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Ideals, Morality, and the divide between conservative and liberal

January 18, 2009

When I try to think of ideal situations, what comes to mind is when people are free, cared for, accepted for who they are, unharmed and not harming others, etc., People are treated fairly and people treat others fairly. People are not controlled, but instead, they just naturally seem to work together to reach the best goals.

So much for ideal situations.

When I see the benefits of things like religion, I find it’s because I’m able to frame some aspect of religion into one of these things. It’s about finding what in a religion or philosophy will make people freer, what will make people more cared for, what will make people more accepted, etc., When I have a problem with some ideology, it’s usually because I can’t see how these things reach these goals.

Now, I know some people who will take this perspective — of not being able to see how certain religions or philosophies or ideologies reach these goals — and then will flatly denounce them. I mean, we have nonbelievers who not only do not believe, but who roundly reject that the thing they oppose could be good. When people speak about the “new atheists,” “militant atheists,” or “vocal atheists,” that seems like what they do. And isn’t it a shame? Not necessarily because their position is wrong or right (who knows?!), but that in using such polarizing terms, they close off the lines of communication just as easily as those of any dogma do. They turn people away from their ideas with their forceful presentation.

The problem that all these guys have to deal with is…if these ideologies are so wrong…then why do they persist? They must come up with all kinds of explanations to reason this out (now, I know: just because many people believe something doesn’t make it right)…they might claim mass delusion or it being some evolutionary by-product (always a by-product…or at best, an adaptation that might once have been useful, but certainly couldn’t be effective anymore). I have to come to the conclusion myself that even if I don’t see the reason for all of it and even if the supposed windows to the heavens are closed to me even if I knock, they are very well open — or at least, people sincerely believe they are open — to quite a few many people. And this can’t just be waved off.

And it pervades into others’ thinking. I mean, I’d like to think that my ideal situation is good enough for anyone, but for many, it would be woefully incomplete. They would suggest things in their ideal situation that I completely failed to mention in mine, and which I might very well be horrified to hear. Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, has done a lot of research into what makes the foundation of moral psychology. He has been invited and spoken at TED about his Moral Foundations Theory (so if you don’t want to read a long-ish paper, you can watch a 20 minute video)

It makes sense to me. It makes sense that when I think of the ideal moral systems, I (and I think, other likeminded people) focus on two of the five moral foundations theorized: care/harm and fairness/justice. I severely discount the other three of the foundations, whether consciously (but I don’t think this is necessarily the case), or unconsciously (which I think is moreso the case): loyalty/in-group relationships, respect/authority, and purity/sanctity.

And it seems that there is just common-sense empirical evidence to support this. When I look in awe at the Mormon church or the Republican party or any of these things…even if I disagree with them, I recognize that they have this organizational security that is astounding. It kinda hinges on this loyalty emphasis and the respect/authority emphasis. I lament how liberal groups or the exmormon/disaffected communities are sometimes more disorganized and chaotic (but there are of course examples to the contrary)…and then I wonder if the very nature of the way we think might propel us to this. And it seems so.

Interestingly, these morality systems aren’t incompatible, which Jonathan hints at in the TED video. We might think of only Conservatives as “rejecting” certain aspects about themselves to be pure (think of Mormon examples: Word of Wisdom, Law of Chastity, etc., but these aren’t the only instances)…but 1) even I can recognize the value in these kinds of things and 2) even a liberal can have certain ‘gut’ standards of purity (even if they redirect themselves to restricting behavior for environmentalism or dietary concerns). Most people will have a ‘gut’ ingroup loyalty system (so most people would, for example, be horrified in the idea of [brace yourselves, but Jonathan uses this example a few times] eating a pet who has died, even if there seems to be no objective harm from it [well-cooked, etc.,]).

So, it seems like there should be a way to bring the best of both worlds…yet we also don’t see that happening. For example, even when I see what I perceive to be the good aspects of the church, it’s generally going to be from a focus on care or fairness first. I (and I think many other nonbelievers) are somewhat blind to that fact that many churchgoers go for completely different reasons — so we are indignant when people try to vote the rights of us or others away (see: Prop 8), even when these people genuinely believe in an order that must be upheld even if it raises something like purity or sanctity above fairness.


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