The Polarization Series: A Look at our Moral Foundations

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In my last piece in this series, I argued that our minds are susceptible to a host of biases and deceptions which influence our decisions. We are inclined to jump to conclusions, and make up stories to justify our beliefs – even when we lack concrete evidence to back up our claims.

This can partially explain why we are sometimes dumbfounded when questioning the judgements or actions of others. Of course, we all have the ability to act rationally, but our capacity to think clearly about issues is in large part shaped by our environment, as well as our emotions.

Let’s continue to peel the layers of and explore what factors influence our judgements.

With so much cultural and moral diversity apparent throughout history and across different societies in the modern era, is there anything that binds us together? After all, in spite of these disagreements on what we consider right or wrong, each of us humans share a common ancestry.

Moral Foundations Theory

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues developed a theory to try and answer these perennial questions. Moral Foundations Theory proposes that we all have a set of fundamental moral intuitions which guide our behaviour. In the Righteous Mind, Haidt puts forth six building blocks of morality. 

Moral FoundationDescriptionExamples
(1) Care\HarmWe are sensitive to others who are suffering, and are inclined to care for those who are vulnerable or in need.Care for a small child, or someone who is ill.
(2) Fairness\CheatingEnables us to be aware and reject ‘free riders’ in instances of group collaboration, that is those individuals who get the rewards of something but didn’t contribute.Explains our aversion towards those who are rewarded without ‘paying their fair share.’
(3) Loyalty\BetrayalEvolved to allow us to build coalitions and work collaboratively. Motivates us to reward those who remain faithful to a cause, while punish those who detract.Think of when your favourite player gets traded to a rival team.
(4) Authority\SubversionObedience to hierarchy, rank and position. Also includes the desire to follow traditions, institutions and shared values.Respect for parents and family, cultural traditions, and institutions.
(5)Sanctity\DegradationClosely associated what we deem as ‘sacred’.   On the flip side, feelings of ‘disgust’ arise in cases where someone degrades what we hold as sacred.Principles, objects or places we place an infinite value on.   Religious symbols, objects of patriotism including national flags, saints or heroes.
(6) Liberty\OppressionInclination to resist unwarranted authority, domination or tyranny.Desire towards equality and freedom.

Haidt comes up with yet another brilliant metaphor to explain a pluralist account of how we can all share these moral foundations yet have starkly different attitudes towards various contentious issues.

The analogy is as follows. All of us humans have the same five taste receptors, but like a variety of different cuisines. Cultures have different foods which satisfy our desire for sweetness. I may like churros while a friend may prefer baklava – nonetheless both desserts are satisfying the same taste receptor.  

Further, some of us could be more inclined towards foods which are more bitter, while others prefer foods which are sour. Just because we have the capacity for different tastes doesn’t mean we like them all equally.

Haidt’s thesis states that we are all born with the same six moral intuitions.  However, the variety and differentiation in our morals and values comes as a result of us our societal and cultural upbringings as well as our social interactions.  Different practices can satisfy the same moral foundation, and some groups may be drawn to some values more than others.

This allows for both rigid moral foundations, yet flexibility in the development of cultural norms.

Political Applications

What is interesting about Moral Foundations Theory is that can be applied to a range of issues, mostly notably politics.

Haidt’s research is able to help us discern what moral foundations underpin the values of liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

  • Liberals are motivated by (1) Care\harm and (2) Fairness\cheating foundations and (6) the Liberty\Oppression foundation. Focused on issues of fairness and social justice, liberals are driven by the desire to push for policies which expand equal treatment to minorities and marginalized groups. The attention is on the individual rights as opposed to the group.
  • Haidt found that conservatives appeal equally to all six foundations, giving the most weight to upholding tradition, social intuitions and shared values in order to uphold social cohesion.
  • Lastly, libertarians prioritize the (6) Liberty\Oppression foundation, namely advocating for freedom from interference by the state.

