A little understanding of “where the other side is coming from” may help to tone down the insults and negative verbiage currently taking place across the dinner table or the negative views of neighbors displaying political signs you don’t agree with. Well you know – whether you are “red” or “blue,” today’s political scene is indeed shocking. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, so to paraphrase that guy from the Farmer’s Insurance ad on TV, “I know a thing or two, ‘cause I’ve seen a thing or two!” So we’ve seen this before – angry, red-faced marchers, taking to the street; hysterical tweets (not then, but now); news conferences that aren’t news conferences actually, but gatherings to attack from both sides of the podium.

Thinking about all the divisiveness in our country these days (see my last sermon posted on this website – might be relevant here), this brings me to a piece that appeared in the American Psychological Association’s publication called the Monitor on Psychology – the purpose of which is to bring research findings in the public interest to light, for readers who don’t necessarily read the scientific journals but who might actually benefit from some of the research published today. (See the lead photo.)

The topic for this particular issue of the Monitor (September 2016) was research in the field of what’s termed “moral psychology” – the origin and shaping of moral intuitions or sentiments in humans and their expression in everyday behavior. Several researchers have shown that we are in fact born with such moral preferences (e.g., for good guys rather than bad guys) – even apparently when babies are shown cartoons and can choose their “likes” and “dislikes,” they choose the good guys.

In my latest book, The Fiction of Our Lives; Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime, I did take a look at one line of work in moral psychology that I find particularly persuasive. Jonathan Haidt – formerly on the faculty at University of Virginia and now at New York University – has spent some years with students and colleagues studying what he terms “moral foundations theory.” Within this theoretical framework, Haidt argues that we might trace our moral intuitions back to their evolutionary roots because they had survival value. He and others have suggested that there are at least six universal such moral intuitions found across cultures.

In my book I focus on four of these moral tendencies that he and his colleague, Craig Joseph, labeled Suffering, Hierarchy, Reciprocity, and Purity. (See the second photo below which displays a table from one of their publications.) Research by his group and others has shown that political conservatives versus liberal-minded thinkers do differ in regard to which moral persuasions are dominant. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from my book to give you a flavor of their argument. And then I’ll turn to our current, scary political arena and actually argue for some humanizing of the “enemy” – whichever side you happen to be on in the blue/red divide. On pp. 85-86, I write:
[They argue that ] 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 the relevant virtue is charitable giving, joining the Peace Corps, or working in a soup kitchen.

Haidt and Joseph follow the same line of reasoning for each of the other moral intuitions. The moral sense of hierarchy evolved in our ancestors confronting physical size, domination, and protection; modern triggers of our intuitive sense of hierarchy include responses to “bosses” and to God; emotional resentment or awe follows, calling for the virtue of obedience and loyalty. Similarly for reciprocity, the intuition became hardwired in our brains as a function of group cooperation and food sharing; current triggers include marital fidelity or vending machines that work or not; emotional responses include guilt or gratitude, and the culturally shaped virtue associated with this moral intuition is fairness and trustworthiness. Finally, our sense of moral purity originally arose in response to tribal members displaying parasites or disease, or the sight of animal waste products that could contaminate; modern triggers include taboo subjects such as incest or cannibalism. A typical emotional response to impurity is disgust; and the associated, culturally learned virtue is cleanliness or chastity.
It was Dan McAdams and his colleagues at Northwestern University who then did the follow-up study looking at political implications of these universal tendencies with which we are born, but are differentially affected by in our daily lives. That is, some of the tendencies are more salient than others in our own sensibilities and subsequent behavior. In a study called “Family Metaphors and Moral Intuitions: How Conservatives and Liberals Narrate Their Lives” (see the third photo below), McAdams and colleagues demonstrated that generally, Conservatives are much more persuaded to respond to issues involving hierarchy or purity; Liberals are more likely to respond to issues regarding suffering, reciprocity or fairness.

The point that McAdams and his colleagues make at the end of their report is that those you don’t agree with politically are still operating in good faith out of a strong sense of moral intuition that colors unconsciously their view of the world and thus, the rightness of their positions – and prompts them to vote and act on that world view. So maybe, instead of viewing the Other on the opposite side of the political divide as stupid or intransigent, it might be the wiser course to adopt a sense of respect at least for their own different sense of right and wrong that translates into what they view as virtuous behavior.

I don’t know if all that helps or not. But thinking about this might reduce our tendencies to demonize the political Other. Understanding the evolutionary roots of today’s moral intuitions, emotional responses, and the behavior which flows out of that base, won’t change the outbreaks of egregious maleficence or psychopathology displayed in our daily newspapers. But it may help to tone down the insults and negative verbiage currently taking place across the dinner table or the negative views of neighbors displaying political signs you don’t agree with. Understanding the ground of much political Otherness could at least raise the tone of civility in our country, which is currently in very short supply. Just sayin’ …