Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Towards a Better Understanding of Moral Foundations and the Need for Peace Literacy

So here we are, several months into the Trump Presidency. Oh, and in case you didn't realize it, my last post was about him! That's right, I've been aware of emotional/psychological "arrested development" in adults for almost 25 years now! Most of it is caused by childhood trauma; i.e. bad parenting...but then, that has a multiplying effect generation after generation, so it is no wonder so many people are struggling with ordinary "adult" life, even in this highly technologically advanced society. As Paul K. Chappell points out in his forthcoming book, Soldiers of Peace: How to Wield the Weapon of Nonviolence with Maximum Force -  in spite of all of our advancements in technology, we are "preliterate in peace". In other words we aren't all that good at simply knowing how to get along with one another!

I recently encountered someone with whom I shared a great deal in common...except for "beliefs about God (and Jesus)." I walked away from that encounter convinced that he was more interested in how I believed than how I loved, just as I was more interested in how he loved than how he believed. In spite of everything else that we could have shared, mismatching on this point caused him to decide to end the relationship before it really even got started. It saddened me and left me feeling a bit "mad", as in "crazed" by this crazy maddening world that left us unable to relate with one another more functionally. He said he believed that "everything happens for a reason". If he had met me 15 years ago, I would have agreed with him. Now, I think things happen, and we try to glean some greater meaning from those experiences, especially when they are particularly "Dynamic" or traumatic. This encounter was both for me, and I'm trying now to channel my response into more productive writing, as I will admit, I've gotten a bit complacent living here in the heart of the "Heartland" in Campbellsville, KY!

Nevertheless, I have continued to "study" and one of my recent "text books" was Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics. Wow! What a tour de force in presenting his research on "moral foundations" in a clear and concise way! I appreciated the content as well as the structure of its presentation. Definitely one of my new favorite books!

As summarized here, Haidt describes five "moral foundations" for which there is strong evidence: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation; and one for which the evidence is not quite as strong, but still important to consider, Liberty/Oppression. The moral foundations are things most people can grasp intuitively, or at a "gut" level, what he refers to as "intuitive ethics". However, through culture we learn to give more emphasis to some of the foundations rather than others, or to express them through specific, sometimes very elaborate behaviors and rituals. That's where things start to get messy and conflicts arise: not from conflict over the foundations themselves, but through conflict over their interpretation and behavioral expressions that vary considerably across nations, cultures, religions, and political parties. What Haidt seems to call for in his writing is a deeper recognition of our moral foundations, what we actually share in common, and less emphasis or distraction by all of the different ways humans can embody and express those foundations.

Also, as I have seen for myself, almost every one of our "intractable" social issues arises from an unresolved conflict between moral foundations. For instance, the abortion issue pits "care" for the unborn against the "liberty" of a women to have control over her own body. State sponsored "welfare" is about "care" for those in need, but again, it is in conflict with the "liberty" of taxpayers to control their own resources, or to freely choose to support other charitable organizations rather than have their money taken from them and used through the government bureaucracy. (Keep in mind, this applies to those who are against "corporate welfare" and "bailouts" as well!) There seems to be a general pattern of thinking that goes: "I want my individual liberty (to do whatever I want), and if I make poor choices, I (also) want the government to be there to take care of me (even if I have no respect for the government and its authority)."

The above statement reflects what I have referred to here as an "Individual Biological Moral Code". Haidt also points out that the U.S. represents more of an "individualistic" society, where it is believed that "society is there to serve the individual", while at the other end of the spectrum, China adheres to a more "collectivist" view where the "individual is there to serve society".  As I recently discussed with Paul K. Chappell, I wonder if either of these cultures would be able to continue as they are if it were not for their interactions with one another? Our individualism is great for generating new ideas, new technologies, etc., but not all that great for finding people willing to do the rather monotonous work of reproducing them. The Chinese are not known for innovation, but they do just fine reproducing products designed in the U.S, something I can speak to very directly given my many years experience working in the production-line sewing industry!

Finally, Haidt suggests that we are "90% chimp and 10% bee". In many, many regards our behavior is similar to that of lower primates. We form bonds with certain members of our society and not with others. We form hierarchies. We will care for our own infants as well as infants belonging to other members of our family group (as necessary), but may even kill the infants of non-related members or of rival groups. We can be faithful or unfaithful to our sexual partners.

