The connection between moral positions and moral arguments drives opinion change

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Abstract

Liberals and conservatives often take opposing positions on moral issues. But what makes a moral position liberal or conservative? Why does public opinion tend to become more liberal over time? And why does public opinion change especially fast on certain issues, such as gay rights? We offer an explanation based on how different positions connect with different kinds of moral arguments. Based on a formal model of opinion dynamics, we predicted that positions better connected to harm and fairness arguments will be more popular among liberals and will become more popular over time among liberals and conservatives. Finally, the speed of this trend will be faster the better the position connects to harm and fairness arguments. These predictions all held with high accuracy in 44 years of polling on moral opinions. The model explains the connection between ideology and moral opinions, and generates precise predictions for future opinion change.

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Fig. 1: Position is the main factor in the applicability of arguments.
Fig. 2: How liberal and conservative opinions move in the model.
Fig. 3: How opinion has changed towards positions that are more connected to harm and fairness arguments.
Fig. 4: The correlation between the harm–fairness connection advantage and change in public opinion.
Fig. 5: Example of a question used to measure the connection between a position and moral foundation arguments.

Data availability

The MTurk data are available at https://github.com/irinavrt/moralopinion. The GSS data are available at http://gss.norc.org.

Code availability

All codes used to reproduce the results of this paper are available at https://github.com/irinavrt/moralopinion.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation grants 2015.0005 and 2017.0167. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

F.J. and P.S. designed the MTurk study and collected the data, which I.V. analysed. K.E. and P.S. designed and analysed the formal model. I.V. managed and analysed the GSS data with input from K.E. and P.S. I.V. produced the figures. P.S., K.E. and I.V. wrote the paper. F.J. edited the paper.

Correspondence to Pontus Strimling.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods 1, Supplementary Results 1 and 2, Supplementary Figs. 1–5 and Supplementary Table 1

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