Friday, September 07, 2012

Exploring My Moral Matrix

Friends who know I haven’t been inclined toward organized religion since the early 1970s rib me about my religious zeal when it came to standing up for the communities I represented during my now-concluded career which is now evident in my defense of the sanctity of trees and the environment.

I descend from ancestors who immigrated to this country as Swiss Mennonites, Welsh Quakers, Palatine Lutherans, French Huguenots, Dutch Remonstrants, Scots-Irish Presbyterians and Mormons to escape severe persecution and I’ve always been curious about how I came to my own blend of values, ethics and morals.

Many more traits are to varying degrees more heritable than we once thought, especially when innate is viewed a “first draft, revised by experience” and that “morality can be innate (as a set of evolved intuitions) and learned (as children learn to apply intuitions within a particular culture.)”

Dr. Jonathan Haidt is an expert in moral psychology now teaching and researching at the NYU Stern School of Business.  It is reassuring that he holds the Thomas Cooley Chair of Ethical Leadership and he is also a popular TED presenter.

He is also the author of a must-read book, published in March, entitled The Righteous MindWhy Good People are Divided over Politics and Religion from which the earlier quotes were taken.

Haidt substantiates in the book that morals are more intuition than reason and that “we’re born righteous, but we have to learn what exactly, people like us should be righteous about.”

He describes six areas of moral beliefs including ethics and values that we each personalize much as we slide the channels on a music equalizer mixer such as the one we used to have on stereos and now have on smartphones.

Along with a friend, I took a brief quiz on, a website developed by Haidt and others, and received my results (green bar) shown in the image in this blog.  The higher the bar the stronger that element is manifest.

My mix is compared to the averages of more than 132,000 others shown for proclaimed liberals in blue and conservatives in red.  The labels only show one of the words used to describe each moral foundation and the sixth is so recent it hasn’t been added to the assessment I guess.

The full names the six moral foundations are:

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Loyalty/betrayal
  4. Authority/subversion
  5. Sanctity/degradation, and
  6. Liberty/oppression.

It is well worth reading the book to understand how these were defined, what they mean and how they influence various groups and how misinterpretations can lead to divides.

Haidt provides compelling evidence that instead of demonizing each other, liberals and conservatives are “Yin and Yang,” “seemingly opposed forces that are in fact complementary and interdependent. Night and day are not enemies, nor are hot and cold, summer and winter, male and female.  We need both, often in shifting or alternating balance.”

The book also provides scientific proof of why we are at our best as a nation when we have a strong, moderate center regardless of party affiliation or un-affiliation.  Lost on news coverage and partisan bickering is that nearly 40% of Americans are politically Independent (37%) and/or moderate (36%.)  Moderates may also be the moral center.

The book is an insightful and funny blend of a research, psychology, anthropology, neurology, public policy and mixed with excellent story telling.  It also reminds us that “morality binds and blinds.”

It is fast and entertaining to read but every sentence offers up a nugget so don’t plan on skimming.  Anyone trolling for cocktail nuggets will be surely busted.  Haidt takes the reader through the evolution of his own learning and thinking and just when you think you have it all figured out, a new dimension is introduced.

Easily one of the most interesting and useful books I’ve ever read.

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