Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Moral Foundations: Disagreement Devoid of Destructive Disputations

God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and his covenants and doctrines are immutable... Old values are upheld by the Church not because they are old, but rather because through the ages they have proved right
- Spencer W. Kimball

- Casey Walrath

How do you interact with someone who seems to hold a fundamentally different worldview than you? How do you understand a belief system that seems, at its core, to reject your most sacred values? In politics, the answer is simple enough: You take your ball and make up a new game where only your team gets to play. Then just keep moving the goalpost as you go and you're guaranteed to never lose! There's a reason you'll never see the aforementioned links - or any other partisan media source - issue a statement like, "Sorry, guys, we were wrong about everything. We blew it; good luck voting for the other side." Nope, humans seem pretty much hardwired to think we're right about everything all the time. It's hard to change our minds, and even if we do we're likely to act the same way about our new Cherished Beliefs.

Enter Jonathan Haidt, Univeristy of Virginia psychology professor. Haidt's ideas on the moral foundations of human reasoning have been making their way through the internet as a new way of explaining the roots of political partisanship, especially between liberals and conservatives. Basically, Haidt and his co-authors categorize moral foundations into five separate foundations (actually one more has since been added, but for simplicity I'll stick with the first five). Borrowing and rephrasing the summaries from Wikipedia, they are:

1. Care - protecting others from harm
2. Fairness - treating others equally
3. Loyalty or Ingroup - attachment to groups, such as family, church, or country
4. Respect or Authority - deference to tradition or hierarchy
4. Purity or Sanctity - avoidance of disgusting things, like certain foods or immoral actions

Essentially, Haidt found (primarily through a self-selected online survey) that liberals tend to identify strongly with Care and Fairness as their moral foundations, while conservatives tend to weigh all five equally. That is why liberals and conservatives seem to talk past each other on issues of right and wrong -- the basis for their values actually are different. Liberal arguments for gay marriage, for example, rely heavily on Fairness, in terms of equality before the law, and on Care, eliminating the stigma and marginalization of homosexuality. Conservatives arguments rely more on the latter three foundations, as they tend to see homosexuality as abnormal, non-traditional, and unclean. It gets more complicated -- for example, in evaluating Fairness liberals like broader equality where conservatives  favor procedural justice and deservingness, but you get the idea.

This, only with more name-calling.
I'm wary of some of Haidt's stronger claims on how "native" his moral foundations are to our brains (my pomo side scoffs and my inner rationalist is suspicious), but it's at least a useful lens for looking at how we interact with people on "the other side." Specifically, I'm interested in how the dynamic works within the LDS Church.

It may come as a shock to some of you, but I'm a bit of a liberal myself (aside: not a progressive; that's a weasel word for people who are scared because Rush Limbaugh made the L-word taboo). That label also applies to my church membership. I know, I know. Pray for me. As fun as Haidt's framework is for politics, it also applies pretty well in how I view the church. To me the church is primarily a vehicle for personal spiritual improvement (+Care), but not for demanding orthodoxy (-Loyalty). I wish women had an equal role in church governance (+Fairness), and I don't like defining modesty in terms of what clothes they wear (-Purity). Also, I tend to be a bit flippant in my attitudes toward authority (cf the beginning of this post) (-Respect). Within the church that makes me a minority (which, according to Haidt, liberals will tend to be in most organizations), though my views are pretty standard for the bloggernacle.

So Moral Foundations is a nice theory, but what can we do with it? For Haidt, his goal is to promote a more civil discourse in American politics and to point out detrimental effects conservative underrepresentation has had on some social science scholarship. For me, it's useful to understand that even when I don't agree with someone on doctrine or politics, it's entirely likely that they're coming from a position of good faith, and are perhaps more than dumb or deliberately annoying (though I can't rule out that some people are flat-out misinformed, maybe even me... a little ...sometimes).

Effective tax rates tend to equalize across income due to state and payroll taxes, DUH! And OF COURSE it's related to the priesthood ban!

                         SHORYUKEN IN THE BRAIN
I may not accept arguments based on purity, authority, or tradition for their own sakes, but without accepting that others do there's little chance of finding any common ground. And I hope that others recognize the moral foundations I base my argument on, even if they ultimately reject them. Without some mutual understanding there's hardly any point in speaking besides the feelings of superiority and smugness that come from delivering a devastating intellectual Dragon Punch the other side will ignore anyway (I have been guilty of this many times). Or I can take the Fox News/MSNBC approach and retreat to my personal intellectual corner where I only deal with people I already agree with. That approach, while plenty satisfying, is ultimately just self-gratification.

After accepting that others may have different foundations, what then? Haidt's blog has a lot of ideas on improving policy debates, but in the context of the church it's trickier. The church isn't a democracy, and there's no official outlet for any kind of dissent or disagreement. In fact, it's semi-officially frowned-on (or, depending on who you talk to, VERY officially). Carving out a space for liberal thought within the church entails a brand of dissonance that many members and ex-mormons alike deny is possible. Ralph Hancock is a jerk, but he's basically correct in assuming that the institutional church is more compatible with a conservative moral foundation than a liberal one.

Nevertheless, it's worth it for me to find room for my moral foundations in the church. Members like Hancock may not like people like me polluting their doctrinal purity. In fairness, he'd probably prefer I repent and become a Republican (or, dare I say, Libertarian?) rather than leave or be removed from the church, but as Haidt recognizes, a group devoid of any differing voices -- even if they're only a minority -- is stagnant and worse off without them. Likewise, being that voice can be a challenge, but it also allows for a richer experience in dealing with, and learning to love, people who you'd otherwise dismiss as too crazy to deal with.


For more about Haidt, check out his site site here, find out your moral foundations here, read his blog on political applications here, or listen to his TED speech here. I insist you do all of them.

PS. I had intended to write a follow-up to my last post by now, but events conspired against me and as I sat down to write this topic was on my mind instead. For the two or three of you eagerly awaiting more on Imminence: I'm surprised there are so many of you, and I promise I'll write it soon.

1 comment:

  1. I found this very helpful. I feel like I keep reading things that remind me "oh yeah, you were going to work on that whole try to figure out how others prioritize knowledge or privilege ways of knowing." ... But then I get all pissed off because they don't do it my way. So when I read something with the train of thought that invites me to stay true to ethical pomo plurality that I know speaks to my soul, it just keeps reminding me to try a little harder to practice what I like to think I really do believe.