I am reading a wonderful book that is helping me straighten out and organize my own thinking. It is called “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt, a self-described (at some length) “moral psychologist.” He is a research guy. He wants to figure out why good people everywhere can be so divided on what it takes to lead a decent and generally acceptable life.
The first 110 pages are chockablock with research studies, his and others, to prove that instinct beats out reason in our decision making processes. Throughout the centuries of evolution, in order to survive safely, human beings had to develop instantaneously reacting instincts to avoid harm. He calls those instincts the Elephant. He calls reason the Rider on top of the Elephant. When we perceive something, anything, the Elephant leans either toward or away from that thing and the Rider immediately comes up with rational thoughts about why. Humans are hardwired for decisions about care and safety. We react instinctively first and then hurry to come up with reasons why later.
The second part of the book describes the six moral issues that govern cultures all over the world. We in the West rely very heavily on societal and cultural norms that stress the value and rights of the individual, and those put a thumb on the scale for the first three moral issues. Anthropology, of course, casts a wider net and includes cultures worldwide where the good of the group heavily outweighs that of the individual. In those cultures the range of morally fraught issues is wider and gives more or less equal weight to the full six rights and wrongs.
If you tend to the liberal/left and frame your worldview with the individual first and foremost, you are most likely to put weight heavily on Care (doing no harm), Fairness (no cheating), and Loyalty (no betrayal). Societies that favor the group over the individual and tend towards the conservative/right will, of course, honor the first three. They will, however, give equal weight as well to Authority/Rules (no subverting the cultural rules), Sanctity/cleanliness of mind and body (no degrading of mind or body) and Liberty (no oppression). Think of Hindu India, Muslim countries, and Judaism , with their food restrictions, purity rituals, and consequences for breaking group rules and norms.
Being forced by this book to widen my own lens and accept that probably I have led a life looking at the world through a peephole in a pipe, narrow by worldwide standards, I am struggling to understand how people could feel so differently than I do, especially in religion and politics and still be good folks.
In a year like 2016, in which polarities in thinking and belief have been so stark, it seems a worthwhile effort to try and figure out how other peoples’ minds work. After all, at 79 how much more time can I possibly have left in which to make some sense of my own life vis a vis the world?