One for election season. Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
September 30, 2012
from “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union,” Wendell Berry
From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and science,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.
There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
. . . .
Calling his neighbors together into the sanctity
of their lives separate and together
in the one life of their commonwealth and home,
in their own nation small enough for a story
or song to travel across in an hour, he cries:
Come all ye conservatives and liberals
who want to conserve the good things and be free,
come away from the merchants of big answers,
whose hands are metalled with power;
from the union of anywhere and everywhere
by the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price
and the sale of anything to anybody at the highest price;
from the union of work and debt, work and despair;
from the wage-slavery of the helplessly well-employed.
From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,
secede into care for one another
and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.
from The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt (Random House, 2012; all citations are from the eBook version)
If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (79-80)
Sermon “From Righteousness to Right” Amy Zucker Morgenstern
It’s thirty-seven days to the Election Day, but who’s counting? And if you are like 95 to 97 percent of likely voters (and I certainly hope you are a likely voter), you’ve already made up your mind about the presidential ticket. So you don’t have a lot to do between now and then. Today I am proposing some homework to fill the empty hours.
I’m joking, of course—there’s a lot to do in the next 37 days, and I’m going to propose some specific things two Sundays from now that we all might do to help with the democratic process. But this assignment is just as important. In fact, I believe that doing this is as important to the future of our country as the outcome of the election. It is quite simple:
Pay attention to what people on “the other side” are saying and try, as Jonathan Haidt recommends, to see things from their angle.
Okay, now, you only have to do it for 37 days. It’s not the end of the world.
(And please forgive me, but for simplicity’s sake I am speaking mostly in binaries, as if there were only two parties and two basic worldviews, which is of course not true. The reasons for listening to other’s views apply more broadly, so feel free to translate.)
Why should we do this? Three basic reasons. To increase the chances of all of us making the best decisions; to stop demonizing our political opposites and realize that our concerns overlap with theirs much more than we knew; and to create a national community that is better than the flawed and struggling one we have created so far.
So, to the first point. Do we want to feel right, to have the security of never doubting our own positions? Or do we want to be right? That is, do we want to advocate the public policies that are best for the people of our country and for the world, as best as we can tell? Then we need to make wise decisions. And here Jonathan Haidt has some news for us. He is a psychologist who researches moral decisionmaking, especially in the realm of political decisions, and in the book The Righteous Mind, he gives ample evidence that human beings don’t use reason to reach our moral and political decisions nearly as much as we think we do.
This summer, in a sermon on the religious implications of neuroscience, Dan referred to this fact, and gave the example of reflexes and near-reflexes, such as moving our foot toward the brake before we’re consciously aware of the need to stop. It goes way beyond reflexes. Haidt cites ample research, his own and many other people’s, to prove that to a large extent, we do not reach our moral decisions by reasoning. For example, research subjects are asked to respond to a story in which someone breaks a taboo. They are all alone in the house and doing housework, and, having run out of rags, use a worn old American flag to clean the bathroom. Or in another story, the family dog is killed by a car and the family decides to eat it. The subjects reach a conclusion almost instantly. Most are unable to explain their opposition to these acts in terms of their usual moral categories: no one was harmed, there was no injustice or infringement of someone’s freedom. They can’t give a reason to support their intuition. But they try, they try . . . They invent reasons, such as that someone might see the woman using the American flag to clean with, even though the story explicitly says no one sees her or ever finds out what she did. It appears that, faced with moral choices, we react, almost like that foot on the brake, and then we invent explanations and justifications for our reactions. Haidt concludes:
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you . . . They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives. (12-13 eBook)
I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m not just talking about that cousin or neighbor or friend of yours with the crazy political opinions. I’m talking about you. I’m talking about us all.
Haidt’s metaphor for how we actually make moral decisions is that of a rider, the reason, astride an elephant, the intuition. Our intuitions drive a great deal of our decisionmaking, just as an elephant who wants to go to the left or the right is likely to get her way. The rider can steer, but when the elephant heads one way or another, the momentum to keep going that way is powerful. In fact, it turns out that our riders, our reasoning selves, do an awful lot of rationalizing: not reasoning our way to a good decision, but filling in plausible explanations for why we are making the decision we are, when the real reason is that the elephant led us that way.
