Expanding Our Morality

Expanding Our Morality

We have all had, at one time or another, a major difference in opinion with someone else. Differences of opinion come in all varieties: variance in religious beliefs, in political ideologies, food preferences, and of course, as our poll last week demonstrated, Star Wars movies. While food preferences and favorite Star Wars movies can be explained away by poor taste (I am looking at you Original Trilogy elitists!), differences of opinion in politics and religion can be a bit trickier to comprehend. Where do they come from? More importantly, how do we resolve them to create a more civil society?

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics, moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses three key elements that cause differences in opinion on these subjects. First, Haidt argues that intuition comes before strategic reasoning. This means that our own moral judgments are the first instinctive response we feel when confronted with a situation, and our own ability to soundly reason is thereafter inhibited. In a practical situation, this would look like a conservative having a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of unfettered abortion without being able to consider the reasoning behind that practice. On the other hand, it might look like a liberal demanding higher taxes on the wealthy without comprehending why conservatives might be wary of a government-regulated economy.

Second, Haidt believes there is more to morality than the principles of safety or fairness. Those two ideals are basic principles—even fundamental ones. But they comprise only one part of the equation that derives morality’s true nature. For example, and among many other things, the principle of sanctity is a determinate in an individual’s moral outlook. What a person believes is sanctified will directly affect religious and political morality. To illustrate this, let us return to the example of abortion. Abortion can deal with the principles of both safety and fairness – a mother’s safety, of course, could be in doubt due to a high-risk pregnancy. Likewise, many consider government regulation of what a woman can choose to do (or not do) with her own body a violation of fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, view the life of unborn children as sacred, owing to the common religious background conservatives share. Therefore, abortion—the destruction of that sanctified life—is to them an abominable act of the highest immorality. Then again, on the other side of that same coin, is an argument very similar to the issue of fairness: the right of mothers to decide what they will and will not do with their own bodies is sacred.

Now we begin to see the true issue of morality: it is complicated, and it has a great deal to do with both perception and priorities. In the final principle outlined by Haidt, we catch a glimpse of our current—for want of a better phrase—moral predicament. Haidt argues that morality both binds and blinds. This is a trickier principle to grasp than the other two. Essentially, Haidt argues that human beings demonstrate both chimp-like tendencies and bee-like tendencies. The chimp in us is competitive, aggressive, and fights for survival. The bee in us is altruistic and works for the common good. Bees are marvelous creatures. Despite their minuscule size, they work together to create complex societal structures and create food, shelter, and social “programs” to care for each other.

The chimp and the bee traits combine to create an “individualistic hive mind.” If it is difficult to understand what that means or picture what it may look like, then look no further than religions and political parties. Religions and political parties allow individual people of like minds to congregate, proliferate their membership, and then spread their ideas to the wider world. Groups of like-minded individuals have within them the aggressive-defensive chimp complex of their individual members, which leads to corrosively divisive disputations between opposing ideologies. The conservative-liberal divide which we work so hard here at The Civility Initiative to overcome originates from this principle.

Thus, at last, we come to the question: how do we resolve the spectrum of moral perception? My suggestion, which I humbly submit for your consideration, is simple. We must learn to broaden the “hive” in which we work and live. We must learn to view morality as a wider concept than our instinctive, chimp-like tendency toward self-preservation. We must widen that view even further to include groups outside of our own little hives.

Consider the following example, wherein I speak from my own experience. I was raised most of my life as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the largest and most cohesively organized religions in the world (by cohesively organized, I mean that I could be in Salt Lake City Utah on a Sunday, but what the members of a congregation in Utah are studying the week I am there is the same as what the members of a Brazilian congregation are studying that same day. In this way, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acts as a more cohesively organized and unified body than members of traditional Protestant Christian religions which have no established curriculum or authoritative organization between different congregations). Even within a church which is so united in the doctrine it teaches, there is a difference of opinion on how to live one’s life. These include issues ranging from how many children a couple should have to the type of movies and food one should consume.  That difference of opinion is owed to the individuality of interpretation, opportunity, and personality.

Notwithstanding this, the members of the Church are united and organized. This principle continues outward. Members of the Church stand united with many different Christian denominations on a myriad of issues both political and social, notwithstanding the differences between those Christian denominations and the Church on major doctrinal and theological issues. Those denominations, in turn, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of non-religious organizations to ensure equality and fairness for all people. In short, the individual “chimps” (I promise I am not trying to call anyone a monkey) are learning to temper their passions to become chimp-bees, and those chimp-bees are learning to become bees for the greater good.

I believe human beings are righteous. When I say righteous, however, I wish to be clear that I do not mean righteous in its religious connotation. I mean that human beings have within them the desire to improve as a community. I believe that they have the capability to make sound, moral judgments. I believe they have infinite capacity to do good. But to be righteous involves evolving beyond our narrow worldviews. We must expand our altruism to consider other points of view, and I am confident that as we do so, we will find that we have much more in common than we ever thought we did.