Moral Psychology – how moral are we really?
There has been quite a stir recently around the work of Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist who recently published The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Bill Moyers conducted an extensive interview with him in which he explains his theories more in depth.
Essentially he is saying that a basic part of our psychological makeup includes a need to “sacralize” or to attach moral weight to ideas we deem important, and that most often that act of sacralization gets reinforced by our own social enclave. In other words, what we believe gets elevated to the status of sacred, especially when we hear it repeated within our own communities. And the other natural psychological inclination is to then demonize those that do not agree with our views.
I find this fascinating and challenging. The fascinating part is recognizing how much our attachment to “reason” is an idolatry. In fact, we will often fail to see the “truth” in our “reasoning” because it crashes up against our most closely held values. And then we “reason” our way out of our conundrum. The failure to indict George Zimmerman comes to mind. The investigators has a moral construct in their heads that made them automatically believe his story.
The challenging part of this theory is that it makes me examine my own biases, my own sacred cows of reasoning. As much as I preach about tolerance for diversity and multiplicity of viewpoints, the hardest thing for me to tolerate is disagreement about my tolerance for diversity! I often participate in thoughtless demonization of others who disagree with me, without trying to understand the values that underlie their position. It makes my mouth grow dry to even say this, but what if the tea party position has some important values I need to attend to?
Go to YourMorals.org and take their values survey. The questions that they ask help determine how much we value things like care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Predictably, liberals score highly on the first three, and much lower on the last three. Conservatives, on the other hand, score fairly equally across all these measures.
What can we learn from people who highly value loyalty? A lot about the importance of community, I would venture. What does the value of authority have to teach us? Something important about how we undermine each other, I would guess. And sanctity? Surely we have our own sacred cows, but how do we truly respect that others do as well?
Haidt asks us to think about introducing some other moral values. One is to confront demonization of others. Surely we agree in theory, but how are we doing in practice? Something important to think about.