UNC-Chapel Hill Launches New Field of Study on Polarization

Kurt Gray, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has developed his academic career around understanding the origins of intolerance. The next step in his pursuits comes today as the university’s College of Arts & Sciences announces the launch of the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding. Its mission builds on Professor Gray’s earlier work, increasing moral understanding through scientific research, public engagement, and scholarship.

“Past research has argued that liberals and conservatives rely on different moral values,” says Gray. “But our work reveals something more hopeful: all human beings, regardless of ideology, fundamentally have the same moral mind. We all see morality about preventing harm—protecting our lives and livelihoods, our families, our community, and our country. Once we recognize this deep similarity, we can stop villainizing those we disagree with and have honest, respectful conversations about the issues we all care about.”

In a new article, the university highlights the evolution of Gray’s work and launch of the new center.

“An ultimate goal of this [new field of study] is to provide tools to help solve political polarization at the national level, but Gray said the first step is to focus locally, creating more civility in everyday conversations between liberals and conservatives. ‘A key goal is to take Thanksgiving dinner conversations between relatives who disagree—whether on gun control, abortion or gay marriage—and make them more respectful.’ …”

Gray has additional experience collaborating with scholars across disciplines, including working with business faculty to study ethics in organizations as well as with robotics experts on autonomous machines. With the launch of the center, Gray hopes to expand this interdisciplinary approach, “Morality is diverse and complex, and research studying it must also be,” he said. “The center will bring together diverse disciplines and perspectives, including philosophy, religious studies, political science, sociology, the law.”

“Prof. Gray and his team already have provided incredible insight about why human beings disagree and how they disagree,” explained Sarah Ruger, the Charles Koch Institute’s director of free expression. “UNC-Chapel Hill’s new center will build on that path-breaking scholarship and help unearth new strategies to empower individuals to reach out across what divides us.”

Learn more about Professor Gray’s research and related projects on the roots of polarization through the Charles Koch Foundation’s Courageous Collaborations initiative.

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