Originally Published July, 2003; Current Implications section added by Heidi Burgess in April 2017.
What Is Moral Conflict?
The 2017 Presidential election in the United States was a “wake up call” for many people. Many of us were not aware of the depth of the distributional–and moral–divide in this country.
Protracted conflict sometimes results from a clash between differing world-views. One group’s most fundamental and cherished assumptions about the best way to live may differ radically from the values held by another group. Parties may have different standards of rightness and goodness and give fundamentally different answers to serious moral questions. When groups have different ideas about the good life, they often stress the importance of different things, and may develop radically different or incompatible goals. This can lead to conflict.
Because values and morals tend to be quite stable, people are often unwilling to negotiate or compromise with respect to these topics. Indeed, if the basic substantive issues of the conflict are deeply embedded in the participants’ moral orders, these issues are likely to be quite intractable.
A group’s moral order is related to its practices, its patterns of thinking, and its patterns of language. As they are socialized, group members learn to center their judgments on values and procedures fundamental to their own common culture. Their moral order provides the set of meanings through which they understand their experience and make judgments about what is valuable and important. These patterns of meaning shape the way that individuals understand facts and issues and help them to develop a sense of identity. Social reality also dictates what counts as appropriate action and sets boundaries on what people are able to do. It even affects the way in which emotions are labeled, understood, and acted upon. Thus, an individual’s beliefs, sayings, and actions must be understood within the context of a particular social world.
People from the same culture have more or less equivalent realities and mindsets. Their values, assumptions, and procedures become part of “common sense” for them. However, when two parties that do not share norms of communication [customary patterns and rules of communication] and expectations about behavior must interact, they often clash. Each party may believe that its ways of doing things and thinking about things is the best way and come to regard other ways of thinking and acting as inferior, strange, or morally wrong.
Moral conflict occurs when disputants are acting within different social worlds, according to different meanings. Indeed, one of the reasons groups in conflict have trouble breaking the pattern of interaction between them is that each is caught in its own moral order. When two groups have radically different ways of making sense of human life, it is likely that actions regarded by one side as good and prudent will be perceived by the other as evil or foolish. This is because an action that one moral order deems perfectly acceptable may be regarded as an abomination by a different moral order.
For example, sometimes people distinguish between moral orders built on rights and those built on virtues. Each one is associated with particular forms of society and ways of being human. While a rights-based approach is associated with the Enlightenment and modernity, a virtues-based approach emerges from traditional society. When modernists carry out acts regarded as obligatory or good within their own moral order, “these very acts offend traditionalists.” Inter-racial or inter-religious marriages, for example, are seen by many as one outgrowth of inclusivity and tolerance. The freedom to marry anyone is a “right.” Traditionalists, however, would see it as evil — harming their race or religion. Likewise, some traditional religious and political activities, for instance, limiting women’s dress, freedom of movement, education, and/or public involvement is seen as abhorrent to modern, Western societies. The freedom to wear what one wants, and do what one wants, with no limitations, is seen as a woman’s right. Yet the freedom that women exhibit in Western societies is abhorrent to some very traditional Muslim cultures, in which women’s modesty is seen as a virtue. In short, the two groups have clashing conceptions of moral value.
In many cases, culture has a powerful influence on the moral order. Because systems of meaning and ways of thinking differ from one culture to another, people from different cultures typically develop different ideas about morality and the best way to live. They often have different conceptions of moral authority, truth, and the nature of community. For example, some cultures place great moral emphasis on the family, while others stress the importance of individual autonomy. These cultural differences become even more problematic when groups have radically different expectations about what is virtuous, what is right, and how to deal with moral conflicts. Thus, culture wars are often driven by moral conflict.
In some cases, one group may come to view the beliefs and actions of another group as fundamentally evil and morally intolerable. This often results in hostility and violence and severely damages the relationship between the two groups. For this reason, moral conflicts tend to be quite harmful and intractable.
Features of Moral Conflict
To further understand moral conflict and deal with it effectively, it is helpful to be aware of its common features.
