Today’s polarization of American society boils down to one fundamental thing: morality. We have a fundamental divide of worldview and at the heart of that worldview divide is morality. I’m generalizing here, but on one side we have people that are theistic and believe that the definition or right and wrong (morality) comes from God. Therefore there is a factual immutable definition of right and wrong, that is not affected by one’s opinion and is the same for everyone. This is moral absolutism. This side is not monolithic, you have different religions and interpretations of the rights and wrong, but generally they believe there is a fixed definition because God has imposed a structure to morality. I’ll call this morally structured theism.
On the other side we have people who are atheistic or theistic who believe in moral relativity. Each person defines their own right and wrong. After all, if there is no god, or if there is a god and he/she just wants people to be nice to one another generally and leaves it up to you what that means, then you’re free to describe your own truth. I will call this morally unstructured theism.
Government legislation covers a lot of ground, but at its core, arguably it’s most important role is deciding what behaviors will be deemed right and which wrong. Murder is wrong, and therefore criminalized, and interracial marriage is not wrong, therefore you can’t criminalize it.
Agreeing on what wrongs to criminalize and what rights to protect or subsidize is hard enough even in the moral absolutist world. It helps that generally most structured theists come from the Judeo-Christian heritage which, generally speaking, have a lot in common when it comes to rights and wrongs. However, if you subscribe to moral relativism, how does society agree on law? Even if everyone defines their own right and wrong, you somehow have to agree on some list of basic things that will be criminalized for society to work. Thus you need a philosophy to guide you and your position of moral relativity vs. absolutism starts entering the ideological and political world.
The moral relativists have therefore generally speaking adopted hedonism as their guiding philosophy. Hedonism says if it causes pain it’s bad, and it’s pleasurable it’s good. You can see this in the arguments about drug legalization, “it makes me feel good, and it’s not hurting anyone else,” homosexual marriage, “it makes me happy, and its not hurting anyone else,” abortion, “the child would have an unwanted miserable existing,” so its better to save it the suffering, euthanasia, “it’s not murder if it’s sparing the person pain and they consented.” In the world of hedonist, these arguments all make sense.
Also note that the moral absolutist, being theistic, believes that each person’s actions are done before God and have natural consequences put in place by God or the system of the world God has created. It tends to therefore accept that some people are poor because they have made bad choices. We should find ways to help them, but ultimately it’s up to them to make different choices that will lead to different consequences.
Likewise the moral absolutist tends to arrive at the idea the government just needs to provide a level playing field, and by making wise choices he can make his own success. He is not entitled to it, it’s not owed him by anyone. And he deserves the consequences of his own choices, both the bad AND the good. So he deserves to keep the product of his labors. All he wants is the opportunity ensured. Thus he will gravitate towards free-market capitalism and low taxes. If he wants to give charitably, it’s up to him, it’s not the government’s place to reach into his pocket to give it to the people that made bad choices.
Atheism and unstructured theism tend to view all actions as only regarding oneself and other people. God is either absent or distant, or otherwise doesn’t care to tell anyone how to behave. So actions are just about effect on others, there is not the same kind of natural consequences imposed. Since we make our own rights and wrongs, whatever choices I make are valid for me and therefore cannot be used to explain why I’m suffering. The suffering experience tends to be explained as pain inflicted and is explained by the action of others. “He oppressed me.” “she made me unhappy.” “I’m poor because they exploited me.” “He offended me.” “She triggered me.”
Since hedonism defines pain and suffering as the definition of evil, therefore anyone suffering is an evil thing, and society should take action to rid the world of that evil. Government should remove any rule that imposes morals that came from absolutist thinking. It should replace them with hedonist based morality. Poverty is a form of suffering, so the moral relativist hedonist tends to find the egalitarianism of socialism and Marxism appealing approach to government because it offers a government based solution to the problem of poverty based suffering.
I am speaking generally. There are exceptions. There are moral absolutists who gravitate to the passion for social justice on the left, and there are certainly atheists and moral relativists, that decided free-market capitalism and minimal government make the most sense. So this does not always neatly align to liberal and conservative. There are all kinds of reasons people can be found on one end of the spectrum or the other. And there are evils and goods on both sides of the political spectrum and sometimes we as individuals minimize some evils in favor of addressing others. But these people are not generally the ones leading the factions and driving the discussion forward. The polarization of society in social discourse, academia, and politics, as a whole, is primarily driven by the underlying issues I am outlining.
So really the polarization in America, whether political, ideological, or worldview, tend to boil down to morality. Which is interesting given that morality is where it all started in the Garden of Eden. People get very confused about that story. The story of the Garden of Eden is a story about who is going to define morality. Is man going to follow God’s proscribed morality (you can do anything, but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) or is man going to reject God’s morality and make his own ([she] saw that the tree was good for food, and that is was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate).
Moral relativity really took off in the 1960’s. The baby boomer generation rebelled against the highly structured authoritarianism and social injustice of the builder generation. They rejected the existing society and sought to remake it. They rejected the existing moral framework and embraced unrestricted sex, drug use, and experimented with non-Judeo-Christian religions. They started thinking about socialism over their parents’ staunch capitalism. I suspect it was especially the social injustice they saw that led to this radical shift and rebellion. King David’s son Absalom led a rebellion against his father. At the crux of the rebellion was the fact that David had been failing to dispense justice for the people. But what we really needed was not Absalom’s rebellion which just led to more misery, but we needed a Solomon. Someone to wisely govern the people and bring peace. As Lincoln said about the civil war in the 2nd inaugural address, perhaps we are paying the price for tolerating offenses for so long. Now that the Absalom generation is in the halls of power and politics, the struggle over their agenda to remake American society is in full swing. We have seen a steady progression of hedonistically based legislation and judiciary decisions over the last 30 years. Maybe what we really need is a Solomon generation.