Righteous Minds, Part II

Why do good people see the world so differently?
Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 2 March 2014

I wonder if we can try an experiment this morning.  Remember, I told you last week we need to be bold!  Let’s say that there’s a long line running from the left side of the sanctuary to the right.  To your far right, imagine a big sign hanging there that says “Strongly Agree” and to the far left, imagine another big sign hanging over there that says “Strongly Disagree”.  In the middle, where I am, imagine a sign that says “Not Sure”.

I’m going to make a statement, and I’d like to have at least ten volunteers who would be brave enough to stand somewhere along this line – wherever you feel you are in response to the statement, from strongly agreeing, to strongly disagreeing, or somewhere in between.  There is no right answer, only your answer – but you can’t stand in the middle.  You have to choose a side.

Here’s the statement:  “It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself.”

So … why are you here, standing in your position? [Responses from the volunteers]
Thank you so much.  Please have a seat.

Imagine now, where would you have stood on this imaginary line if I had asked you to respond to these statements?

- Men and women have different roles to play in society.
- Chastity is an important and valuable virtue.
- I am proud of my country’s history.
- When the government makes laws, the number one principle should be ensuring that everyone is treated fairly.
- Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.
- People should be loyal to their family members even when they have done something wrong.
- It can never be right to kill a human being.

These are just some of the ideas that come from a research study overseen by Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist and author of the book The Righteous Mind. A few weeks ago,  I spoke about Haidt and his work, looking at what makes human beings so righteously divided between liberals and conservatives and between cultures.

Haidt says that those of us who come from WEIRD cultures (that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) tend to hold the central moral principle above all others that, so long as no one is harmed, individual liberty is our greatest value.  But in most non-WEIRD cultures, the needs of the collective, the family, the wider society, the order of the cosmos, are more important than the rights of the individual. 

Take Hindu culture, which Haidt experienced firsthand while doing his graduate research. In Hindu tradition, a human being is more than just an individual with an individual nature to be nurtured and developed.  The human being is the particular product of their birth, determined by behaviour in their past life, marked by caste, shaped and completed through the rituals of the stages of life and defined by connection to others.  One’s life is not one’s own, but rather a piece in a larger puzzle that shapes the cosmos. Hierarchy matters, physical purity matters, everything you do publicly or privately has an effect on the whole fabric of your connected life.

Now, do you remember the rider and the elephant? Haidt tells us that we are less rational than we like to imagine.  Our conscious minds are the rider, while our intuitions are the elephant that we are trying to control and drive.  Before we’ve even had a chance to think rationally about something, our intuitions are telling us what is right and what is wrong.  The elephant leans towards things or away from them, before our rational minds have even a chance to take over and guide the elephant where we want it to go.  Instead, our rational mind plays catch-up, trying to rationalize the intuitions we feel. 

We are immersed in a particular moral culture without even realizing it, and that moral culture determines the shape of those intuitions, making that elephant hard to steer in new directions.  This is what makes us so righteous, so sure that we are right and others are wrong.  It also makes it hard to change other people’s minds with rational arguments.  To have any lasting effect, we have to connect with each other’s “elephants.”

While culture shapes our deepest-held moral understanding of the world, are we also hard-wired to see the world in certain ways? Do we begin with an innate nature? Haidt tells us that when we are born, the brain is like the rough outline of a book with incomplete chapters. “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises...”

So, yes, Haidt says, there are certain moral foundations that shape our lives now, and that we can trace back through human evolution.  What he means by a moral foundation is the building of a matrix of values.  These are the pages of that first draft that then get shaped by family and the society around us.  Early humans had to adapt to five key challenges in order to survive, and these adaptations are still at the core of our intuitions today. These adaptations resulted in five moral foundations that seem to be found across cultures.

There’s the moral foundation of Care/Harm.  Our care for our offspring translates into the virtue of caring and kindness. This “makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.”

There’s the moral foundation of Fairness/Cheating.  Our need to develop relationships leads to the values of fairness and justice.  This “makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration.  It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.”

There’s the moral foundation of Loyalty/Betrayal.  Our need for cohesive coalitions leads to the value of loyalty, the root of what we now call patriotism. Think about how people love their sports teams.  This foundation “makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player.  It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.”

There’s the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion.  Our need to forge beneficial relationships within hierarchies leads to the values of authority, obedience and deference.  “It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.”

Finally, there’s the moral foundation of Sanctity/Degradation.  Our need to keep our kin free from parasites and pathogens leads to the virtues of sanctity, of temperance, chastity and cleanliness.  “It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values – both positive and negative – which are important for binding groups together.”

As Haidt describes it, the moral foundation of sanctity is where we regard some things as ’untouchable’ both in a bad way (because something is so dirty or polluted we want to stay away) and in a good way (because something is so hallowed, so sacred, that we want to protect it from desecration).  If we had no sense of disgust,” he says, “we would also have no sense of the sacred.”

Later, Haidt would add the moral foundation of Liberty/Oppression, as a way to describe our values when it comes to responding to unfair domination by others.

