Sermon 10/16/16- Us and Them: How our Morals Bind Us and Blind Us
So much of the language we use to describe our country, to define what makes us great, is the language of concord and harmony; “We the people,” “one nation…indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Our name itself, The United States of America, implies that its citizens are in accord. But since long before we became the United States, and agreed to gather around some common ideas about freedom and democracy as they are written in our Constitution, we struggled with beliefs and ideas that divided us, mostly based on our religion and political and social issues. It seems like the more things change the more they stay the same, though, and many of those same things still divide us today.
How can there be “justice for all” when everyone’s sense of justice is different? Is that even possible? The short answer is, No. We have a keen sense of what we find to be just and unjust according to our own moral compass and experience. The old chestnut that says, “You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time,” is, in my experience, True with a capital T. But I think there are ways to be more respectful, patient, and understanding of those on opposite sides of our own beliefs, even if, in the end, you still disagree most heartily.
And to get us closer to some understanding, I need to tell you about a field called moral psychology. Moral psychology, essentially, is about how we come to conclusions about what is right and wrong. It’s similar to ethics studies, but it’s more like ethical field work. What moral psychologists want to know is why something feels right or wrong to us, and what influences how we think about moral ideas like justice and injustice. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote a book in 2012 that should be required reading for all Congressmen, Senators, presidential candidates, and any other elected official, as well as being great reading for anyone who wants to know “why can’t we all just get along?” It’s called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” and I want to lay out some of his ideas today about what makes us all so righteous about our beliefs and what we might do to change how we approach the other side of an argument with someone whose beliefs are very different from your own.
Haidt lays out his theory about our moral foundations with three principles. The first principle is: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. The metaphor he uses to illustrate this is that “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” The bottom line is that the elephants rule, and here’s why. Our brains look at everything in terms of potential threat or benefit to our selves thousands of times a day. The brain tags things very quickly as good or bad and motivates us toward an immediate action or reaction. The elephant is intuition and it’s mighty powerful, and prefers things that are familiar and easy. So partially, because of our quick-on-their-toes elephants, we all develop minds that are righteous about a whole lot of things.
The rider, or our thinking and reasoning process, is a relatively new development by evolutionary standards, rooted in language, and doesn’t make decisions as quickly as our instincts do. Haidt says, “The thinking system is not equipped to lead-it simply doesn’t have the power to make things happen-but it can be a useful advisor…The rider is an attentive servant, always trying to anticipate the elephant’s next move. If the elephant leans even slightly to the left, as though preparing to take a step, the rider looks left and starts preparing to assist the elephant on its imminent leftward journey, and loses interest in everything off to the right.” (p.66)
As UU’s, we like to think of our rider as having a little more control than that; we appreciate reason, even revere it. The good news is that, although the elephant is powerful, it is not an absolute dictator. When David Hume said that reason is the slave of the passions, his metaphor went too far. A slave is never supposed to question his master, but most of us can think of times when we’ve had to revise our first judgement of a person or a situation, or talked our elephant into ordering the grilled chicken Caesar salad instead of the buffalo chicken mac and cheese. (My elephant and rider are just about even on who wins that argument.) Haidt says it’s more like a lawyer serving a client; the rider might still refuse to go along despite all the elephant’s foot stomping.
So how do we get the elephant to listen to reason? The best way to change our minds on moral issues, it has been shown after years and years of grueling research, and this may surprise you… the best way to change our minds and open them to reason, is by interacting with people who have different views from us. OK, this is not a Eureka moment…and our riders are telling us right now that what I said makes absolutely perfect sense. But really, we are absolutely terrible at seeking out evidence that challenges our beliefs. Luckily, other people do us that favor, just as we are extremely resourceful when it comes to finding errors in other people’s beliefs or reasoning. When discussions are hostile, the odds of changing hearts and minds are slim. Haidt says, “The elephant leans away from its opponent and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges, but if there is any affection or desire to please the other person, the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find truth in the other person’s arguments.” (p.80) This is how reason triggers new intuitions.
So the elephant is the emotion and the rider is the reason, that’s the basic idea of Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology, instinct comes first, reasoning is literally an afterthought. The bottom line that I took away from this, which I will call Karen’s first commandment of cooperation, is: Go into the world and talk to strangers, but not quite as much as you listen to them. We all could use a good dose of shut the heck up, keep calm, and listen, sometimes, just as we all need a good dose of feeling like someone is really listening to us sometimes, especially when we disagree.
Haidt’s second principle is more involved, but really important to understand when we trying to reach across the proverbial aisle, especially in the realm of politics and especially for us righteous liberals. It says: “There’s more to morality than fairness.” We used to tend to think that human behavior was hard-wired or innate, but since the 70’s we’ve made some leaps in changing that perception. Neuroscientist Gary Marcus says that, “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises…’Built in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience.’” I love that concept. I wonder if someone could use it as a legal defense, “you see your honor, I wasn’t irresponsible, I was merely organized in advance of my experience.” Surely the judge would be kind enough to help you organize some new experiences.
Haidt created a list, initially, of five moral foundations to specify how our righteous minds are “organized in advance of experience,” and he tries to explain how that first draft gets revised to create the different moralities we find across cultures and across political spectrums.
