What we are experiencing within our country is a widening of the gap between two fundamental factions. I’m going to explain to you why it cannot be fixed based upon what is known as the psychology of disgust and contamination and moral dumbfounding. Our moral dilemma is deeper and more widespread than you may be willing to believe. In an effort to explain this I’m going to refer to the groundbreaking work of psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham surrounding the perennial conflicts between liberals and conservatives.
The research of Haidt and Graham has unearthed a mother load of insight into the human experience as it relates to the brain, behavior, and belief. And not only that, but it has literally brought about an exorbitant amount of insight into people and how their brains process and conclude on matters of ethics and morality. Psychologist Richard Shweder has put forth the argument that cultures structure their lives through the deployment of three moral platforms, which he calls autonomy, community, and divinity.
Firstly, the autonomy ethic is sensitive towards violations of personal independence and self-determination. These are limitations upon freedom, rights, and choice, as well as the harm that stems from the same. Secondly, the ethic of community is sensitive towards failures of duty, cooperation, and solidarity within the group or social construct. And finally, Shweder concludes correctly that the ethics of both community and autonomy regulate the plane of human interactions in both the social and political realms.
The divinity ethic on the other hand, regulates the interactions between people and the sacred. This ethic is very sensitive towards the degradation of the sacred found in God, human dignity, perceived nationalism, and the creative order of things. According to Richard Beck and his marvelous work entitled; Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality, every society and culture honors a divinity ethic based upon sacred symbols, places, rituals, and moments (such as the Lincoln Memorial or a crucifix).
Now that we understand the three moral foundations (there are actually five that stem from these three, but for the sake of time we won’t go into all of them), Beck points out that problems within a society occur when there is little to no consensus about what is sacred, right, or wrong between people and their perceptions.
It is for this reason that communal conflicts exists and always will. Social psychologists have realized ethics are deployed unevenly by and in between individuals within communal constructs. The generation gap is a good example of the differences in determining what is a violation and what is not. Also, clubs, religions, fraternities, townships (you are considered white trash if your phone number begins with certain numbers in some Massachusetts towns), and the like.
Certain behaviors within differing cultures or groups are considered taboo or offensive while the same actions may be given a pass by another social group. Because ethics are not deployed evenly across people groups, an “us against them” paradigm emerges based upon the differences in perceived morality within individual brains.
Not long ago I was in a movie theater and and adult scolded some young people for talking aloud during the film. The youth simply told the older person to “shut up and mind their own business.” My blood boiled. What occurred is simple; my ethic around authority and respect was miles away from the youth’s ideas of authority and respect. I was disgusted.
I have a respect for elders they didn’t. This is due to the widening moral gaps between generations. It is these types of interactives that trigger the emotional disgust meter within our brains. People fight over divinity, autonomy, and communal ethics violations and it is this reason why a culture wars will continue to exist.
Here’s just a few “moral situations” from a study conducted by Jonathan Haidt, Maria Dias, and Silvia Koller. 1. A woman is cleaning out her closet, and finds her old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore so she tears it into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom. 2. A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before he cooks it he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks the chicken and eats it.
Every participant in the study found these stories disturbing, but struggled to produce an answer as to why it was wrong. In the case of the dead chicken, students were asked who was being harmed and why is it implicitly wrong to have sex with a dead chicken seeing we are self-directed, the chicken is dead so it is not being harmed, and it was in the privacy of his own home.
Beck says, “Moral Dumbfounding occurs when we have feelings of wrongness but cannot articulate a coherent moral warrant for the feelings and emotions produced.” What the brain does is seek rational warrants in an effort to justify our feelings of disgust. We humans have become so successful in establishing these warrants that we believe the warrants we create are responsible for the feelings we have, not the other way around. This is a form of affective primacy, which details how our irrational feelings must be justified by rational thought. Our reason thus becomes the slave of our passions. This is in line with Haidt’s rider and the elephant.
In the case of our current political climate, many millennials are searching for logical reasons to justify their unfettered emotions, which are largely based on their own divinity ethic, which is relative to each brain. Terms such as homophobic, racist, and the like point to deep seeded ideas around harm and care and fairness and reciprocity issues within a culture.
The definition of racism today is not the same definition it was fifty years ago. In our current climate, observations are quickly interpreted as accusations, thus heated arguments ensue. Emotions are highly irrational. This is why an individual can use “vulgar” language (to others a violation of the purity/sanctity ethic) or burn down a building (to others a violation of the harm/care ethic) in response to another person whom they claim is violating another moral foundation. All this becomes deeply problematic because moral dumbfounding becomes the means by which normative judgments are made, not rational thought. Each individual climbs up on their own high horse.
Irrational discourse takes place between offended and un-offended people types regarding the inability to create consensus-building warrants for their respective judgments seeing they are stemming from feelings inspired by emotions as opposed to reason.
Our arguments and the warrants found within them become secondary to our emotional limbic driven experiences. Arguments are offered to justify the felt judgment of relativistic notions of what one considers sacred or profane.
“Thinking differently” is the new profane within our current culture climate. Humans are not evolving, we are devolving. This is why political factions will not cease. Moralization is in an eternal flux. What was immoral fifty years ago is moral today and vice versa (spanking, toy guns, divorce, oral sex, atheism, opening a door for a female).
As long as there is no standard moral conduct within a society, there will be culture wars claiming the enemy must be destroyed based on how one feels in the moment. Therefore seeing morality is a moving target, people will get hurt by others who will be unaware of the harm the cultivate. Human nature never seems to learn from its own misdeeds. Given enough time, toy guns will likely make a comeback … say, in a few hundred years?