There are lots of good books out there of various genre. But in the land of non-fiction I have to hand this year’s gold seal to Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). I just spent a few days reading it. Haidt and a few others, in my estimation, are getting to the crux of our present social polarization, which is a mighty one indeed.

The researcher and professor from the University of Virginia delves into what he calls moral psychology. His work, rich in its texture, draws on sociology, anthropology, brain research and evolutionary psychology for its sources of knowledge. The conclusions of research are in many ways surprising, unexpected. They certainly do not confirm popular assumptions about the way we are as persons or groups of persons.

He first delivers us from certain rationalistic delusions. The deep, subconscious intuitions about life make most of our decisions before we know it. They are the “elephant” in the room and our reasoning is the “rider” that either explains the elephant or makes mild adjustments to its course. That elephant includes assumed notions about the way we think the world should be. Those notions come from lots of places, but in the end, they take the day.

There is no such a thing as a singular moral index by which all personal and social good should be evaluated. Rather, there are a handful and people do not embrace the same ones. There is the flash point of division: everyone is believing and acting according to assumed moral principles, it’s just that they are different ones. How could the other not see this issue, it’s plain as day! Well, from their identified moral priorities, they are. We just don’t agree on which moral principles are the primary ones.

For instance, there are a handful of moral principles that guide individuals and societies such as

Care for the Needy
Fairness and Justice
Respect for Authority

Different social or political systems embrace some and not others, weight some as more important than others, and in some case exclude some from moral decision making altogether.

Libertarians, descendents from our Enlightenment ancestors who wanted to throw off the shackles of kings and bishops, have an instinctual suspicion of government and its meddling. Free markets are sacred. But their Care scale is low, as is Authority and Sanctity. The market will sort out the story for the needy; don’t meddle and make it worse. Authorities are to be questioned and kept in check.

Social Conservatives have quite different configurations than the Libertarians. They hit on all six of the principles with fairly even weight. They Care for needy, but with a suspicion of government doing the caring. They hold loyalty and respect authority unless it is intrusive. A sacred moral thread informs their decisions even when it is not financially or socially convenient. They value fairness, but it is usually not fairness for the underclass, but rather fairness for the people as a whole, especially when it comes penalizing people for hard work and success. Freedom is important as neither government nor external nations or forces should get in the way of pursuing the right to life and happiness.

Classic Liberals fire on primarily two of the moral indices: Care and Fairness/Justice. They arose as a powerful movement in the wake of industrialization and the abuse by captains of industry. Care for the downtrodden became their marching orders, especially those abused not by the government (as libertarians would most fear) but by large super-organism corporations. Only governments have the power to hold back and control their tyranny, as is believed today in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Establishing social fairness and correcting wrongs moved from industrialization to the great depression to the civil rights movement. Care for the downtrodden and establishing justice became the two moral principles by which everything else was to be judged. Like the Libertarians, loyalty and authority were to be questioned; they were the seeds of tyranny.  Sanctity, usually, became limited to the adoration of nature.

Haidt is clear that for Liberals, two indices for moral argument and reasoning are not sufficient. Social Conservatives fire on all six, though weighting them differently. And Libertarians are single-minded in their pursuit of unrestrained freedom (which is why they differ so greatly from both Liberals and Social Conservatives, depending on the issue).

These moral foundations, often found in the unconscious elephant people ride, are highly significant in shaping the social contracts by which we survive and cooperate. We disagree on which foundations are most important, however. Unhealthy systems position conserving and progressive people as dualistic opposites waging a cosmic battle. Healthy systems recognize that both provide the yin/yang, the balance needed for cohesive and growing society.

Though natural selection and the survival instinct may make individuals highly self-interested, we humans are also remarkably “groupish” – willing to serve along side one another for the good of the many. That tribal sense is what contributed to the dominance of our kind in the last 12,000 years or so. Moving beyond reciprocal care within the tribe to those outside it is the mark of a very unique and advanced consciousness (something spiritual masters and, yes, Jesus talked about all the time!). But it doesn’t come naturally. The bee hive takes care of the bee hive, and magnificently so. Cities, states and even countries can do the same. Even collections of countries may act “hiveish” under the right conditions.

Religion – far from being dismissed as the thing that divides and harms (though it has) – is most usually a galvanizing force that provides the central guiding metaphors, ideas and practices of a people. It is the “sacred” moral index that provides transcendent meaning. Societies that have lost that are less effective, less cohesive and prone to failure, throughout history.

But “what binds us blinds us.” If we live on the inside of a moral system we come to evaluate all others through a particular unsympathetic lens. That is true of every person, regardless of what worldview they assume. The question is: Can we suspend our own moral judgement making long enough to understand the systems of the other? We will often not agree. But to know that different people are operating by different rules is the beginning of wisdom.

I leave you with his concluding paragraph:

“This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion. The answer is not…because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness…that makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.

So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try. Don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust. And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest. We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    Jonathan Haidt’s new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Duel of the dual.” Here are four paragraphs from it:

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned.”

    The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

  2. David McGee says:

    Fantastic post, Tim!

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