In addition, however, we also have an enormous capacity to cooperate with a much larger group of otherwise total strangers in order to share a common experience (like a rock concert) or achieve a common goal (like winning an election). That's the "10% bee" part. Furthermore, as Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, it seems one of our greatest talents as humans is to tell stories (like those expressed by all religions concerning the nature of "God" and/or the Universe) as a framework for moral behavior, which can be applied to a much, much, larger group of otherwise unrelated individuals.

Which brings me to one of the points of Haidt's book that really stuck with me: Moral development, learning how to function well and peacefully in a society with other human beings, depends on one's association with a smaller group or "moral community" in which one can be held accountable for one's actions. There has to be some kind of feedback system that allows for "course correction". If you do not grow up in such a community, if you do not feel at least some concern for the good opinion of others, or at least, feel some sense of dependency on others for your overall survival and well-being, then you can behave however you want, without any real moral development taking place, even throughout the course of your entire lifetime!

Furthermore, if you are inclined to think highly of yourself for being one member of the "global community of humankind" without any real connection to a smaller community, one to which you feel more directly accountable, then, again, you can actually live your life as an otherwise immoral person, with no one to stop you, unless your immorality leads you to break laws for which you can be removed from the larger society through incarceration.

This brings me to one final, more recent observation: There are many minority groups in our society whose individual members take great pride in being part of those groups based on their race or gender preference. What is more obvious with race, but maybe less so for some with respect to gender preference, is that both of these characteristics are an expression of a person's biology, over which they have little or no control.  No one consciously chooses to be "Black" or "White," "Asian" or "Hispanic," etc. I have yet to meet a homosexual who claims they are choosing to be homosexual any more than someone else chooses to be heterosexual. And even with religion, at least until fairly recently, a person would be hard-pressed to find others who did not agree with or follow the religion of their birth. Granted, there are opportunities to "choose" to "believe in Christ and accept Him as your Lord and Savior" within various Christian communities, for instance, but if you don't, you may also face shunning or excommunication. At the very least, as long as you continue to be a part of that community, you will also continue to feel the pressure to choose as those in your family/religious community have chosen before you.

So, to a great degree, with regards to race, religion, gender preference, physical disability, etc., no one is actively choosing these identifiable characteristics. However, if there is anything truly unique in the animal kingdom with respect to human beings, it is our capacity for choice with regards to how we behave in our relationships with other human beings, in our relationships with non-humans, and in our relationship with this planet we live on. In his book, Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity's Survival, Paul K. Chappell describes several "muscles" that all human beings can learn to strengthen including the "muscles" of hope, empathy, appreciation, conscience, reason, discipline, and curiosity. These are aspects of our shared humanity that (apart from some forms of mental handicap) we can choose to exercise, no matter what the superficial dictates of our biological, religious, or cultural heritage.

Therefore, rather than focusing so much on the things we can't control, like what race or culture we were born into, or how our brains were wired during development to affect our gender preference/identification, or how intelligent we are, it seems we would be far better off focusing on those human qualities or capacities that we can control, and measuring ourselves, and holding each other accountable, according to how we exercise or demonstrate those capacities. In addition, rather than merely identifying as another member of "the whole of humanity", or even some other broadly recognized majority, minority, secular, religious, or political group, we need to come to embrace and appreciate the importance and power of smaller groups and communities to shape individual and collective moral behavior, to allow ourselves to be held accountable, ideally, for our capacity to exercise our truly human "muscles" of hope, empathy, appreciation, conscience, reason, discipline, and curiosity!

Finally, to begin to bridge the seeming gaps between secular and religious beliefs as well as political ideologies, we need to give more direct consideration to the underlying moral foundations of Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression rather than seeing only the surface expressions that vary so widely from culture to culture, religion to religion, and between political parties. 

We must realize we all hold individual responsibility to be Moral Actors and to mature as Moral Actors through the course of our lives and to be held accountable by the smaller communities we either grow-up in or consciously choose. No matter how technologically advanced we become, our long-term success as a species and our individual and collective well-being in the here and now depend on our learning to live together more peacefully.

In Soldiers of Peace..., Paul K. Chappell explains that the majority of human beings were once illiterate with respect to reading and writing. At a certain point in human society we realized that learning to read and write was critical for our survival. Now we have reached another critical point in human society where we are mostly "illiterate in peace", and our survival depends on our becoming "peace literate". I look forward to continuing to take part in and contribute to that ongoing education effort!

Sincerely and Respectfully Yours, In Peace...

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