Flickr/ Daniel Arrhakis

Jessica Carpenter is the Chief Marketing Officer at BridgeUSA (Mixed). She has a Center bias.

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. How do we explain the value we each place on life? More importantly, how are we able to talk about these issues constructively?

In May 2022, a shooter opened fire at Uvalde Elementary school in Texas, leaving 21 dead and 17 injured. Last month, a shooter gunned down three Black people in a race-based attack in Jacksonville, Florida. The shooter, who had also posted racist writings, then killed himself. These are just two instances of targeted shootings in the United States. This month, the Hill – which defines mass shootings as cases where four or more individuals are wounded or killed – reported that the United States had surpassed 500 mass shootings in 2023 as of September.

In June 2022, the Supreme Court released its ruling on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, overturning Roe v Wade. Since then, many other states have followed suit with their own regulations on abortion. This month, Axios reported a sharp increase in the number of abortions performed in states geographically near ones that banned abortion. (The number of total abortions across the U.S. has fallen.)

These events have added to the continued debate on gun laws and abortion because we can name people in our lives who have been impacted by these issues. 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.

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 U.S. is often characterized by its immense diversity of people from different cultures and beliefs, which makes crafting laws related to morality a challenge. 

The Moral Foundations Theory was first proposed by psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham in 2004 to understand why morality varies so much across cultures. Their review of earlier research, suggested that there exist foundations all individuals possess which make up our personal set of “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.

The personal emphasis we place on these foundations centers on our definition of the foundation, 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.” This didn’t mean that liberal voters didn’t value the other moral foundations, both sides held them in different degrees of priority.

If we take this theory and apply it to debates about abortion and gun laws today, it’s probable that many individuals on the left and right use the same foundations proposed in 2009 to guide their stances. And this isn’t unique to just guns and abortion, it can span many issues we align closely with our morals, like issues on gender and sex, the environment, immigration, lab-grown meat and even fair elections. According to the same study, American voters are starting to use their values to overall guide their vote toward “their vision of a good society.” 

Now, just because our morals are formed through various means and experiences, does not mean they are concrete.Our morals may change over time for various reasons. In fact, one of the main drivers of moral change is human interaction. 

According to psychologist Paul Bloom, 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 divisions within the country, Americans are less likely to engage with those outside of their political or social circles. However, it’s necessary and invaluable to have these conversations about difficult issues with people who have different perspectives. 

There is no one right way to discuss topics grounded in morality. Luckily, I’ve been able to pick up a few tips during my experience in BridgeUSA.

  1. Don’t dive straight into the conversation. Make sure everyone in the conversation feels comfortable to share their opinions later on by connecting with them about things you have in common first.
  2. Decide what you want out of the conversation and have patience throughout.
  3. Seek to understand the other person – not change their mind. 
  4. Look for similarities. Agreement on the broader picture is not always likely, and it’s important to draw awareness to where some of your beliefs may overlap.
  5. Remember that your “opponents” are people too, no matter how much you may disagree.

No one in our country has figured out the right approach to these topics—there is no perfect approach—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As long as  we  allow ourselves space to understand each other’s morals, we can still find ways to make meaningful change together.