The first general feature is the tendency for each side to misunderstand the words and actions of the other. People from incommensurate traditions may have trouble communicating because they rely on different systems of meaning, norms of communication, and behavioral expectations.
One possibility is that the participants use the same vocabulary but define and use these key terms differently. For example, the word “honor” might mean martial excellence to one party and economic success to the other. But it is also possible that the groups simply rely on radically different vocabularies that stress the importance of different values. If one party regards the key terms used by the other as unimportant, communication between them will be quite strained. All of this contributes to misunderstanding and makes it very difficult for participants to “articulate the logic of the other sides’ social world in ways that the other side will accept.”
Further misunderstanding and erroneous perceptions may arise because groups often perceive, define, and deal with conflict in different ways. Because of differing cultural frames, many of the words used to describe appropriate behavior during conflict do not reflect the same content from one culture to another. For example, the terms “conflict,” “aggression,” “peace,” “time,” and “negotiation” are not value-free. They carry judgments with them and may be used differently in different cultures. Aggression, usually defined as intentionally hurting another person, is a reflection of norms of conduct, and what hurts in one society may not be what hurts in another society. Thus, indicators of aggression may vary. In the Middle East, for example, a direct refusal is considered a hostile gesture. But in other cultures, raising an objection is customary and well accepted. Ideas about fairness and images of justice can also vary among different groups.
The moral positions of anti-abortion and pro-choice activists are sometimes regarded as incommensurable. That is, the parties not only disagree about substantive moral issues, but also approach moral questions in a fundamentally different way. For this reason, the abortion debate is a prime example of a moral conflict. Because parties are unlikely to be willing to compromise their most cherished values, such conflicts are likely to be interminable and intractable.
The second general feature of moral conflict is that group members tend to develop feelings of mistrust and suspicion toward the other group — even a sense that the other group poses a danger to their very survival. Given the groups’ different values and systems of meaning, actions taken by one side to defuse or resolve the conflict may often be perceived as threatening by the other party. This second party is likely to be stunned and offended by the other’s action, and to respond in a negative way. This serves to perpetuate and/or intensify the conflict. Thus, the groups’ different conceptions of morality lead to misunderstanding, which in turn contributes to conflict escalation.
Strained and Hostile Communication
Another general feature of moral conflicts is the hostility characteristic of the relationship and the communication between the parties. While sophisticated rhetoric consists of exchanging reasons in a quest to form shared beliefs, the patterns of communication in moral conflicts consist primarily in personal attacks, denunciations, and curses. Slogans and chants replace arguments intended to persuade and inform, and the discourse between the two groups involves many statements about what is wrong with the other group. Thus, opportunities for opposing groups to converse intelligibly and reason together are diminished. When one group is denounced, its members are likely to become defensive, which can contribute to more negative emotions and behavior.
Thus, discourse often moves to sweeping generalizations and abstract principles. For example, groups may appeal to abstract ideals of religion, patriotism, liberty, or “what America is all about” to point out why the actions of another group are morally wrong. In many cases, groups rely on rigidly held social or political beliefs, or ideology, to indicate why their position is morally superior. Such ideology is often accompanied by a sense of urgency about the need for pursuing those ideals.
Additional insights into moral or value conflicts are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.
Discourse often involves sweeping generalizations about members of the other group. People in moral conflicts tend to invidiously categorize and denounce the personalities, intelligence, and social manners of those with whom they disagree. They may form negative stereotypes and attribute moral depravity or other negative characteristics to those who violate their cultural expectations, while they ignore their own vices and foibles, perceiving their own group to be entirely virtuous. This is what social psychologists call the attribution error.
For example, disputants may attribute the “strange” behavior of foreigners to undesirable character traits, such as moral depravity or lack of intelligence, rather than realizing that their seemingly inappropriate acts are simply a matter of cultural difference. Because parties are typically unable to give rich accounts of the moral order of the opposing group, they are likely to attribute whatever the group does to its stupidity, evil nature, and overall moral depravity. Groups with radically different conceptions of morality may feel stunned and offended by the actions or words of the other group and denounce those actions or the group as a whole.
