Over the holidays I made a decision to loosen my tongue in reaction to a comment that ran counter to my political sensibilities. This conversation went awry, as these types of conversations often do, and I later regretted engaging the topic. I had a number of negative internal reactions including feeling judgmental, angry, misunderstood, defensive, hurt, and sad. I am fairly sure that the person I was speaking with had a similar set of reactions. Most of us have heard the adage that reminds us to avoid such topics as they can lead to conflict; however, people handle conflict in different ways and have different comfort levels with it. Some have ongoing outward and/or buried conflict, some avoid or withdraw from conflict, while others successfully work through conflict. Core differences between people easily lead to conflict, and how they are handled can have a strong impact on how close people feel to one another. Neither the conflict, nor the avoidance and disconnection feel good. I have often wished it was easier to engage with and communicate about these heartfelt issues in a way that did not feel bad. I believe that understanding subjectivity and engaging in dialogue diminish conflict and lead to greater empathy, though it is not easy. I, like most people, continue to be fooled by my perceptions that I am right and others are wrong.
After my initial feelings about my failed dialogue started to fade, and I was able to reflect with a “cooler head,” I recalled a summary of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. This helped shift my thinking away from what we were arguing “about” towards what we were arguing “for” — a subtle shift that had a big impact. I was motivated to read Haidt’s book in order to better understand why it is so difficult for people to appreciate the viewpoints of their rivals.
Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.
— Robert A. Heinlein
Haidt argues that our rational explanations do not drive our moral judgments. Rather, they are post hoc fictions which make sense of our intuitions and help persuade others to join our “team.” (See also Pretty Good Stories and “Dark” Awareness). These “intuitive ethics” are built upon several innate psychological systems.
One of the most basic and oldest (from an evolutionary perspective) of these psychological systems stems from the revulsion reaction of disgust. (See also Contempt). While this emotion initially served to protect us from disease and contamination, over time it was elicited by others’ behavior — an early inkling of moral judgment. As mammals, we form tight bonds with our children, an instinct which has expanded beyond the family unit allowing for a capacity to feel empathy for all living things. The ability to form bonds allowed us to be social, and we developed the ability to form groups and coalitions. These coalitions usually involved some form of hierarchical organization where some group members would use their influence to take on leadership and others would defer to this leadership and/or power. Groups would develop rules and customs built around reciprocal altruism to maintain order and fairness. However to maintain stability they needed to deal with threats to their group’s integrity. One threat is from “freeloaders” who take advantage of the benefits of the group without contributing themselves. Another type of threat is from dominating or oppressive leaders. The process of natural selection has hardwired all of these systems into our subconscious minds which subsequently drive our emotions and our intuitive ethics.
Haidt and his colleagues focused their study on six moral foundations which, like moral taste receptors, flavor our judgments. Having a language for these foundations helps to clarify many of the cross-cultural, religious, and political differences that so often confuse us. Cultures implicitly construct their values, their representative stories, and their institutions upon these foundations. The six foundations, along with their targeted threat and basic value, are:
- Care/harm — cherishing and protecting others
- Fairness/cheating — justice according to shared rules
- Liberty/oppression — fighting tyranny
- Loyalty/betrayal — being true to your in-group
- Authority/subversion — respect for legitimate authority
- Sanctity/degradation — purity or abhorrence for disgusting things
Just as different foods draw upon different flavor combinations, different cultures have their unique “recipes.” This can easily be seen in political or religious cultures. Often two opposing cultures rely on the same foundation but with a different emphasis (e.g. pro-life individuals emphasize the sanctity of human life, while environmentalist emphasize the sanctity of the earth; different populist groups fight the tyranny of corporations or the tyranny of the government). Or they might emphasize a different foundation for different issues (e.g., conservatives might draw upon the sanctity foundation when fighting for the life of the unborn but draw upon the authority foundation or fairness foundation when fighting for enforcement of the death penalty). The in-group for each “culture” can also range widely — from the universal to much closer to home. Different in-groups and different foundations can lead to very different attitudes and sometimes very confusing and seemingly inconsistent behavior.
As in my “discussion,” much of the time we speak past one another because we see the other person’s position as wrong or immoral, and we feel compelled to convince them that ours is the best or more moral perspective. This is dangerous territory for a relationship — a slippery slope that leads to contempt. I still disagree with many positions that differ from my own; I still feel my perspective is better, but I understand, that like everyone else, I am hard-wired to have a “righteous mind.” I feel my beliefs and do not intuitively share my opponent’s beliefs — the feelings that back up their views are outside of my awareness. My rational mind can sometimes let me know when my “righteous mind” is acting up. The language of moral foundations is a great tool in this regard; it has helped to shift my perspective so I see more clearly what each of us is fighting for. This opens the door for empathy in a similar way that seeing the need behind an action can. As a species cursed to confuse our subjective perspective as objective, we need all the help we can get.
Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. New York: Pantheon. See the book’s website: RighteousMind.com