Search for the Grey Areas

Moral Foundations Theory offers us a starting point to better understand those who disagree with us on certain issues.  It is easy to simply talk past one another, especially in cases when two people have a different set of moral values.  As postdoctoral researcher Kristin Hurst notes,  

People on both sides of the political spectrum tend to frame their own issues using the language and arguments that align with the moral convictions of their own group. We can have a hard time recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s moral convictions and, because of that, find it difficult to craft arguments that resonate with people who prioritize a different set of values 

While we may not be convinced by another’s argument nor change our mind, at a minimum we can gain insight on which of the 6 moral foundations someone is appealing to.  With this, we can understand how to frame the issue in a way which is more sensitive to the moral concerns of others in order to try and develop a common ground on what is actually being debated.  

Each of the political paradigms or ways of seeing the world have both positives and negatives. For instance, there is a tradeoff between promoting individual rights (liberalism) and upholding traditions and social cohesion (conservatism).

Issues arise when we divide others into right or wrong or slip into black and white thinking. Rather than becoming fixated on our differences we can try to work towards searching for the ‘grey areas’, the things we can agree on and search for compromise.


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A Life of Virtue Turns One: Some Thoughts About the Current Crisis

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When I started this blog a year ago, I didn’t really have a clear idea on what direction it would go or how it would evolve.

I was inspired by thinkers and organizations who were applying philosophical ideas to the many issues we face in our modern societies. This led me down the rabbit hole to discover channels such as Alain De Botton’s School of Life, Rebel Wisdom as well as John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series.

It is exciting to see communities emerging like The Stoa who facilitate dialogues with a wide range of unique thinkers and practitioners trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world.

A World in Peril

We live in strange times.

Very strange times.

There is a general skepticism, made particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, that our social, economic and political institutions are not well suited to deal with many of the issues that we face in the 21st century.

Some have questioned if the current path we are on as a society is desirable or even sustainable.

Do we have the right ‘tool kit’ and systems in place to deal with the many global problems and existential threats we face?

To name a few: 

As a society it seems like we are running faster and faster into the future without a clear direction of where we are going.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

In a highly competitive globalized environment that prioritizes status and consumption, short-term thinking takes precedence. We lose sight of the consequences of our actions that extend past our limited horizon.

These issues are compounded by our broken information ecosystem in which it is getting more and more difficult to have consensus on basic facts. Reality thus becomes filtered down to us through politicized news media or our personalized social media feeds.

We are forced to ask, who is truly looking out for our best interests?

The Need for Philosophy in the Modern Age

In times of deep uncertainty, philosophical inquiry can be used to help us understand some of the problems we face as a society more deeply.

It may not provide concrete solutions or answers, but it does force us to slow down and think.

Ideas matter. They are like the glasses we wear to interpret the world around us.

This is why critical thinking is so important. In an age of information overload and false information, we can turn to the ancient wisdom of Socrates.

Socrates famously said “I know one thing – that I know nothing.” This idea, coined as Socratic ignorance, helps us resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or conform to the popular beliefs of the time. Socrates asks us to rigorously question and examine our beliefs, compare and contrast different viewpoints and engage in honest good faith dialogue with others.

This is how we find truth and cultivate wisdom.

The American sociologist and education scholar Peter W. Cookson Jr. argues that this type of multidimensional and critical thinking is needed to address many of the interconnected crises we face in the 21st century. He notes that our education systems should be transformed to promote interdisciplinary learning rather than teaching subjects in rigid silos or compartments. The industrial education model of memorization, conformity and standardized testing in no longer sufficient for the modern era.

Rather flexibility, creativity and the ability to look at problems from multiple different angles should be prioritized. In sum, we need to learn how to navigate through complexity.

As the challenges facing the globe become increasingly complex, our frames of reference must be flexible, expansive, and adaptive …

By looking at a challenge from multiple points of view, we are more likely to arrive at a realistic, effective solution.

What Would Socrates Say?
Peter W. Cookson Jr. , Educational Leadership
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

The Role of the Individual and the Need to Look Inward

The future ahead may seem daunting.

We may be inclined to cling our existing beliefs, support a certain political ideology or be attached to our personal grand narrative of how society must change.

Technical or political solutions may be necessary, but we should first do our own homework. Look inwards and take ownership and responsibility of our lives first. Examine your own beliefs and biases, and prioritize the truth rather than the desire to be ‘right’.

As the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire noted, we must first “cultivate one’s own garden.”

Only then can we learn to be a proactive rather than reactive.

