Environmental rhetoric tends to emphasize harm and unfairness. Will introducing moral terms that appeal more to social conservatives than social liberals cause social conservatives to become more supportive of environmental action?
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The fifth and final claim in our argument that differences in moral psychology explain political conflict concerns moral reframing. If environmental arguments are reframed in terms of moral concerns which are likely to be more highly weighted by conservatives than liberals, will conservatives show more support for measures to mitigate climate change?
Feinberg & Willer (2013, p. Study 3) provide evidence that they will. They created two op-ed style pieces which differed only in that one framed environmental issues in terms of harm whereas the other framed them in terms of purity. Participants were divided into two groups. Each group read on of the op-ed style pieces, then answered a survey about proenvironmental attitudes, a survey about proenvironmental legislation and a survey about knowledge of anthropogenic climate change. Conservatives scored significantly higher on all three measures after reading the op-ed style piece which framed things in terms of purity.
Can moral reframing change how people act?
Kidwell, Farmer, & Hardesty (2013) found that it can. They studied how much people put into their recycling bins after they received a leaflet about recycling which was framed either in terms of harm or else in terms of in-group loyalty and respect for authority. They report:
‘we developed tailored persuasive messages that appealed to the individualizing foundations for liberals, based on fairness and avoiding harm to others, and the binding foundation for conservatives, based on duty and an obligation to adhere to authority. We found that these congruent appeals significantly affected consumers’ acquisition, usage, and recycling intentions and behaviors’ (Kidwell et al., 2013).
Further, Wolsko, Ariceaga, & Seiden (2016, p. Experiment 2) found evidence that moral reframing can influence how much people donate to an ‘Environmental Defense Fund’.
Can liberals’ attitudes on typically conservative issues also be changed using a similar ethical framing strategy?
Feinberg & Willer (2015) looked at a typically conservative issue in the US, making English the official language of the United States. They found that liberals’ support for this issue could be increased by moral reframing; in this case, by reframing it in terms of fairness.
Feinberg & Willer (2015) asked conservatives to write arguments that would persuade liberals, and conversely. Participants were told they would be ‘entered into a draw for a $50 bonus’ if their arguments proved effective.
Fewer than 10% of the arguments provided actually fitted with the target morality. Most fitted with the authors’ morality.
Around a third of liberals even wrote arguments attacking conservative morality.
Why are people so bad at moral reframing?
’Without recognizing that one’s political rivals possess different morals, and without a clear understanding of what those different morals are, using moral reframing becomes impossible’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2019, p. 7).
Another (compatible) possibility is intolerance. People are less tolerant of differences in moral than in nonmoral attitudes (Skitka, Bauman, & Sargis, 2005). Perhaps this makes them unwilling to provide arguments that are effective across differences in moral psychology.
I am a fan of Feinberg and Willer but they are sometimes unreliable. Consider:
‘individuals experience their moral convictions as objective truths about the world (Skitka et al., 2005). As a result, it can be difficult to recognize that there are different “truths” that other people believe in (Ditto & Koleva, 2011; Kovacheff et al., 2018). Indeed, polling data indicates that people are apt to perceive someone who does not endorse their morality as simply immoral or evil, rather than morally different (Doherty & Kiley, 2016)’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2019, p. 7).
When I read this, I expected to find that the sources they cite provide support for the claims they make. But which of the sources cited do support the claims they make?
Skitka et al., 2005 mentions the claim about objectivity but does not provide evidence for it. Those authors cite Shweder (2002)1 in support of it, which is a brief opinion piece in a magazine. Skitka et al., 2005 is indirectly relevant because it is about people being less tolerant of differences in moral than in nonmoral attitudes.
Kovacheff et al., 20181 is an interesting review but I couldn’t find anything directly relevant to the claim it is cited in support of. (It’s very long so I may have missed something.)
Doherty & Kiley, 20161 does not support the point about ‘polling data’ at all. This is a reference to a blog post (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/22/key-facts-partisanship/) which is about about political parties, not ‘endorsing their morality’. (To make this relevant, you would need a strong premise linking moral psychology and political identity.)
Not all of the sources they cite are even directly relevant to the points they are cited in support of.
My conclusion: Claims made by leading experts in peer-reviewed journals are sometimes unsupported even when citations give the impression that they are based on a rich body of evidence.2