It turns out you’re a self-righteous hypocrite. Poor you. If only you followed my morality, then you’d be on the right path. But I suppose we can’t all be right. Don’t get me wrong though. Your pitiable beliefs' leading you astray in no way brings me great pleasure. How could confirming something I knew all along really satisfy me? In truth, I feel sorry for you. You built up such an elaborate artifice, and you tried to impose it on others. You were so sure you had it figured out. How could you have been so blind? Heck, I’m sure you’re asking yourself that already, so there’s no need for me to bury you any further.
What’s really sad, though? You drafted so many other people to your team. You knew how people want to win friends and influence others (i.e. be social), and so you gave them an in-group. And you knew that once you hooked their intuitions, you’d have them in your clutches. For what is reason but the slave to our intuitions? We’re almost too talented at justifying what we do and what we believe, aren’t we? You knew that you could build any moral system and find a way to substantiate and sustain it. You just needed enough followers to bind and blind. Give people a bias and they have something reliable to confirm for the rest of their lives. Our world is so generous: it gives us exactly what we need for that stability.
Of course we both know that the world’s generosity is really cruelty. Look at how it fossilizes us, fusing us with the decaying reality of our ideas! It mocks us, manipulates us to reason our way into collective suicide! Well, at least that’s what happened to you. But can I fault you for your team loyalty? After all, you had every reason to commit. It all made so much sense, didn’t it? It all came together so well . . . so well that it would be foolish to question its truth. It just had to be right, right? How could anyone look at things in any other way? Surely they all must be wrong, for your way of seeing was so right. And it wasn’t just your way of seeing. Oh no! Every other reasonable person you knew saw things the same way. And if there’s one truth, it’s this: the team you’re currently on is always the winning team.
But come on, say it. Taste how good, how beautifully poetic, it feels to say it: “You were right.” Redemption is sweet.
In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a diverse range of scientific fields to explore how and why a diverse range of people find it so difficult to reconcile their diversity. In magnifying our stubborn inclinations and showing how we’re all born to be righteous, he follows three main threads, which combine to tie up quite the neat little package: (1) Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. (2) There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. (3) Morality binds and blinds. Haidt elucidates each claim with clever metaphors and substantiates each metaphor with research, experimentation, and experience. For the full breadth of his vision, especially his moral foundations theory, read the book. (And yes, that is a command.) What you’ll find either way is that the self-righteous persona (with whom we can all identify to some extent) preceding this paragraph discovers bitter irony in the process. In other words, if you’re looking to vindicate your morality, or at least your personal brand of it, and not simply understand the fundamental human tendencies that beget all our moral structures, you’re in for the same rude awakening that awaits our friend. That is, of course, if our friend has the humble awareness to admit his self-righteous delusions.
I wonder to what extent Haidt’s book speaks to the people that need to listen most (and I realize that I’m embedding a self-righteous position in that curiosity). Sadly, the audience that would benefit most from his balanced exploration of morality would likely never go near the book. After all, they already have the books that tell them their truths (or at least the truths they need to confirm the very truths those books espouse...if that makes any sense). And so it would be easy to dismiss Haidt as just another relativist masquerading as an objective observer. The problem is that if we’re too quick to dismiss Haidt, if we’re too eager to fall right back into the moral matrix that we’ve built around us, if we’re too ignorant to recognize the bricks that made that structure, we will always be stuck in our small, “comfortable” homes. And when all our homes collapse, there won’t be a single self-righteous person left to demand that oh-so-sweet piece of existential redemption: “You were right.”
All we have to do, it seems, is open our doors to the other houses around us. We don’t have to go into those houses or change residences. We don’t have to welcome others into our homes nor expect them to live with us. We simply have to remain open to dialogue, to understanding the other houses around us, to seeing where and how others live. Because of how we operate, this won’t break down all the walls that separate us, and Haidt isn’t saying that such destruction is necessary or even useful. It’s about giving ourselves a path to greater clarity with the understanding that we’ll never see anything “right.” In the end, we can keep our houses. But why not bring every house closer to the same human community?
-- Lou Canelli