Note from CM: Sorry folks, but I see I’ve lost the battle today. I feel like the substitute teacher who has no hope of bringing order to the class. Please, either start responding to the points the post makes, or I will close comments for today.
Here’s my summary of what the post is about.
First, I am responding to Stephen’s comment yesterday about sympathizing with his conservative family members.
Second, I am trying to encourage loving our conservative neighbors by better understanding how they respond to the world in certain ways because of their moral instincts.
Third, In order to give us a template for thinking about those moral instincts, I appeal to Jonathan Haidt’s chart of five basic moral impulses, stating it and then restating it so as to give a picture of how, as Stephen said, “They feel lost and are daily confronted with a larger culture they feel alienated from.”
These are the points I had hoped we would discuss more fully today, but we’re chasing rabbits down a hundred other paths instead.
* * *
In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt sets forth five foundations for the moral ways people think. He calls them the “taste buds” or receptors of the righteous mind.
I will call them “impulses” here to reflect Haidt’s point that these are fundamentally intuitive, “gut” instincts by which people respond to moral situations and questions. Reasoning comes later, both justifying and refining our moral viewpoints.
The Care vs. Harm Impulse
This impulse is sensitive to signs of suffering and need. It reacts against cruelty and sympathizes with those who are hurting, wanting to relieve their suffering.
The Fairness vs. Cheating Impulse
This impulse is sensitive to perceptions of fair treatment vs. the sense that someone is being taking advantage of or cheated.
The Loyalty vs. Betrayal Impulse
This is the tribal impulse. It is sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It trusts and rewards such people, and it wants to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray the group.
The Authority vs. Subversion Impulse
This impulse finds security in order and in structures that assign people certain roles to fulfill. Respect for rank and status is to be rewarded, while disrespect and disloyalty must not be tolerated.
The Sanctity vs. Degradation Impulse
This impulse responds to things as clean vs. unclean, sacred vs. profane, virtuous vs. disgusting. As Haidt puts it, “people feel that some things, actions, and people are noble, pure, and elevated; others are base, polluted, and degraded.”
One of the ways Jonathan Haidt applies this understanding of our moral impulses is by looking at how, in general, people and groups who are “liberal” differ from those who are “conservative.” In his work he found that:
- those who identify as liberal tend to emphasize the first two moral impulses,
- whereas conservatives tend to emphasize the last three while redefining the first two.
So then, more “liberal”-minded people care most about care and fairness. They define care primarily in terms of protecting and advancing those who are suffering or have been marginalized — the weak, the poor, the forgotten, the invisible of the world. They define fairness in terms of equality.
The more “conservative”-minded people care also care about care and fairness. But they define care primarily in terms of worthiness — they long that honor be given to those who have proven themselves loyal to the group. And in terms of fairness, they define it not as equality but as proportionality — each getting what is deserved.
“Conservatives” exhibit the last three impulses most strongly. They value loyalty highly, find security in order and defined roles, and view things in terms of the sacred vs. the profane.
In other words, in the culture wars, we have (generally speaking) two opposing tribes, both with “righteous minds” (thinking they are right and their opponents wrong), who are speaking very different moral languages, misunderstanding each other because each can’t translate the moral impulses that drive the other.
This, I think, describes a key element in Stephen’s comment yesterday:
It’s easy to be dismissive and more than a little angry at them but I still feel a great deal of sympathy for the Trump Evangelicals. Perhaps because this group includes some of my own family. They feel lost and are daily confronted with a larger culture they feel alienated from. They can’t rely on the privileges enjoyed by their own parents. They listen to folks they shouldn’t listen to, who assure them there’s an easy way to solve all their problems. When Trump is gone they’ll be even more alienated from the political process than they are now. This is dangerous because frightened people are capable of doing foolish things.
Stephen is describing conservative people here.
- People who have lived their whole lives feeling that certain things are sacred and certain other things are out of bounds, unclean, harmful to those who participate in them, and offensive to God and/or inherent laws of morality.
- People who value and find security in stability, order, and clearly defined roles, and who struggle with changes that upset the balance and make them uncomfortable because they no longer know what to expect or how to speak and act.
- People who want to stay loyal to the institutions and principles that they feel have provided security and well being, and who distrust and fear those who show disrespect or disdain for such loyalties.
- People who value responsibility and wish to see it rewarded while irresponsibility is challenged and not rewarded.
- People who are sensitive to the sacrifices of those who have built and maintained the world they love and wish that our society would prioritize making sure they are recompensed before taking on other care projects.
These are the conservative instincts that move many people to decide and act as they do, in their lives and in their political choices and loyalties. As supportive as I am of other, more progressive instincts to expand opportunity and limit discrimination, to provide care for all our neighbors and not just those who are like us, and to recognize and limit the powers of other corporate, institutional, and systemic threats to liberty besides that of “the government,” I want to make sure that I listen well and understand where my conservative neighbors are coming from too. And to recognize that I have a lot in common with them, and actually appreciate many of their impulses.
Frankly, I still don’t understand (and probably never will) how their “conservative” ethos ever led them to support the current regime in the White House. That choice seems to me to represent the very opposite of everything truly conservative-minded people stand for. That was a crap shoot, one of the riskiest shots in the dark ever fired in American politics. And then for their support to continue unabated while almost every traditional conservative doctrine has been abandoned….
Well, like I said, it’s beyond me.
The only thing I can figure is that “conservative” and “liberal” have taken on a revised meaning in our day. These labels have become mostly tribal designations, signifying more about whose side I’m on rather than describing what I actually think and feel.
Perhaps there was also a sense of desperation (that I admit I have difficulty understanding) about losing their world, that the appeal of a “strong man” presenting himself as their protector and the restorer of greatness was worth the risk.
At any rate, Jonathan Haidt wrote his book to help warring tribes learn to understand each other. To keep from talking past each other ad infinitum. To begin to appreciate the different impulses we think, speak, and live by. To recognize that the “other side” is not evil, but moved by different values, and that the fundamental impulses of others may be just as legitimate as my own and worthy of consideration.
Lion, meet lamb. Lamb, meet lion. Whaddya say we sit down together and talk about it?
Bring your swords too, maybe we can do a little pounding on them together.