Skip to content

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 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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Although I am committed to UU, I confess I find it difficult to accept religious beliefs that I see as harming others. Beliefs that generate sexism and misogyny are particularly difficult for me, and I struggle to reconcile tolerance with such beliefs. Study after study has shown that the best to improve life for an entire society is to empower women.

    The best answer I have come up with so far comes from my own field of persuasion and consensus building. I know that people’s brains are hard-wired to resist when we overtly contradict their important beliefs (religious or other).

    This satisfies me as to how to relate to these people. I stick to my persuasion and consensus-building skills that avoid or minimize wrong making. But it does not satisfy my inner moral sense. I will be interested in any thought you or your other readers might have.

    June 3, 2012
  2. The quiz was interesting. (There’s a version that doesn’t require registration here: )

    I think if they changed the term from loyalty to commitment, religious liberals would score much higher. Loyalty for loyalty’s sake gets folks into situations like the one at Penn State.

    I also think we hold the value of collaboration toward a common goal over the value of authority. I can’t think of a value that would replace sanctity….

    June 3, 2012
  3. Thanks, Terasa. I am reminded of the concept of medicine as both gift and poison. When it is used for healing (wholeness) purposes, medicine is the gift. But it also carries the potential for poison when it is misadministered.

    I try to remember that everything has the potential to be a gift. Every being, every situation, every crisis, every place, every thing, every value, every word, every idea. Even our attachment to noble certainties has a place.

    We all carry medicine. The trick is to use it as tonic, not toxin. Thanks for the reminder.

    June 3, 2012
  4. Alicia R. Forde #

    I tend to agree with Margaret. As I took the test, I kept thinking about my own social location and it factored heavily into how I responded to the questions – and is a reflection of how I think about U.S. society and culture. My sense of loyalty/authority is impacted by how the “normative” U.S. culture treats me and people like me.

    I wonder how I would respond if I were reflecting on the questions while living in my birth home? Hmm…

    And, overall, I find it fascinating to think about. I find myself wondering about the demographic make up on the conservative sample…as well as the make up of the liberal sample.

    Looking forward to reading the article when I have a moment. Ever grateful that you offer us much to ponder.


    June 3, 2012

Leave a comment to Rev. Renee Ruchotzke Cancel reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS