In September 2019, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist, excoriated world leaders for their ongoing failure to address the climate crisis. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said at one point during her speech at the United Nations. Thunberg has been galvanizing public support for climate action since rising to prominence with her school strike about a year ago, and her latest remarks are no exception. They’ve attracted millions of views all around the Internet—and nearly as many strong opinions. The praise and scorn she received in the aftermath of her address spotlights not only the power and intricacy of moral language, but also its ability, when articulated in a sound argument, to change public opinion on contentious moral and political issues.
Seeing the reactions to Thunberg’s speech, Frederic Hopp, a graduate student in the Media Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, decided, with the lab’s director, René Weber, to give it a close read using a tool the lab developed that combines algorithms, text-mining, and human evaluations. “All humans possess inborn moral intuitions that can be categorized along five broad categories,” Weber has said. “The environment and cultural context influence how these capacities become relevant.” The five categories, or moral foundations, are care/harm (feeling compassion for the suffering and vulnerable), fairness/cheating (making sure people are getting what they deserve), loyalty/betrayal (keeping track of who is “us” and who is “them”), authority/subversion (valuing order, tradition, and hierarchy), and sanctity/degradation (believing certain things are elevated and pure and shouldn’t be tarnished). Hopp told me, “There’s good empirical evidence that you are more or less successful in persuading people not just for climate change but other issues, too, depending on how you frame these arguments in moral terms and which foundations you stress.”
Many studies have shown that people who prioritize issues of care/harm and fairness/cheating tend to be politically liberal. On the other hand, people who value all five foundations similarly tend to be politically conservative. These trends, far from being fodder for philosophical conjecture, translate to real-world behavior. One study found that the composition of people’s moral intuitions could predict which candidate they supported in the 2016 presidential primaries. Another showed that it’s possible to make liberals more supportive of conservative positions, like increasing military spending, and conservatives more supportive of liberal positions, like legalizing same-sex marriage, by changing the moral language used to support each position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that environmentalists tend to be liberal, Hopp and Weber found Thunberg’s speech loaded with language related to care/harm (like “growth,” “future,” and “suffering”) and fairness/cheating (like “right,” “solutions,” and “consequences”).
It seems Thunberg struck the right chord. Though they’re more prominent for liberals, those two moral foundations appeal strongly to people on both sides of the aisle. This means moral arguments that tap into them are, according to Irina Vartanova, a researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies, “the universal arguments, the arguments that are accepted by everyone.” [Continue reading…]