Other examples abound. For example, people are given a simple cognitive exercise in which wrong answers are common. What is telling about the research is that
when people are told up front what the answer is and asked to explain why that answer is correct, they can do it. But amazingly, they are just as able to offer an explanation, and just as confident in their reasoning, whether they are told the right answer . . . or the popular but wrong answer. (70, emphasis added)
The same appears to true for moral reasoning. “Moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog,” he writes (78, emphasis in the original). “You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments” (ibid). So Haidt advises, “Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value”—and I would add, including, and most especially, your own. Because if you or I think we’d have done better in these research studies, well, the evidence is not with us. Liberals and conservatives are equally skilled at inventing after-the-fact rationalizations for our intuitive opinions.
And, conservative and liberal, we are particularly bad at looking for evidence that will contradict what we already believe. I will confess right here and now that if I see a story on the web that appears to be going to confirm my opinion, I’m much more likely to click on it than on one that appears to be going to challenge my opinion. I’m more likely to click on a story about some stupid thing done by the person I’m planning to vote against than on a similar story about someone I’m planning to vote for. Research suggests that I am not unusual.
What does this have to do with listening to other people? Well, it is possible to strengthen our inner rider in making real, reasoned decisions instead of rationalizations, and one of the main ways to do so is to encounter thoughtful, challenging opposition to our elephant’s wishes, our intuitions. The friction of conversation, of engagement, rubs off those assumptions and first-intuitions. Good news: studies support this assertion too.
So if we are to make good decisions on these questions that matter so much, then we need to interact with people who disagree with us. This is also supported by my own experience. When I do read the story that supports a different point of view, I come away with a more nuanced view, myself. It doesn’t necessarily change my mind, and I doubt anything I could read would change my mind about whom to vote for for President five weeks from Tuesday. But it helps me to reach a more thoughtful conclusion and, over time, to think things through with more care and complexity.
Unfortunately, interacting with people we disagree with is really not fun. And you may be asking right now, “Do I have to invite creative friction into my life? I hate friction. It feels awful. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant and makes me want to throw ______ across the room. (Fill in the blank here—“the magazine,” “the newspaper,” “the radio,” “my computer,” “my brother-in-law.”) Can’t we just carry on with our no-politics rule and keep everything civil? That way we’ll all get along and the next family gathering will be much more pleasant.”
Well, I’m glad you asked. Because it brings me to my second reason for engaging with the enemy, I mean, with people of opposing political views, which is that it helps us to understand that we are much more similar to them than we might have thought, and it helps us to honor our own values.
Our first similarity is that we’re all flawed decisionmakers: “very small rider[s] on . . . large elephant[s]” (420). We already knew that others make decisions illogically. When we know the same about ourselves, we can listen to them with more compassion.
And then we might make an even more important discovery: that the moral divide between us is not as great as we think.
You see, we tend to take political beliefs and generalize grand moral views from them. Political differences mean someone is deficient in morals. Republicans are hesitant to support social programs, which must prove that they don’t care about compassion. Democrats are eager to place restrictions on how someone earns and spends their money, which must prove that they don’t care about freedom. And when we know someone who is otherwise very nice and whom we generally respect, and yet whose views are very different from ours, we surmise that they are being foolish or misled.
Haidt proposes that there are six different moral categories, areas of consideration that we use in making our moral, and therefore our political, judgments: caring for the vulnerable and protecting them from harm; fairness; and freedom from oppression; loyalty, a respect for authority, and purity, or what Haidt calls sanctity. (I think he is probably leaving out one or two.) Which ones you draw upon is a good indicator of your political positions; interestingly, conservatives tend to draw upon all six fairly evenly, while liberals draw heavily only on the first three. And there is much more research about this, with many interesting implications we don’t have time for this morning. But what I want to focus on today is that they are moral categories. Someone who has a political viewpoint that we find bewildering probably arrived at it not because they are bad or thoughtless, but because it supports a moral value that they hold dear. And furthermore, when we look at these moral values in this light, we may realize that we share them more than we thought we did.
For example, one of the distinctions between conservative and liberal is how much we are troubled by freeloading. I often think it is the major distinction. If you set up a social program—for example, food stamps—then some people will use it who don’t really need it. This tends to drive conservatives crazy, to the point that they would rather not have the program at all; liberals, on the other hand, tend to consider it a necessary evil and would rather keep the program and tolerate some freeloading. But where I get really concerned, for myself and, here I’ll pick on other liberals, is that we stop caring about freeloading, or even acknowledging that it is a problem. We can’t afford to admit it. If we did, we might allow a chink in the armor around social programs. We might have to concede something to the opponent. That’s how it looks when we are in combat instead of in conversation.