These belief systems pull together fundamental assumptions and global viewpoints that are in general not up for compromise. Strict adherence to ideology can make it particularly difficult for individuals to approach those with differing worldviews with an open mind. They come to see the conflict entirely in win-lose terms. They may even get to the point that the goal of harming the other becomes more important than helping oneself.
Effects of Moral Conflict
Not surprisingly, moral conflict often has harmful effects. Participants in moral conflict often behave immorally, even according to their own standards of behavior, because they believe the actions of their enemies force them to do so. If a group is regarded as morally depraved, its members may come to be regarded as less than human and undeserving of humane treatment. The demonization or dehumanization of one’s opponent that often occurs in moral conflict paves the way for hateful action and violence. It often leads to human rights violations or even attempts at genocide, as parties may come to believe that the capitulation or elimination of the other group is the only way to resolve the conflict.
Why Moral Conflict is Intractable
Because of its deep-roots, moral conflicts tend to be intractable and long-lasting. Parties to such conflict often have great difficulty in describing the substantive issues in shared terms. Because they are arguing from different moral positions, they disagree about the meaning and significance of the important issues. This makes negotiation or compromise extremely difficult in and of itself.
Resolution becomes even more difficult when parties disagree not only about substantive issues, but also about which forms of conflict resolution are morally right, aesthetically preferred, and politically prudent. Parties may have very different ideas about how to gather information, arrive at a conclusion, make a decision, and deal with uncertainty.
Over the course of conflict, the original issues often become irrelevant and new causes for conflict are generated by actions within the conflict itself. This is because in moral conflict, when groups try to act consistently with what they believe is morally good and just, they “prove” to the other side that they are fools or villains. Thus, the means by which the parties seek resolution often just provoke further conflict. As the conflict continues, substantive issues are largely forgotten and “the other side’s means of dealing with the conflict is itself the force that drives the interactions among the various conflicted parties.” Thus, moral conflicts are self-sustaining.
Parties involved in moral conflict also tend to have great difficulty in imagining a win-win resolution of the conflict at hand. The substantive issues are often a matter of rigidly held moral beliefs, based in fundamental assumptions that cannot be proved wrong. These fundamental moral, religious, and personal values are not easily changed, and people who adhere to a particular ideology may very well be unwilling to compromise their world-view. Instead, as noted earlier, they may engage in diatribe, a rhetorical strategy that discredits adversaries by characterizing them as evil or morally inferior. Such characterizations often lead to subversion, repression, and violence. Because rational discourse has become useless, each party may try to force the other side into compliance. The conflict is likely to escalate and become more protracted as a result.
Also, those involved in moral conflict may regard perpetuation of the conflict as virtuous or necessary. They may derive part of their identity from being warriors or opponents of their enemy and have a stake in the continuation of the conflict because it provides them with a highly desirable role. In addition, because struggles over values often involve claims to status and power, parties may have a great stake in neutralizing, injuring or eliminating their rivals. They may view any compromise about their most cherished values as a threat to their very identity and a grave evil. Indeed, moral conflicts often stem from a desire to safeguard basic human needs such as security and social recognition of identity. On some occasions, the continuation of a conflict may seem preferable to what would have to be given up if the other party were accommodated.
Unfortunately, those enmeshed in moral conflict may be unable to discern the effects of conflict, even if those effects themselves threaten the basic human needs that were at issue. Because moral conflicts tend to be intractable and have great potential for violence, we must search for new ways to manage them.
Dealing With Moral Conflict
What can be done when parties are faced with moral differences that seem to be intolerable?
Changing the Stories
In some cases, each party can heighten its understanding of the other’s world-view through new forms of communication. Some suggest that moral conflict be viewed as a particular form of communication and pattern of interaction. At various points in a moral conflict, people have the ability to handle their conflict differently. One way in which people can change the pattern of conflict is by telling different stories about what they are doing. By using narratives and story-telling to communicate they can enrich the views that each side has about the other, often revealing commonalities in the midst of all the differences.
