ISSUES OF FAITH: ‘To open your mind, open your heart first’

“A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” (Ecclesiastes 3:5)

THOUGH THIS COLUMN is scheduled to appear in the PDN after Nov. 8, it’s being written prior to the election, so I won’t know the results.

But whatever those results are, I suspect the deep fissures cleaving our political, social and religious landscape will not have miraculously disappeared.

This election cycle has featured more stone-throwing than any in recent history, and the question now for us as a people is: Do we have it in us to refrain from throwing more stones and to begin to gather the stones that have been thrown so we might build a future together?

As a way of attempting to heal our divisions, we might do worse than to visit — or revisit — the ideas of Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” published in 2012.

‘Hostile groups’

This book is an attempt to understand “why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.”

Dr. Haidt suggests two main reasons for this hostility, both grounded in the evolutionary biology of our species.

The first is that we have evolved to be moral beings concerned about values.

“The human mind,” says Haidt, “is designed to ‘do’ morality. … Human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental.”

The second reason is that our species has evolved to be “groupish.” Human beings, but no other animals, “produce large cooperative groups, tribes and nations without the glue of kinship.”

We humans are not just selfish individuals concerned only about our welfare and that of our kin; we are also altruistic.

However, our altruism, our willingness to cooperate with and sacrifice for others, is typically geared to our group.

And our rational faculty is geared for supporting our group … like a campaign manager or press secretary. Their purpose is to defend the “truths” already held by the group, not to seek undiscovered truth.

Thus, persons on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide wonder why others can’t see the sweet reasonableness of our position.

The answer is that they are standing in different places using their rational brains to find reasons why theirs is a good place to be and how they can happily remain in that place.

How do such different moral divisions come about, and why do we have this division between liberal and conservative moral visions?

These moral visions are born, says the author, out of “six foundational moral intuitions,” all of which belong to our species as it has evolved over its long history:

• Care — the opposite being harm

• Liberty — the opposite being oppression

• Fairness — the opposite being cheating

• Loyalty — the opposite being betrayal

• Authority — the opposite being subversion

• Sanctity — the opposite being degradation

The different moral visions of liberals, libertarians and conservatives come about from the different weights given to these foundational moral intuitions by individuals.

For example, the moral vision of liberals is shaped by the greater emphasis they put on the moral values of care, liberty and fairness … with lesser emphasis on loyalty, authority and sanctity.

The libertarian moral vision is shaped most by an emphasis on individual liberty, with the other values not coming anywhere close to this value.

And the conservative moral vision is characterized, says the author, by a desire to “preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community.”

Through the research conducted by him and his colleagues, they have found that “social conservatives have the broadest set of moral concerns, valuing all six foundations relatively equally.”

It’s from the recognition of these different foundational moral intuitions that the author offers some hope of bridging the divide of our polarized society.

He says that if we can see that liberal and conservative represent the yin and yang of our human heritage, then perhaps we have a basis for working together.

In his final chapter, titled “Can’t we All Disagree More Constructively,” he writes:

“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities.

“We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.”

This being the case, the author says that if we want to understand another group, we should “follow the sacredness.”

Make an attempt to understand which of the six moral foundations “are carrying the most weight in a particular controversy.”

And, he says, “if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the ‘other’ group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.”


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected].

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