And yet, if I step out of combat and into my own experience, I can say honestly that freeloading drives me crazy too. For example, I hate this: I’m in heavy traffic on the highway, so heavy that it’s practically at a standstill. I and all the other responsible drivers have been sitting there for half an hour. Now along comes someone speeding along the shoulder, in which it is illegal to drive except in an emergency—just zooming past all the rest of us—and he wants to cut in front of me to get back into a lane. No way! I’ve been playing by the rules, like the hundreds of other cars here, and we all want to get where we’re going just as much as this guy does, and no way am I going to let him delay us one moment more. He can darn well get to the back of the line. Geez, every schoolkid knows this: you don’t cut in line.
What if I were to say to my conservative friends, who are so incensed by the prospects of one welfare recipient having a Cadillac or a hidden income on the side: “That makes me angry too”? What might happen? It would be more honest, for one thing. I’d be opening up a part of myself that I had denied, and that’s always good for making better decisions. We would feel less alienated from each other. Maybe we could have a constructive conversation about how to meet our shared goals: get help to those who really need it, minimize cheating by those who don’t. And maybe we would all honor all our values a little more.
We tend to assume that the people whose political views differ from ours have very different moral convictions than we do, and some of Haidt’s work suggests that we do tend to draw on different areas of moral consideration. But let’s look for a moment at the song we sang as our opening hymn. Does “If I Had a Hammer” express liberal or conservative values? You may know the politics of the writers already—hint, they were blacklisted during the McCarthy years—but if you didn’t, could you guess from the words? A vision of our land being one of justice, freedom, and love, where we think of ourselves as family, and where we see danger that calls for a warning? If you think your side has these values but the other one doesn’t, you’re not even going to want to talk to them. If you think these are the values only of the other side, then you might invent reasons that they’re bad. For example—this is for the liberals out there—what if I told you that the songwriters were not leftists but actually very conservative? Would you start thinking that there was something a little fishy about their supposed devotion to justice, freedom, and love?—maybe that those terms meant something very different for the songwriters than they do for you?
Are you finding yourself wanting to know Haidt’s own political views? If you learned they differed significantly from yours, would you be less inclined even to consider the findings of his research?
The research, sadly, says yes. We are less likely to notice facts that contradict our beliefs than those that affirm them, and when presented with contradictory facts, we are more likely to ignore them. Left to ourselves, we sit in an echo chamber, calling out our own convictions and happily listening to them confirm what we already believe.
Which, again, is why we need to listen to people with whom we disagree. Now, there’s no need to go to extremes. Just find a responsible, thoughtful source that has a different political bent than your own. If you’re liberal, don’t start watching Fox News or reading the Drudge Report; try reading the Wall Street Journal or The Economist. If you’re conservative, don’t start logging in daily to Talking Points Memo or watching Jon Stewart; just try getting your news from the New York Times or the Washington Post. Don’t lift the ban on talking politics with the person who thinks you are going to hell for your convictions, or taking the country there. Instead, find that reasonable friend or family member, the one about whom you’ve wondered, “How can someone so smart and kind have opinions like that?,” and ask them, for real, not rhetorically: “What makes you reach that decision? What values are behind it?” And listen, without thinking of how to change their minds or what’s wrong with what they’re saying. What might be very hard is that they might not be ready to listen to you. It’s okay. This is a first step. Just listen.
It will not only improve your relationship, it will improve our country. That’s my third reason for making this recommendation. Not only will we make better decisions if we strengthen our riders by having to reason, not just rationalize; not only will we be truer to ourselves if we acknowledge the many values that go into our decisions, not just one or two or three; but we will be a stronger, better society if we build on all of the moral foundations that we and our neighbors value. A society cannot stand just on a couple of our values—it needs all of the six that Haidt outlines, and maybe more. Too little respect for authority will make our streets unsafe and our schools and workplaces combat zones of all against all. Too little care will create a society that knows only justice and no mercy or kindness. Too many freeloaders will break the system. We need not just the love between our brothers and sisters, not just freedom, not just justice, but all three, and more. Among us all we hold a great deal of moral capital, without which the most wonderful dreams of left or right can’t survive.
As Haidt writes, “Social order is extremely precious and difficult to achieve” (364); “Moral communities are hard to build and easy to destroy” (392). As we move through the difficult next five weeks, at those moments when we feel despair that this country can ever be united or that goodness can ever prevail, let us turn not to the shelter of our own righteousness and self-righteousness, but to our neighbors, all of them, and ask them, “What moral values do you hold most dear?” Let us be ready for what they say to surprise us, hearten us, and challenge us. Let us be prepared to see beyond the walls we have built and find something of value on the other side. Maybe then we can build, together, despite our differences, because of our differences, a society that will be good, and do good, for the world and the future.
(c) 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern