Identifying Common Ground: Politics and Giving

It’s a divided world. Finding common ground is a tough ask in the current political environment. But it is possible, and a little time spent investigating why you believe what YOU believe and why others believe what THEY believe can help you identify your priorities and have productive conversations with your loved ones.

Giving is inherently personal. It is a reflection of your values. But what happens when your priorities don’t align with your friends and family? Or your coworkers? Arguments. Or withdrawal. It can get ugly. This post suggests a way to move past the outrage and have more respectful discussions. Let’s get to it!

Moral Foundations Theory

One of my favorite reads on the topic of morality and political affiliation is “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics” by Jonathan Haidt. The key message of the book is that humans have a fundamental grounding in five different “pillars” of morality (now known as the Moral Foundations Theory). Those pillars are:

  1. Care
  2. Fairness
  3. Loyalty
  4. Authority
  5. Sanctity

Haidt proposes that the extent to which you experience / feel connected to each pillar is an indicator of your overall political ideology. For example, conservatives tend to identify with authority, sanctity and loyalty more than care and fairness. Liberals, on the other hand, feel very strongly about care and fairness while focusing less on the other three.

Now, before this sounds judgmental (conservatives don’t care about people!), let me add a few caveats.

There is obvious nuance here; for example in the pillar of fairness, one could mean fairness of outcome (typically a liberal association) OR fairness or opportunity (typically a conservative association).

Similarly, many conservatives experience sanctity via their religions while many liberals experience sanctity through nature.

Care of local communities is a typical conservative trait while care for ALL tends to align with liberalism.

These are not cut and dry distinctions; most people (myself included) respond to ALL of these pillars. But the extent to which you strongly identify with one or more of them can help guide you in choosing your values and your philanthropic approach. The intent is not to get boxed into one category or assign values to others; the goal is to define a framework that helps all of us understand one another and gain appreciation for WHY someone might feel differently than we do.

This framework is highly useful when thinking about the causes you value and how to discuss them with your family and friends.

Using This Theory to Inform Your Giving

One of the best things about private philanthropy is that each of us gets to direct our dollars to the causes that are most important to us as INDIVIDUALS! This is a tremendous freedom! The diversification of giving that results from this freedom is a truly wonderful thing. ALL causes are supported, whether they align with the prevailing political philosophy or not. This is very cool.

Say you are impassioned by cherishing and protecting others (care). This is a good thing to know! You will most likely want to focus your energy on human services, medical / health organizations, overseas aid, animals or disaster relief.

On the other hand, if the concept of moral fairness makes you punch your fist in the air, then focusing on education, human services, overseas aid or politics may be for you. (Be careful about the fairness of opportunity vs. fairness of outcome distinction; this is important when choosing a specific organization).

Loyalty is an interesting pillar, in that this framework uses it to mean standing together with your group, your family, your nation, etc. Many givers in this group support local causes focused on education and religion, or national causes focused on the military, politics, and identity (not a major category of giving, but a very important one nonetheless).

Authority, as a moral pillar, is about respecting institutions (and hierarchy). If this is your thing, consider giving specifically to large, well-established causes that support traditions you value. This might be religion or the military, but it could also be groups that overlap with any of the other pillars.

Those who value sanctity (or purity) are likely to feel most energized by gifts to their church or to the environment.

Note: If you’ve read my Intro to Choosing a Cause, you will see that I have not listed the arts in any of these moral pillars. That’s intentional. Giving to the arts is a wonderful choice but it isn’t strictly a moral one. Some may argue that the arts align with sanctity (beauty), politics (political expression) or care (therapeutic art). I could be persuaded into that point of view, but only after discussing the specific organization. For the most part, I believe that individuals who give to the arts do so because it makes our world a better, more diverse place but not necessarily because they are morally compelled to do so. Feel free to put me right if you disagree!

Using This Theory when Talking With Loved Ones

One of the things that I love about the Moral Foundations Theory is that it helps us understand why others give the way they do. No one moral pillar is superior to the others. Knowing that your brother supports a military cause because he values loyalty to his country, and that this value is underpinned by a positive moral belief, can help you engage in a positive conversation. The same can be said for understanding why your uncle supports a gay rights organization. Your uncle values loyalty too!! Boom! An instant way to talk to each other on a deeper, more meaningful, and more respectful level.

This can also be useful when discussing a giving strategy with your spouse. What moral pillars resonate with you? How will you put each of your moral pillars into action? Maybe you disagree vehemently about supporting a specific cause. Perhaps you can find another one that overlaps in an area of mutual morality? If you are strongly opposed to authority and your spouse is jazzed about giving to a large, political organization, consider looking into whether the aim of the organization overlaps with one of the pillars you care about (say, care or fairness) and viewing it in that light. Or refocus your energy on an area of mutual agreement (maybe sanctity).

Using this theory as a tool when discussing your values can be very helpful in finding common ground with loved ones, provided you remember that no pillar is inherently “better” than the others.

Have I used this approach myself? You bet I have. I read this book a couple of years ago and have been putting it into action regularly since then. Not only does it help me gain empathy for the views of others but it also helps me frame the conversation in a way that they will understand. Trying to tell others that their views are immoral or misguided is not the way to have meaningful dialogue (trust me, I’ve tried that too!) Meeting them halfway on their OWN moral pillars is a great way to push past the initial, soundbite disagreement and get into a real discussion.

Try it! And let me know how it goes.



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