These foundations are:
So, what Haidt shows in his research is how the two ends of the political spectrum rely on different foundations in different ways. And he’s found that Liberals rely primarily on the Care and Fairness foundations, whereas Conservatives tend to use all five of these foundations in order to get people’s elephants to lean in one direction or another. You can see this unfold if you observe different media sources objectively. Do your own experiment. Get a checklist together of all these foundations and watch an hour of FOX news and then watch an hour of MSNBC news. You’ll find that Republicans don’t just try and cause fear, as Democrats claim, they trigger the full range of intuitions described by these Moral Foundations. In politics, they have pretty much cornered the market on values like loyalty, authority, and sanctity (in a religious sense at least). Liberals largely reject these considerations. We tend toward personal autonomy rather than group loyalty, questioning authority rather than following blindly, and often, a downright disdain for what we consider outmoded ideas about sanctity, unless they apply to our own issues, of course.
Republicans, it has to be admitted, speak more directly to the elephant, and their basic social unit is the family or small group; groups where order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued. Why do rural working-class Americans generally vote Republican when it tends to be Democrats who fight for worker’s rights? They are voting for their moral interests.
Haidt and his colleagues in this research found that they had to add one more foundation after all was said and done. That’s Libery/oppression, and it’s more of a social evolution, especially in Western cultures, though we have seen this playing out in other parts of worlds as well. It makes people “notice and resent any sign of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to band together to resist and overthrow bullies and tyrants. This works on the left with egalitarian and antiauthoritarian ideals and on the right with the don’t-tread-on-me anti-government anger of libertarians and some conservatives. But it all comes down to who’s got a bigger bag of peanuts for the elephants.
This brings me to Karen’s second commandment of cooperation: Stop assuming and saying that the opposition is simply stupid. In our righteous minds, that’s really the basest, easiest watering-hole for our elephants to find and there’s no rider involved there. If you really care about cooperation, you’ll start from the assumption that the elephant rules; people’s beliefs are genuinely important to them and they can’t just be dismissed as stupid, and let the riders begin conversations with a gesture of respect or even affection for each other’s elephants. This isn’t easy, I know…
Haidt’s third principle is that morality binds and blinds. He says, “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
The portrait that Jonathan Haidt paints of human nature in the book up to this point is kind of cynical. He essentially argues that “we care more about looking good than truly being good.” (Or in the language of our current political cycle, we’d rather be great than be good.) He says, “We lie, we cheat, we cut ethical corners quite often when we think we can get away with it, and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others. We believe our own post-hoc reasoning so well that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue.”
But in the last part of his book he shows us why that portrait is incomplete. Yes, it’s true that we can be selfish and our moral, political and religious behavior can be thinly veiled ways of pursuing self-interest. But we are also groupish. We love to join teams and clubs and churches, and we take on group identity, working together enthusiastically toward common goals. And we can bump that groupishness up to the next level, which can break down even the autonomy of the groups we join. How important was your autonomy when you watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, for instance? How important did anyone feel watching first responders rush toward the danger? And then, how many people, all over the country, despite all the craziness of their own lives, jumped in their cars and rushed toward the danger, too, the only questions on their mind being, “how can I help?” and, ”what can I do?”
Haidt says, “We humans have a dual nature- we are selfish primates who long to be something larger and nobler than ourselves…It’s almost as if there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.”
We can flip the switch when we are in awe of Nature, when we dance ecstatically or chant or sing in a group, or participate in a drum circle, when we meditate or take substances to alter our minds, or when we come to church. And we become even more groupish when we have a common tragedy, like 9/11, and occasionally common joys, like an Olympic win.
We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our reasoning, which makes it hard, but not impossible, to connect with those whose moral matrices developed differently from our own and the bottom line is this: if we don’t play together we won’t work together and we certainly can’t begin to understand enough about each other to know where our similarities lie or why we believe what we believe.
Morality binds and blinds on both sides, we all get sucked into our tribal communities and our own sacred values and then share our arguments about why we are right the other is wrong. So, here’s my third and final commandment of cooperation: Don’t forget that you are just as righteous as the next guy and we all create tiny monopolies over what we call Truth and what think of as Justice. The next time you’re sitting next to someone who has different values than yours, don’t jump right into moral arguments. Talk first about your kids, or your dogs, or what tv shows or music you like. Create a little trust, find a bit of safe common ground, and what might have been heated arguments may become discussions that could make each other’s elephants tango rather tangle, and make our righteous minds a little more reasonable.
Now, I will end with a disclaimer, because our current political melee can no longer be put into the comfortable terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as if there were only two predictable sides to anything anymore. This election has brought all the old hates and fears to the surface, and we’re seeing the dark underbelly of generations of racial resentment, sexist power-plays, and economic elitism come into the light of day, and that ugliness and anger exists on both sides. Emotions are extremely high. This makes it much harder to talk to people whose beliefs are contrary to ours. I admit to being just as flummoxed and frustrated as you probably are right now and it seems like everything is on the line in this election. So, you’re all invited, after some coffee and refreshments, to join me at 12:30 in the Green Room (or maybe in the yard since it’s so lovely outside) for a lively and respectful discussion about our fears and anxieties, as well as how our own righteousness binds and blinds us to the concerns of others.
Sermon 10/16/16- Us and Them: How our Morals Bind Us and Blind Us
- 10/2/16- Rosh Hoshanna: Raise A Noise!
- 10/23/16: Wonder Women