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I am intrigued over research about personal characteristics that seem to be given to us at birth. We come hardwired with certain tendencies. It seems our DNA profoundly influences the way we experience life and sets some parameters around our basic attitudes.

For instance, it appears we are born with a tendency toward either optimism or pessimism. We can choose to shift our perspective within a limited range along either continuum. But we will remain predominantly on the side we were born on, either mostly optimistic or mostly pessimistic.

There is a growing body of scientific research supporting the notion that each person is born with a tendency toward either a conservative or a liberal perspective. That makes evolutionary sense. Our ancestors had to be cautious in a dangerous world, and they also had to be adaptive and adventurous. We need a constructive tension between traditional and progressive perspectives. I am convinced God knew humanity needed both liberals and conservatives. So that's how God created us.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says we are born with specific moral foundations that influence how we learn right from wrong. His research found six foundational moral values within humans of all races and cultures: fairness, care for others, liberty, respect for authority, loyalty to one's group, and purity or sanctity.

Three moral values -- fairness, compassion and liberty -- are virtually universal. Everyone embraces those three, though conservatives and liberals often disagree about what that looks like. Shared values are a foundation for constructive conversation. What are the best strategies to attain fairness, liberty and care for others? We can debate.

Here's where it gets interesting. The other three moral traits -- respect for authority, loyalty to group or tribe, and purity or sanctity -- are highly valued by conservatives but tend not to be priorities for liberals. Our innate attitudes toward these three moral foundations can place us in different worlds from birth.

I see this in my family. A beloved conservative relative has a profound sense of deference toward the authority of the military, a nearly literal acceptance of the words of the Bible, a resolute loyalty toward his political party and a suspicion of non-heterosexual affections. Authority, group loyalty and purity are fundamental for him.

I process authority, loyalty and purity differently through my innately liberal lens. I respect the military, love the Bible, and tend to support a political party, but I easily question all three. I delight in the love and faithfulness I've seen in my LGBTQ neighbors. He likes authoritative, consistent certainties. I like mystery, ambiguity and possibilities. Both he and I are committed to fairness and compassion for our fellow human beings, but we have different ideas about how to accomplish that. We do love each other very much, though we live in different worlds.

I've recently finished a delightful book by conservative thinker Arthur C. Brooks titled "Love Your Enemies," subtitled "How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt." Brooks recently retired as president of the American Enterprise Institute. His book cites Haidt's research.

Brooks believes we have regressed into a culture of contempt and we need to learn how to argue and compete constructively. He believes conservatives and liberals have increasingly divided into separate camps that too readily express contempt toward the other. As a Catholic, he embraces Jesus's command, "Love your enemy."

Brooks has three lessons from the science of morality he asks us to use to challenge the culture of contempt and to bring people together:

  1. Focus your arguments on compassion and fairness, two moral values we share. We all want people to thrive. Let's argue about the best means to achieve that common goal. What is fair? What is caring? Speak in the language we all understand.

  2. "Be wary of manipulative leaders in politics and media who use the moral dimensions where we disagree as a wedge to divide us and fuel contempt." Beware of contemptuous voices that pull us apart. Just because liberals do not emphasize authority, loyalty and purity doesn't mean liberals are immoral. Conservatives aren't some sort of American Taliban because they do care about such things.

  3. "Divergent moral values are not a bug in the human system. They are a feature that can make us stronger," Brooks says. We should "celebrate and embrace ideological diversity!"

Conservatives and liberals have different moral foundations. It seems God created us this way, and we need each other. We can learn from each other, respectfully.

Commentary on 10/01/2019

Print Headline: Is discord in our DNA?

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