Robert Pirsig eloquently reflects on this idea in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  

Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert Pirsig

 Going forward in this next year in the blog, I hope to continue to explore how philosophy can be a useful tool in fostering critical self-reflection and helping us make sense of a seemingly chaotic world.  

I aspire to work towards the virtue of humility, to be open to new ideas and perspectives. To be able to examine my own belief systems and change my mind on an issue if the evidence requires me to do so.

Thank all for following the blog, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the content.

Here’s to another year of writing and philosophical inquiry.

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Navigating Polarization: A Roadmap

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One of the things that the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is the interconnectedness of the humanity. Technology has enabled us to develop global networks making the world much smaller. 

This has made it clear that many of the problems we now face are global in nature ranging from climate change to international finance.

Yet, our politics and dialogue have become more divisive. We retreat into our social media echo chambers failing to entertain opposing views.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I think philosophy can play a role here in mending polarization in society through carefully examining our beliefs and using reason and logic to come to sensible conclusions. Crafting the space for dialogue and accepting the degree of vulnerability necessary to have authentic conversations can enable us to be more tolerant of opposing views.

In order to do this however we have to adopt an earnest commitment to seeking truth. Yes, we can ultimately come to different conclusions after our own analysis. However, we don’t need hold resentment or contempt to those who oppose us.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that

Martin Luther King

Of course, there is no silver bullet response to this issue of polarization but here are some approaches which can help restore more authentic and genuine dialogue.

Socratic Questioning

If you have ever taken an intro to philosophy class you probably have come across the peculiar and intriguing figure known as Socrates. A man of ancient Greece, Socrates would openly challenge conventional wisdom and societal norms through rigorous questioning and dialogue.  

The Socratic method is meant to unpack our beliefs to assess whether they are backed by evidence and logically coherent. Through this we can identify potential inconsistencies and counter arguments for our convictions. 

This approach teaches us to assess our opinions with curiosity and inquiry like a scientist testing out various different hypothesis. Furthermore, it requires us to approach problems with a degree of humility and cultivate the willingness to change our minds if we are confronted with evidence that requires us to do so.  We can peel away the layers to expose the core values underpinning our beliefs, and perhaps start to see those whose opinions differ from ours with a sense of empathy and understanding.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates
Source : Max Böhme

Mindfulness and Non-Judgemental Awareness

As humans, we are fraught with bias continually jumping to conclusions without a thorough examination of evidence. Mindfulness and self-awareness can play a role here as an antidote to self-deception.  This practice allows us objectively be conscious of our passing emotions and sensations. Under stress, pressure and intense dialogue we often act on instinct rather rational thought.

If we were to take a brief pause to observe our bodily sensations, we can be aware of our racing heart rate, sweaty palms and maybe the fiery burning sensation in our chest. Rather than acting out on this, we can become mindful and accept these feelings and allowing them to pass.

Through awareness and acceptance, we can be in the driver’s seat to have greater control over our emotions during a heated conversation.  We can distance ourselves from these uncomfortable feelings and respond more rationally.  

Rule Omega

The notion of Rule Omega is an idea put forth by Jordan Hall, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jamie Wheel on the Rebel Wisdom channel. It holds every statement, even if it is contrary to our core values, contains some ‘signal’(truth) and ‘noise’(non-sense). Rather than focusing on the areas where we disagree, we can shift our attention to the aspects of our opponents’ statement that we can understand and sympathize with.

Andrew Sweeny summarizes this idea nicely below,

We desperately need to pay attention to people who are outside of our information bubble or ideological group. A good practice Schmachtenberger suggests we expose ourselves to multiple sources of media on the right and on the left. For example, a liberal could watch Fox News occasionally and a conservative could read The Guardian…………

The point is to venture into the places that make us uncomfortable, and try to see what part of the truth those ‘enemies’ hold. Sometimes a holy grail of truth is buried under a mountain of lies.

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One of the traits I want to cultivate through this blog as well as through my mindfulness practice is to try and look at issues from an unbiased and objective standpoint – to distance myself from my internal biases and judgements. Of course, this is not easy and will take practice and time as I strive towards the virtues of empathy, compassion and understanding.

I encourage all who are reading this, try stepping out of your information echo systems and make a genuine effort to try and understand different opinions and beliefs. You never know, you may see things in different light.