Kaepernick, Trump, and Clinton

Many people are rightly concerned with the polarization evident in our political discourse. Most supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely admit that their candidate is flawed, but cannot imagine why anyone would vote for the other candidate. People who are considering voting for the other candidate must be stupid or venal. Or both! This blog entry is a plea for readers to be open-minded and thoughtful in moral judgments as well as political judgments (which often have moral dimensions). Being overconfident of our own morality, as so many of us are (see our video on the Overconfidence Bias), can lead us to make moral judgments without being sufficiently thoughtful. Both moral and political decisions routinely seem to be “more rationalized than rational.” (Smith et al., 2016).Consider the controversy surrounding San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who recently has refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as it was played at the beginning his team’s football games. Kaepernick’s motive is to protest racial discrimination in the United States. He has been subjected to fierce criticism. To quote a representative letter to the editor: “What he has done is choose to disrespect all of the millions of men and women who have served our great nation over the centuries. And disrespect all that they believed in, fought for, and in some cases, died for.” (Brandt, 2016). Supporters made quite different judgments: “Trump and others outraged by Mr. Kaepernick’s principled act will never understand that patriotism may often be the last refuge of the scoundrel. Without her heroes and heroines who dared to say ‘No,’ America would be the lesser. Like the Alabama bus-sitter, Rosa Parks, Mr. Kaepernick stood up for America by sitting down.” (Poss, 2016).These two strong opposing views are embodiments of the differing values that people often have. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt notes that there are two moral foundations that liberals tend to value above all others:

• The Care foundation that makes people sensitive to suffering and causes them to condemn those who harm others in the in-group.
• The Fairness foundation that makes people condemn and wish to punish cheaters.

Conservatives value these two “individualistic” foundations, but are also heavily influenced by three more “binding” values that focus on gluing groups together:

• The Loyalty foundation that causes people to stand with their in-group.
• The Authority foundation that causes people to obey tradition and support authority and therefore oppose subversion.
• The Sanctity or Purity foundation that causes people to abhor disgusting things and can cause them to invest objects with irrational and extreme values, which can help bind groups together.

Thus, while liberals tend to see Kaepernick simply as a person who is exercising his Free Speech rights under the Constitution, conservatives tend to see someone who is not standing with his group, who is subverting traditions, and who is degrading the patriotic symbolism of the national anthem. Because liberals and conservatives tend not to understand the differing foundations upon which the other side makes moral judgments, they similarly do not understand the other side’s conclusions and tend to demonize people in the other camp (“Stupid!” “Evil!”). The notion that there could be legitimate disagreement and that one should consider the views of the other side does not occur to many people. But it should.

The lesson here is that we often do not understand why either we (or others) make the moral judgments that we (or they) do. Rather than simply assuming that “we” are right and “they” are wrong, we should carefully consider all sides of the arguments…in both political and moral judgments. We have the ability to carefully examine our intuitive judgments and to exercise moral imagination (Johnson, 2014), if only we take the trouble to do so.

Many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos relate to behavioral and psychological factors that often lead people to make poor moral choices. Many of those same influences can also cause people to make suboptimal moral judgments regarding the actions of others. The overconfidence bias is just one.

According to Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory (MFT), we tend to intuitively make moral judgments that derive from moral foundations that are shaped by cultural, environmental, and genetic influences. A recent study (Smith et al., 2016) challenges the genetic basis of these influences, potentially shaking the foundations of MFT. So it appears that we should keep our minds open both as to the foundations of our moral judgments and as to our theories of the foundations of our moral judgments.



John R. Alford et al., “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?,” AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW, 2005(2): 153-167 (2005).

Clark A. Brandt, Letter to the Editor, Napa Valley Register, Sept. 3, 2016, at

Jonathan Haidt & Jesse Graham, “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize,” SOCIAL JUSTICE RESEARCH, 20: 98-116 (2007).



Stanley Poss, Letter to the Editor, The Fresno Bee, Sept. 2, 2016 at

Kevin Smith et al., “Intuitive Ethics and Political Orientations: Testing Moral Foundations as a Theory of Political Ideology,” AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE JOURNAL (2016).

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