on our perception of each group, and these understandings vary between groups of people, including Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
In 2009, Haidt and Graham proposed a new hypothesis to explain this difference between political groups. This theory suggested that “political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations—Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity—whereas political conservatives construct moral systems more evenly upon the first five psychological foundations.”
If we take this theory and apply it to debates of abortion and gun laws today, it’s probable that many individuals on the left and right use the same measurements proposed in 2009 to dictate their stances. And this isn’t unique to just guns and abortion. According to the same study, American voters are also starting to use their values to guide their vote toward “their vision of a good society”.
Now, just because our morals are formed through various means and experiences, this does not mean they are concrete, and studies show that our morals may change over time for various reasons. In fact, one of the main drivers of moral change is actually human interaction.
According to Nature.com, when we associate with other people and share common goals, we extend empathy to them. As we begin to meet other people outside of our immediate social circles, our ‘moral circle’ also widens and we may begin to shift our stances within certain moral foundations.
This is all interesting, but where does that leave us as far as having discussions about moral issues go, currently? Seemingly, at a standstill. Due to growing divisions within the country, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are less likely to engage with those outside of their political or social circles. However, just because it is difficult to discuss issues centered primarily around morality with others, it doesn’t mean it is impossible.
There is no one right way to discuss topics grounded in morality, including guns or abortion. Luckily, I’ve been able to pick up a few tips during my experience in BridgeUSA.
- Don’t dive straight into the conversation at first
- Decide what you want out of the conversation and have patience throughout
- Seek to understand the other person – not change their mind
- Agreement on the broader picture is not always likely, and it’s important to also focus on where some of your beliefs may overlap
- Remember that your “opponents” are people too, no matter how much you may disagree
Hundreds of gun owners and enthusiasts attend a rally in Hartford, CT on Jan. 19 (Rick Hartford/MCT/Landov)
No one in our country has figured out the right approach to these topics, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As long as we’re still willing to engage each other and allow room for discussion and constructive disagreement on these topics, we can allow ourselves space to understand each other’s morals and still find ways to make change together.