For most of us here, caring, fairness and liberty probably sound like the only moral foundations we really need.  But what about patriotism, authority, hierarchy, obedience, deference, temperance, chastity, cleanliness?  Did you squirm when you heard any of those words?

Well, says Haidt, in order to understand the culture wars today, you need to understand how these virtues are valued and expressed in different cultures.  More than that, you need to understand that certain virtues are valued more strongly by people who lean to the political left while other virtues are valued more strongly by people who lean to the political right. This is the righteousness that divides us.

According to Haidt’s research, people who call themselves liberals (with a small ‘l’), or leftists do, in fact, value the moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty above everything else.  When they try to win votes or hearts, says Haidt, they speak to these three values and fail to address the others.   Conservatives, in contrast, tend to value the moral foundations of loyalty (e.g., to group and to nation), authority (e.g., of God and family), and sanctity of the body.  When they try to win over hearts and minds, they speak to all six moral foundations which, argues Haidt, gives them a wider bandwidth on which to be heard.

Leftists extend their morality of care far beyond their own communities. They are universalists with a small “u”. They care about victims and suffering around the world. Conservatives, on the other hand, express a different kind of care.  They care for those who are local, who are part of their own coalitions, who are loyal and have made sacrifices for the group.

Both liberals and conservatives consider fairness important, but fairness holds different meanings for each.  People on the left think of fairness in terms of equality, while people on the right think of fairness in terms of being rewarded in proportion to what one contributes, “even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.”

When it comes to the virtues of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, liberals and conservatives really differ.  When asked whether it is more important to be a team player or to express one’s self, liberals tend to choose self-expression.  Why shouldn’t people have the right to express themselves or to enjoy themselves as long as it harms no one else? Conservatives, in contrast, tend to place the importance of loyalty, of hierarchy, and of purity over the needs of the individual.

There are lots of examples of how this plays out in real life.  When asked what kind of dog they would prefer to own, liberals said they wanted dogs that are gentle and relate to their owners as equals (in other words, they want dogs that reflect their values of care and fairness).  Conservatives, on the other hand, wanted dogs that are loyal and obedient.  Of course, neither group had a stronger preference in terms of sanctity. “Both sides prefer clean dogs.”

Interestingly, one of Haidt’s students did a comparison of the use of language in conservative and liberal churches by comparing sermons delivered by Southern Baptist and Unitarian ministers (surprise, surprise).   What did he find?:  Unitarian preachers made greater use of words having to do with care and fairness (peace, care, compassion, etc.), while Baptist preachers made greater use of words having to do with loyalty, authority and sanctity (obey, duty, honour, etc.).

So here’s the point:  If we come into this world with certain predispositions to develop certain values; if our culture then further shapes who we are; if our intuitions move us in certain directions before our rational minds can even respond, how in heaven’s name are we ever going to get along?  I admit that I am as morally liberal as they come.  I know. I took Haidt’s test.  Stay out of my bedroom.  Stay out of my closet.  Stay out of my body.  As I read Haidt, I found myself thinking, “This guy must be a total right-winger.  Why is he only picking on liberals?”

He says liberals should stop dismissing conservatism as a pathology and start thinking about morality beyond care and fairness. He may come across as an apologist for conservatives, but what he’s really arguing is that liberals need to close the gap between the two extremes by speaking to a wider range of moral foundations that includes loyalty, authority and sanctity.  Do not vilify the other side, Haidt warns.  “If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants… Empathy is an antidote to righteousness.”

Hmmm.  Empathy. I really, really struggle with this.  I’m having a hard time feeling empathy for the legislature in Uganda that just made homosexuality illegal.  I’m having a hard time feeling empathy for the groups in Arizona who want to pass a law to allow businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians on the grounds of religious freedom. Then I think of the conservative governor who vetoed that bill, and wonder if we could find common ground after all. 

I see the division between liberal and conservative as too simplistic – I mean, who is “left” and who is “right” here? Yet, I have no doubt that these moral foundations do make us intuitively reactive and make it hard for us to understand each other.  We watch people who value loyalty and nation-building bumping up against people who sing the words of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”:  “…imagine there’re no countries and no religion, too.”  We watch people who value authority, deference and ritual purity bumping up against people who just want to “self-actualize”. 

Maybe the best that we can do is to find a way to be less reactive and to look more deeply into the moral foundations that make us uncomfortable.  Maybe the best we can do is to explore the boundaries that define us. 

In the film “The Matrix”, the protagonist, Neo, is floating in a vat of goo, his mind enmeshed in a massive consensual hallucination shared by nearly all human beings -- and then he is given a choice.  He can take a red pill, which will disconnect him from the hallucination, and throw his physical body into the messiness of real life.  Or he can take a blue pill, forget he was ever offered the red pill, and remain suspended forever in the comfort of illusion.

So here’s the final choice for you:  Where would you stand on the continuum when you hear this statement?  It is better to take the red pill, to open our eyes to reality and live with discomfort than to remain forever in the comfort of our shared illusions.  Agree or disagree?

Download Righteous Minds, Part II