The Righteous Mind

Reading: Be Not Afraid by Rev. Peter Morales

Sermon: The Righteous Mind by Rev. Anthony David

A moment ago we heard our denomination’s President, the Rev. Peter Morales, call us to the task of breaking down the walls that divide us, in the wake of the most ideologically polarized election in years. “We continue to live in a nation that is deeply divided,” he said. “These divisions threaten us and weaken us.”

Yes … but isn’t there’s something really satisfying about these divisions too? I know it might shock the better angels of our nature, but admit it—come clean—it can just feel deeply satisfying to think that the political opposition is … CRAZY!

Or maybe it’s just me 🙂

Actually I know it’s just not me. Proof? Facebook! Facebook, right before and right after the election. Right before, I saw this bumper sticker posted: “Vote Democrat: we may not be perfect but they are nuts!” Right after, someone posted something about an anti-Obama tweet in which a disgusted voter said, “I’m moving to Australia because their president is a Christian and actually supports what he says.” The Facebook post goes on to point out that Australia does not have a president; it’s a prime minister. Who is not a man, but a woman. Who is not a Christian, but an atheist.

But in case you didn’t get the message, close by is another posting: an article entitled “Ten best and worst educated states and how they voted,” and it showed that all ten best educated voted for Obama, whereas nine of the ten worst educated voted for Romney.

Of course, then there’s Donald Trump. I mean, if you are a political liberal, there can’t be any more satisfying proof that you are right and they are wrong. “We can’t let this happen,” he tweeted right after Romney’s loss. “We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided! Let’s fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us. This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” In reply, actor Alec Baldwin counter-tweeted, “You trust the voters when they choose The Apprentice. But not now?”

Tweets and counter-tweets. Bumper stickers in real traffic and bumper stickers in the virtual traffic of the Facebook highway. All of it demonstrating the existence of a side of us that is happily critical and judgmental of the opposition, convinced of its righteousness. The righteous mind.

Which, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is not something that moral improvement might expunge from our souls. Can’t get off the hook that easily. No: he argues that “it is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into our minds that would otherwise be objective and rational. Our righteous minds,” he says, “made it possible for human beings … to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.” Call it groupthink. Call it truthiness. The righteous mind and everything that goes into it is with us to stay.

The very same mind that sits, side by side, uneasily, with the Unitarian Universalist mind that is focused on how to live on this earth with one another—a mind like the Rev. Peter Morales’ which correctly sees how political righteousness can threaten us and weaken us. Yes, as Jonathan Haidt says, the righteous mind proved effective in building up large cooperative groups, but in excess it can create gridlock and chaos. Right now America is close to falling off a fiscal cliff, and it’s up to President Obama and the House Republicans to somehow put away the bumper stickers and put away all the tweeting and lighten up the righteous mind with a more cooperative mind….

But how?

That’s what I want to talk about today, and I’m drawing on Jonathan Haidt’s social psychological research as described in his fascinating book entitled, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. His work is similar to that of George Lakoff’s and others who say that people are fundamentally intuitive and feeling-driven, and that reason’s job is to serve the passions. But it’s different in that he does NOT dismiss the appeal of political conservativism as sheer manipulation. He says that, prior to writing the book, he was a partisan liberal. But writing the book changed him, gave him new appreciation for the diversity of political belief out there beyond liberalism. Now he’s more a political centrist…. For him, it was like taking the red pill from the movie The Matrix. Remember that famous scene? You take the blue pill, and you get to stick to your comforting delusions. Or you can take the red pill, and everything changes….

Which pill do you want to take this morning? Blue or red?

Are you sure?

Promise not to throw anything at me?

OK, here goes….