Third parties can sometime help the disputants to redefine or reframe their conflict, focusing more on attainable interests and less on non-negotiable positions or negative stereotypes. They can also help parties to seek mutually beneficial outcomes rather than competitive, win-lose outcomes. Even if the moral differences cannot be eliminated, sometimes the parties share interests or needs. All sides, for example, have a need for security, and increasing the feeling of security of one side does not diminish the security of the other side, as is commonly believed. Rather the opposite is generally true: the more secure one side feels, the less it feels a need to attack the other side; hence the more secure the other side is likely to feel. Therefore, reframing the conflict as a problem (at least in part) of security can sometimes help to get the parties to focus on something they can achieve together rather than on their non-negotiable differences.
Similar to story-telling, dialogue is a process of in-depth communication that allows parties to get to know each other better and to find commonalities with the other side. Although there are many forms and contexts of dialogue, all seek to replace the ubiquitous “diatribe” of moral conflicts with respectful communication, empathic listening, improved understanding, and respect. In some cases, these new forms of communication may help parties to see that their moral disagreements are less deep and fundamental than they previously thought. However, in other cases, the substantive issues will truly be beyond compromise.
Some suggest that in these sorts of cases, parties must strive to develop a space for citizenly public discourse. Even though the parties have radically different world-views and do not agree about the relevant issues, they can nevertheless reach an agreement about how to contend with moral and political differences in a constructive way. In other words, they can come to an agreement about how to disagree. They can thereby find a way to manage their conflict in a way that minimizes the costs to both parties.
The 2017 Presidential election in the United States was a “wake up call” for many people. Many of us were not aware of the depth of the distributional–and moral–divide in this country. While there are undoubtably many reasons why the election came out as it did, some observers believe that the past political successes of the left in forcing their moral views on the entire country was at least in part (perhaps in large part) responsible for the backlash that put Donald Trump in power. Fundamentalist Christians chaffed at being told that they had to issue marriage licences for gay couples (and at least one, who made the news, refused to do so). Christian bakers didn’t want to bake “gay cakes.” And Christian hospitals and businesses didn’t want to be forced to provide abortions or birth control pills.
The left, meanwhile, assumed that they were “right” (meaning correct) and that the rest of the country was “coming around.” This election shows, I think, that the country didn’t “come around” as much as we thought it did. Morals, as this article argues, are very strong, very stable. And when a conflict involves such issues, it tends to become intractable.
As I re-read this article to write this “current implications” note, I was particularly struck with Maiese’s list of “Features of Moral Conflict.”
1 – Misunderstandings
2 – Mistrust
3- Strained and Hostile Communication
4- Negative Stereotyping
All of these are rampant between the right and the left right now. We don’t understand each others’ worldviews, nor do we even try to talk to the other side to try to learn about their views. We “know” we are right, they are wrong, and we have no interest in compromising or even listening to the other side.
All of this contributes to intractability. But note! This article lists some positive things that can be done to address such issues…and these suggestions are very valid in this case.
First, people can change their stories–they can explain who they are and why they believe what they do in different and sometimes more compelling ways. When I listened to Trump voters explain why they voted for him, I was surprised and in some sense sympathetic. I maybe wouldn’t have made the same choice had I been in their shoes. But I could understand and empathize with their struggles much more than before when I hadn’t heard those stories.
2. Reframe. To the extent we can reframe the dialogue to be about “all of us” instead of “us-versus-them,” the better off we could be. I too, actually, want to “make America great again.” So let’s talk about what that means and how we can do it. Many of my friends believe it’s about going backwards–going back to the 50s and its anti-women, anti-minority attitudes. That may be part of it, yes, but it is also about fundamental things such as security, jobs, and hope. We all want those. So if we can reframe the conversation about how we can all get those, we might be able to move away from the intractable moral conflict.
3. Lastly dialogue. This is a very effective way to get (willing) people to listen and learn from “the other.” It has been used successfully in many contexts and goes a long way toward ameliorating moral conflicts. However, it is a “table-oriented process” meaning it is small scale, usually involving between 10-20 people. We need to figure out how to “scale dialogue up” so that its benefits can be experienced by 1000s or hundreds of 1000s of people. That’s a serious challenge!