Moral Psychology

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

How can we have common sense if we have nothing in common? The word community derives from the root word common and refers to a people who have commonly held interests. Does common sense or community still exist in our divided United States of America?

I’ve always wondered how two sane people from similar backgrounds can see or hear the same thing and yet have vastly different perspectives and conclusions. I encounter this phenomenon all the time. Perhaps it’s my inherent curiosity or my training that focuses my attention on human behavior. Perhaps the internist in me just wants to know why. I’ll admit at the onset of this essay that my bias (like everyone else’s) shapes my perceptions.

Bias is defined as prejudice (pre-judging) of one perspective over another. As a Christian I am warned about judging others. But, I believe the implied admonition is against condemnation rather than discernment. I make judgments all day long as I navigate roads and relationships. It’s not prejudice when I drive carefully; it’s common sense that I share with most -but not all – travelers on Alcoa highway. Nor is it prejudice when I speak and act carefully in our toxic, racially and sexually charged politically correct environment.

I listened to a fascinating interview on WUOT last week. The program On Being hosted Jonathan Haidt PhD, whose research is focused on morality, a concept which interests me. Mr. Webster defines morality as principles relating to right and wrong. You may find it shocking that a fundamental tenet of our postmodern era is that everything is relative and there is no absolute right or wrong. Obviously, I disagree with this modern zeitgeist.

Dr. Haidt believes humans cooperate because we inherit a transcultural moral psychology which binds humans together in clans and community. But does it any longer? The doctor describes himself as a liberal-secular-atheist, a philosophy with which I disagree. Despite the doctor’s bias, he recognizes that moral psychology is best realized in a sacred setting (i.e. religion). Haidt contrasts religion with other cohesive ideologies such as politics. And he notes that modern passions and controversies regarding marriage and economic equality often run counter to the traditional notions of American values and family.

What really intrigued me about the doctor’s research was his identification of what he sees as five fundamental moral perspectives and how liberals and conservatives differ. Haidt found that liberals and conservatives both juggle notions of compassion and fairness in dealing with life’s issues. However, the doctor’s research showed that conservatives also consider the perspectives of loyalty, authority and sanctity in their deliberations while liberals do not. And because liberals consider fewer domains, they find it hard to understand conservatives. Numerous surveys have shown that liberalism is the dominant philosophy of the media and academia. As a result a conservative perspective is rarely considered and felt to be odd in Washington DC, the media and in universities. Amazingly, the academic Haidt admits he had never read a conservative viewpoint until he was forty years old!

While sweeping generalizations, even if predicated on research data, are fraught with error, conservatives seem to prefer order and predictability while liberals prefer variety and diversity. To me these intuitional proclivities, and those described above, explain why people draw such different conclusions to the same situations. We may be born with “moral receptors (like taste buds)” which cause our minds to perceive “pleasure or displeasure” in a given situation. It is apparent that America is now divided into two camps, and if we are to rise above our inability to communicate we must consider our own “moral matrix” and the matrix of those who view situations differently.

Years ago I wrote about the Myers Briggs psychometric instrument which analyzes how humans receive and then act on information. I am an ISTJ and my wife, Becky, scores as an ENFP. I am an introvert (I) who is a sifter of data (S) who acts upon this information objectively (T) and expeditiously (J). Becky is an extrovert (E) with superior reasoning skills (N) and methodically acts upon her conclusions (P) with empathy (F). Both composites have gifts differing as the Apostle Paul described. There are no inherently wrong perspectives nor is conservatism or liberalism inherently right or wrong. It’s just the way the Master constructed us. We do not convert others with arguments. But, with humility we can make a difference through building relationships. In other words, the messenger is more important than the message.

It should be obvious why understanding the philosophy of others is important in a civilization or a community. Understanding leads to tolerance of different perspectives, and in a stable community liberal diversity is important.  However, if variety promotes racial, sexual and social class warfare, the United States may become “balkanized” (a good concept to understand). Dr. Haidt says “liberalism is by nature divisive,” but, in a stable group, promotes justice. The trick is to maintain the structure afforded by a conservative philosophy in which group integrity and comity promotes getting things done.

Social sciences aside, I believe morality and the way of a virtuous life is more than research data. I believe the construct is imprinted on us by our Maker. Perhaps God does this through our DNA; after all, almost everything else is determined by genetics. This perspective was articulated by the noted scientist, Francis Collins, the former director of the human genome project and now head of the NIH. Dr. Collins was once an atheist, and is now a Christian. He wrote “The Language of God” and believes our nature is written upon the fabric of our DNA.

The Psalmist sang, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Surely, we can all agree on that.

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