Talking At Each Other

Who of us would dare ask that we be measured against the Sermon on the Mount? Consider what Jesus asked of us: Turn the other cheek? Give the coat off our back? Forgive seventy times seven? We know the inevitability of falling short. But, concerning one injunction, we can’t even tell where we stand:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? …You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

Put another way, it is virtually impossible for us to see, let alone come to terms with, our own self-righteousness.

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, tells us why. Along the way, he explains a lot about the political and cultural divisions crippling us as a nation.

Relying heavily on Darwin’s theory of evolution, he argues that we have survived and developed as a species in no small measure because of our growing capacity for moral judgment.

We developed six “moral foundations” which guide our perceptions and choices: “caring” so that we will protect our children; “fairness” so that we will cooperate with each other; “loyalty” so that our coalitions will hold; “authority” so that they will have structure; “sanctity” so that we will avoid things toxic or disgusting; and “liberty” so that groups will not be at the mercy of malevolent leaders.

Due to a combination of genetic predisposition and life experience, most of us become locked into our moralities.

Why does the analysis matter? On a practical level, he provides Democrats with a set of tools for understanding what they are up against. They score higher than everyone else on “caring” and “fairness” (when it means protecting the underdog), but barely register on everything else.

Republicans, on the other hand, at least show up for the first two, and score very high on the remaining four. And they rank above us on “fairness” when this is interpreted as making sure that people receive from society only in proportion to what they have earned. Roughly speaking, four to two—liberals lose.

Haidt also gives serious attention to “group selection.” Just as insects over time came together in colonies, so did evolving humans find that collectively they were stronger as they banded together and even developed specialized functions within a group.

And perhaps this is where the most important message lies. Our groups today—be they religions, political parties, or sports teams—become sacred in our eyes. We become blind to any moral “matrix” outside of the one that unites us in our particular group.

So what can we do? According to Haidt, “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or a political matter, you need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own.” We have to be willing to listen.

A platitude? Listen to T.H. Luhrmann, another anthropologist, from Stanford:

“… for the last 10 years I have been doing research on charismatic evangelical spirituality….What someone believes is important to these Christians, but what really matters is becoming a better person. If Democrats want to reach more evangelical voters…they should talk about the kind of people we are aiming to be and about the transformational journey that any choice will take us on. They should talk about how we can grow in compassion and care. They could talk about the way their policy interventions will allow those who receive them to become better people and how those of us who support them will be better ourselves as we reach out in love.” (New York Times, May 6, 2012)

Not a bad vision. Surely we could think of others. Given how things have been going over the past four decades, seeking to understand another “moral matrix” might be worth a try. Besides, I’m a little tired of that faint but nagging feeling of futility that comes when all I’ve done is show those who disagree with me how wrong they really are.

Add new comment


  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Subscribe to CRS Main Feed