Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Moral Instincts and Virtuous Behaviors:

Published on Monday, March 25, 2019

Moral Instincts and Virtuous Behaviors:

Impeachment, Michael Cohen, and the Roots of Morality ... as Well as Our Divisions


I try not to indulge in political controversy in these blogs – how to not wins friends or influence people, right? But OK, allow me just this one time, all right?

In the March issue of The Atlantic is a cover story by Yoni Appelbaum simply titled “Impeach” – the cover (lead photo) with that word splashed in bright, bold red. I’m actually not going to go much into Appelbaum’s piece except to say that this writer elaborates on five reasons why Congress' impeachment process against President Trump ought to now go forward. On page 80 the author summarizes these five points: Shifting the public’s attention to the president’s lack of ability, thus constraining his antics, as he attempts to control the narrative; tipping the balance of power away from him; skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking; moving the fight to a rule-bound, constitutionally based forum; and in the process, dealing lasting damage to Trump’s political future.

But underlying all of this, Appelbaum makes a persuasive argument that Congress has a constitutional obligation – given the evidence of impropriety at the least and criminal behavior at the most – to open its own investigation of these matters (see second photo below). In fact, it matters not at all whether ultimately the chances of such a move would in the last analysis succeed through both houses of Congress. There is basically a moral, ethical obligation to examine the matter – even if such a process could potentially harm a politician’s chance of being re-elected. Playing to one’s base to safeguard one’s own hide is cowardly at best and despicable in the end.

Perhaps underneath it all is the question of morality in the public square, as well as a sense of morality in each individual’s heart. Moral action that challenges our current polarized status quo ... before we as a country fall apart. Before things fly apart and the center – our country and the values it stands for – can no longer hold.

In The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating our Stories Over a Lifetime, as well as in the other books I have written in recent years, I have tried to describe my take on what it means to be a human being. And I have drawn gratefully from fellow psychologists and theologians who have enlightened me along the way. To the point here, I described research carried out by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues on the evolutionary roots of our moral intuitions. Based on a series of studies, Haidt and Joseph (Daedalus, Fall 2004, pp. 55-66) specify at least four hard-wired, evolutionary based moral intuitions: Suffering, Hierarchy, Reciprocity, and Purity. These are hard-wired intuitions we are born with that get triggered by events that move us to respond positively or negatively to what goes on around us – without needing to think it all out ahead of time. These intuitions then get expressed further in various forms of virtuous behavior. As an example, I offer the following:

Suffering originally evolved in response to our ancestors seeing vulnerability and suffering in their offspring (i.e., the development of this moral sense had survival value for our species). Examples of contemporary triggers to this intuitive, hard-wired moral response are photos of baby seals being clubbed to death or pictures of malnourished and starving children in Bangladesh. A typical emotional response to such suffering is compassion, and [examples of virtuous behavior flowing from such an intuition] are charitable giving, joining the Peace Corps, or working in a soup kitchen. (p. 85)
Other fellow psychologists, Dan McAdams and his colleagues, have extended Haidt’s work into the political realm. In a very interesting article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2008 (third photo below), they found sharp distinctions between liberals (or progressives, in today’s terms) and conservatives along several moral dimensions. To quote from that article at the risk of oversimplifying a bit, they offer this summary of their line of research:

From this examination of 128 case studies of devoutly Christian midlife adults suggest that political conservatives and liberals narrate their respective lives in distinctively different ways. ... When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, conservatives underscored deep feelings about respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized their deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness. (p. 987)
One take-home point that can be extrapolated from this and other studies is that both conservatives and liberals see the world in different moral terms, and they act on their perceptions in daily life and in the voting booth; and if they are in Congress, in the laws they attempt to legislate. So perhaps members of the “other” political party are not just stupid or intransigent; they simply see the world in different, heartfelt moral terms.

However, I believe both Haidt and McAdams and their colleagues would also recognize that despite the fact that such moral intuitions are hard-wired, one’s sense of morality can be compromised and even lost somewhere along the way. This brings me to one of my favorite columnists at The New York Times, David Brooks. Over the years Brooks increasingly has become the voice of moral conscience for that newspaper. He wrote a beautiful column following Michael Cohen’s downfall which was played out in exquisite detail in the media (“Morality and Michael Cohen,” The New York Times, Friday, March 1, 2019).

Brooks points out that “normal people have moral sentiments [as we have discussed above]. Normal people are repulsed when the president of their own nation lies, cheats, practices bigotry, allegedly pays off porn star mistresses.” But he points out the obvious: Republican House members have simply and apparently decided to turn off their own moral circuits. And this is how “moral corrosion” develops. Brooks writes that “supporting Trump requires daily acts of moral distancing, a process that means that after a few months you are tolerant of any corruption.” He adds, “here is the commandment that experience teaches us: Immorality usually bites you in the ass. If you behave in a way that betrays relationships and obliterates the truth and erases your own integrity, you will sooner or later wind up where Michael Cohen has wound up – having ruined your life.”

In fact, any of us can lose our way. We are a bundle of good and not-so-good proclivities, and Brooks ends his piece with a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:

Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. ... A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well – or ill.
We do in fact live in perilous times. And Steinbeck’s question is one that we will all face in the end, whether we are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, progressives or polarized extremists. If you turn off your best moral angels’ sentiments within and allow the corrosion of your moral intuitions – those in Congress who represent us, and you and me in the end – we all will have sold our souls in the process.

Sorry for the tone. But it is Lent, folks.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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