Moral Understanding: The Science of What Divides and Unites Us

Welcome to the Moral Understanding newsletter. I’m Kurt Gray, a social psychologist who studies morality, politics, and culture. I am a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I direct the Deepest Beliefs Lab and the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding. This is a newsletter for people who want to understand society’s deepest divides and how to bridge them.

What is Moral Understanding?

Our country and our everyday lives are filled with disagreement about politics, religion, and race. Ultimately, many of these disagreements boil down to one thing: conflicting views about morality. When we disagree about morality, mutual understanding becomes difficult, because each side thinks the other side is stupid, evil, or both.

Of course, the ‘other side’ is not evil. It is filled with people who care about their families, their moral values, and the future of the country. What is happening in America right now, in our boardrooms and dining rooms, is moral misunderstanding. We fail to see and understand the morality and common humanity of other people.

Moral misunderstanding causes serious problems for the health of our personal relationships, our civic institutions, and our democracy. Political intolerance is high. People dread turning on the news and discussing politics at the dinner table. Only 17% of Americans say they feel very comfortable discussing politics with someone they don’t know well, and dislike towards political opponents has been rising for decades. How do we encourage people to have civil discussions and see the common humanity in those on the ‘other side?’

We need to build moral understanding. But creating moral understanding is not easy. We all have intuitions about how to best bridge divides, but sometimes these intuitions are wrong and can make things worse. Have you ever thought that you could argue someone into moral submission—that with the right statistic, a political opponent might surrender and change their view on immigration or abortion? If so, you’re not alone. And chances are, it didn’t work.

To uncover how best to bridge moral divides, we need science. The Center for the Science of Moral Understanding (a project I founded and direct) is catalyzing an interdisciplinary scientific understanding of what actually works to build understanding. It conducts original research, fosters scholars, and connects science and society through talks, op-eds, and this newsletter.

What to Expect from this Newsletter

I'm excited to share scientific insights on bridging divides with you. Every three weeks, I'll deliver science-backed analyses about the drivers of moral conflict, the nature of the moral mind, and concrete ways to bridge divides in the country and your own life. I’ll cover the latest discoveries not only from the Center but also from other labs and scholars around the world.

The newsletter goes beyond just politics. We explore how philosophy connects to culture and cognition, distill the newest scientific insights on moral understanding in an accessible way, and provide recommendations about how science can help us live better lives. If you’re new here, below is a representative sample of past posts to get you started:

Research and writing for the newsletter is assisted by Sam Pratt (earlier posts are co-authored by my previous Research Assistant, Will Blakey).

Thanks for joining us on our quest to create more moral understanding.

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The Science of What Divides and Unites Us


Social psychologist and Professor. Director of the 'Deepest Beliefs Lab' and 'Center for the Science of Moral Understanding.' Using science to explore morality/politics/religion/AI & and how to bridge divides.
Lab Manager in the Deepest Beliefs Lab at UNC Chapel Hill