What’s IN the red pill is cutting-edge moral psychology, and the first thing we need to know has to do with where our moral beliefs actually come from. In answering this, Jonathan Haidt pulls no punches: “The worst idea in all of psychology,” he says, “is the idea that the mind is a blank slate at birth. Developmental psychology has shown that kids come into the world already knowing so much about the physical and social worlds, and programmed to make it really easy for them to learn certain things and hard to learn others.” Jonathan Haidt goes on to say that “The best definition of innateness I’ve ever seen—this just clarifies so many things for me—is from the brain scientist Gary Marcus [who says,] ‘The initial organization of the brain does not depend that much on experience. Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. Built-in doesn’t mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.’”

In short, we are born with a first draft of morality already written in our minds. None of the chapters are complete; “some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood.” But it’s at least something we’re born with, meaning that it can’t just be anything. So what is it? What are we born with? “To find out,” says Jonathan Haidt, “my colleague, Craig Joseph, and I read through the literature on anthropology, on culture variation in morality and also on evolutionary psychology, looking for matches. What are the sorts of things that people talk about across disciplines? That you find across cultures and even across species? We found five—five best matches, which we call the five foundations of morality.”

The first foundation is harm/care. Do no harm; care for others, especially the weak and vulnerable. Have compassion.

The second foundation is fairness. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. There’s two ways of construing fairness, though, and we’ll want to remember this for later. One way sees fairness as implying equality; a fair division of the pie means that my slice is the same size as yours. But another way sees fairness more in terms of proportionality, as in, people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute. If I worked harder than you did, then it’s only fair that my slice of the pie is larger than yours…. Two different ways of understanding what’s fair.

On to the third foundation of morality: group loyalty. “This,” says Jonathan Haidt, “probably comes from our long history of tribal living, of tribal psychology. And this tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don’t have tribes, we go ahead and make them, because it’s fun.” Tribes like Unitarian Universalism itself. Tribes like UUCA. Tribes like all the many educational group and generational groups and fellowship groups and service groups and covenant groups here at UUCA. Tribes and tribes and tribes. We know tribes…

Now the fourth foundation: authority and respect. What my Baba taught me as a young boy, that when you’re on the bus and there’s no room for an elderly person or a pregnant woman to sit down, you get up and make room. Or respecting authorities like parents and teachers and leaders. Or putting away your smart phone when you are in this home for the human spirit. Funny story: In his book, Jonathan Haidt comments on something he saw on a sign in front of one of the Methodist churches in Virginia where he lives: “God’s in charge, so shut up!” He says, “the sign in front of their church tells you they ain’t no Unitarians.”

Finally, the fifth foundation of morality: purity or sanctity. “It’s about any kind of ideology, any kind of idea that tells you that you can attain virtue by controlling what you do with your body, by controlling what you put into your body.” Take, for example, how many people struggle with diet. Free range eggs for breakfast? A side of some kind of happy meat? Fair trade coffee? These are classic purity and pollution considerations for the 21st century. What you are willing to touch, to allow in your body….

And there they are, the five foundations of morality—five systems at work in the human mind everywhere you find it on this earth. From the moment of our birth, we are sensitive to issues of harm and care, and fairness, and group loyalty, and authority and respect, and purity. But the impact of family and friends, where we live, life experience—that’s what’s going to give us our unique individuality, what our particular “righteous mind” does with the five moral foundations in our living. We are, says Jonathan Haidt, “like one of those audio equalizers that has five channels.” What the configuration is going to look like—whether ALL channels are on high, or only SOME, and which ones—is what experience does for us and to us…

But now the question becomes, What do political liberals actually do with the five foundations or morality? Or political conservatives? How do their respective “audio equalizers” compare and contrast?

And once again, Jonathan Haidt is right there. He and his colleagues created a questionnaire, posted it on the web, and so far 30,000 people have taken it. The results are fascinating. Everyone cares about harm and care issues. Everyone cares about fairness issues (although there will be disagreement on how to define fairness). But it’s only conservatives who also affirm the other three foundations of morality. Liberals, on the other hand, undervalue if not reject group loyalty and authority & respect and purity. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, and law and order are just not as important to them. “We find this,” says Jonathan Haidt, “in every country we look at. Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. [W]ithin any country, the disagreement isn’t over harm and fairness. Everybody — I mean, we debate over what’s fair — but everybody agrees that harm and fairness matter. Moral arguments within cultures are especially about issues of in-group, authority, purity.”

