Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind blew me away when I first read it years ago. In it, Haidt, a research psychologist explores why people disagree with one another and why it’s often so difficult to see other people as decent human beings.
Central to his argument is that humans act of of their moral intuitions first and tend to reason out of these basic intuitions. This paradoxically is mostly a good thing! It means that we don’t have to continually choose to not steal food off of the shelves, we just natural walk to the til. On the other hand when moral intuitions disagree it can become disastrous.
Haidt explains that moral intuitions both bind and blind. He writes,
“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” (Quoted in Jacobs, Think, 79).
This is a helpful way of clarifying the challenge that strongly held moral beliefs have for us, and it also should raise a red flag about seeing ourselves as “rational” and others as “irrational” when we disagree. Is it possibly a distinct difference in moral values?
This isn’t merely as simple as a quick second thought. Often we are opaque to our own moral intuitions until a conflict arises. In my first year of marriage my wife and I went shopping for Christmas decorations. She wanted a normal, nice tree with bright silver lights. I wanted the multi-colour bulbs (green, red, blue, yellow etc.). She said “No.” I got pretty adamant but eventually relented. Apparently I wanted my Christmases to look like my childhood and assumed that she would want that as well. I hadn’t even realized this was meaningful to me until we had an argument. This was lightbulbs. And people wonder why marriages end over actual serious disagreements…
Jacob’s unpack’s C.S. Lewis’s idea of an inner ring to give a sense of how people pick their “moral” narrative. Lewis points out that each organization is comprised of two different organizations. The official organization and the “unwritten” organization or “the Inner Ring,” which is unofficial but highly influential. This makes sense to me. Sometimes the leader of a church or a political party etc. aren’t the ones actually driving and influencing the organization as a whole.
Lewis writes, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…[and] of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” Lewis as quoted in Jacobs, Think, 81.
It is often difficult for me to understand what makes a person turn a blind eye to moral evil within their own community. The deference to authority and the groupthink involved in protecting abusers within all sorts of communities illustrate this well. I think Jacobs offers at least one answer. The desire to belong shifts our moral intuitions to protect our “Inner Ring,” coming up with reasons that our moral community is good and those outside aren’t.
Perhaps this is why it is so tempting to defend the horrors and evils perpetuated by people “like us.” Who we consider to be a part of our “imagined” community of “conservatives,” “liberals,” “progressives” etc. It is so easy to connect enemies “beliefs” and ideology to the evil that occurs. If we are liberal abuse that happens in Conservative circles is easily and closely identified with the ideology we most disagree with–authoritarianism. If we are conservative, abuse that happens in Liberal circles is easily and closely identified with the ideology we most abhor–freedom from moral values.
This quick identification of ideology and concrete evil is less easy to make when it happens with those within our community. Which is why we resist it, rationalize it away and perhaps simply refuse to believe it. “How could it possibly be that a person I went to Church with for years, and volunteered on the school board together could be accused of such a horror?”
Social media only helps such a situation. The easy accusation. The endless stream of anecdotes which supply our moral intuitions with concrete evidence of their truth. The half-truths and shaded information that is provided to us without context permits us to see our enemies as they truly are, and binds us to those who share our view of whoever our enemies might be.
We are bound to the people we love and to those who share our loves. I don’t think it is something we can avoid. One thing that has been a huge help to me is something called the “hermeneutic of charity,” which more or less means, “assume the person you are trying to understand is a decent person who has decent reasons for what they are saying.” Its not always true, but it goes a long way to understanding just a little better.
Excerpt From: Alan Jacobs. How to Think.” Apple Books.
Excerpt From: Alan Jacobs. “How to Think.” Apple Books.