Now a moment ago I compared learning about the findings of moral psychology to swallowing the red pill from The Matrix. Here’s why. Proof that when it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. The audio equalizer of the liberal moral mindset is set to only two channels; their focus is almost completely on care and fighting oppression, whereas the conservative audio equalizer is set to all five channels. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, and law and order touch on everything. The implication (to liberals at least) is stunning: half of the country voted Republican not because they are crazy but because they are sensitive to moral interests that are particularly alive to them but not necessarily so for liberals—broader-based moral interests at that.

Of course, the righteous mind of the liberal will have a snappy answer to this. It’ll say, “Yeah, but look at what such values as group loyalty, authority & respect, and purity get you: xenophobia and authoritarianism and Puritanism. It gets you oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, and on and on—and I will never stop fighting that.”

I hear that. And of course. You bet. Oppression is always something to fight. A righteous mind is not necessarily a wrong mind. But we still have to ask: is it really true that conservative moral values like group loyalty, authority & respect, and purity always slide into something horrible, like xenophobia and authoritarianism and Puritanism? Is that true? Of course not. They don’t have to. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, and law and order don’t have to be oppressive and hurtful. I mean, consider something which is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism: our practice of covenant: our precious affirmation that “we don’t have to think alike to love alike.” Our Covenant of Healthy Relationships as a congregation. This is nothing if not a combination of the conservative values of group loyalty and authority & respect. Did you know that? That there’s political conservatism at the heart of this most liberal of faiths? It’s true. Through our promises to treat eachother lovingly, we are conserving this community, we are enabling it to do its work of inviting us to swallow red pills of every kind. But once we devolve into behavior that is hateful, we are all walking on eggshells, and the voice of only some or one is heard because the rest of us are feeling too unsafe to say anything—we are lost. Some will call that freedom of expression, but I call it tyranny. Free community enables as many voices as possible to be heard. Free community requires covenant. And covenant is a conservative value. We need conservative values!

There’s something else troubling about the liberal narrowness around moral values. Namely, sheer hypocrisy. The liberal mindset—especially the liberal religious mindset—affirms with poet Edwin Markham

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

At the very least, this “taking in” could be in the form of understanding… but Jonathan Haidt’s research shows that liberals have the hardest time opening up their minds where political conservatism is concerned. William Saletan in a recent New York Times article says it well. “In a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves ‘very liberal,’ were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values.” This is just so troubling. How many of you have ever heard of something called “confirmation bias”? It’s the habit of searching only for evidence that conforms what we already believe. But the search for meaning that really counts is responsible and free. Free from unexamined assumptions and blind spots. That’s our Fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism. “We can think better,” says Jonathan Haidt, “when we have people disagree with us.” But for this to work, at the very least we have to be capable of understanding the disagreements—even if in the end we choose to stay with what we affirm. But this is so hard for liberals. Maybe this helps us understand the conservative bumper sticker that says, “Confuse a liberal. Use logic and facts.”

We’ve got to figure out how to live on earth with one another. That’s what the President of our Association says. We’ve got to break down the walls that divide us. Not just THEIR walls but OURS! The place to begin is here, in our hearts and minds. Conservatives understands liberals, so why can’t liberals understand conservatives? Our minds are too narrow. We have to free our minds. Swallow the red pill. Because what’s at stake isn’t really bumper stickers and Facebook posts and tweets and counter-tweets and genuinely crazy people like Donald Trump. What’s at stake is the husband you may be married to, or the friend you play tennis with, or the person sitting right beside you—who voted for the other guy. They are not stupid. They, in fact, may be more broadminded than you. Count on it, says Jonathan Haidt.

We need all five foundations of morality to make this world work.

WHEW! Thanks for not throwing anything at me 🙂