I’m going to direct you to the works of Dr. Jonathan Haidt; professor of social psychology, one of the formulators of Moral Foundation Theory and author of the book Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.
(Great book, I highly recommend it. It was a pivotal for the direction I’m taking Conflict Communications. You can find audio and video on moral foundation theory on the web. You can also get Righteous Mind on audio.)
The premise of moral foundation theory is established (or if you will traditional) forms of morality are based on five universal, but different foundations. These five are:
I’m not going to go into these five too deeply because the focus of this article is conflict arising from differing moral systems. (Besides, go read/listen to the book). I will tell you there’s a sixth, and prospective new member to the list. And I personally think number six is a big source of sanctimonious rage.
But, before we talk about that new kid on the block, I want to stress that these five exist in all traditional, historic and established systems of morality. That ‘… these five exist…’ is very simple sentence, but it has very deep in implications. One of them is having all five, is very much the basis of what I said earlier about the size of the gap between positions. While not being on the same page, having all five at least puts people from traditional systems in the same book. No matter how differently they interpret these or what they emphasize. Now granted there still can be some nasty differences, but there’s a new problem strolling the streets these days. Worse, it’s got its sleeves rolled up and is looking for fights. It has to do with how many foundations (or as I call them, pillars) someone’s moral system has.
But before we get to that, let’s keep looking at the results of having five. When a system has all five we find long-term, stability. Even thought different systems emphasize different interpretations, these five pillars all balance each other out, both limiting and supporting each other. Yes different groups emphasize them differently, but the presence of the five creates a stabilizing internal system of checks and balances. This stability — even though it may change over hundreds of years — is what has allowed these systems to continue a thousand or more years. Whether you agree with the system’s beliefs or not, they have an impressive track record of sustainability. A track record new ideas do not have.
Also notice these checks and balances start out in the pillars themselves. Harm/care is two sides of the same coin. Who do you take care of and who do you harm? Who is it wrong to harm (and you must take care of)? In comparison who is it okay to hurt? Also what harm do you bring onto those who harm the ones you’ve deemed need care? In other words: Who do you give priority to in harm/care?
It’s not a simple question.
I’ll give you a very powerful, example. Abortion. The Pro-Abortion position puts the well-being and rights of woman first. Assessing that in the first trimester the fetus isn’t ‘alive, ‘ the woman is more important — including the effects having a child will have on her life and opportunities. This position holds that abortion is not murder and it protects the woman. The Pro-Life position puts the well being and rights of the child first. Assessing the fetus is ‘alive’ and a child from inception, this position holds that abortion is murder. And speaking of murder, people have died over differences in convictions on this subject.
Wow, irreconcilable differences, right?
But instead of focusing on the difference, look at the similarities. Both sides are very concerned about the harm done to their chosen priority. Both are arguing over their different answers using the metaphysical question of “when does human life begin?” And most of all, both are absolutely convinced of the morality, virtue and truth of their position.
Someone’s position on this subject is less important than recognizing the underlying dynamics. When harm/care situations are reduced to black and white someone is going to be helped, someone else is going to be hurt. Who is it going to be? That is the core component of what the fight is over. And how someone can feel morally superior with whatever position they take — because after all, they’re keeping someone from being harmed. Being able to both see this and how the same thing affects your position is a very important skill for negotiation and compromise. And, just as importantly, for recognizing an entrenched and unreasonable position — including your own.
Having said all this, I’d like you introduce you to the new kid on the morality block: Liberty/ oppression.
Although many Moral Foundation Theory proponents will tell you Liberty/oppression is very much a ‘made member,’ I still look at this sixth as a prospect. That’s because the other five are global. All human societies and long running moral systems have them. Liberty/oppression is still both localized and, realistically, not all the bugs are worked out — especially because so many individuals are setting their own standards about their ‘rights’ and freedoms.
This requires a side track. Simply stated humanism is a concept that was introduced into Western thought only a few hundred years ago. Now in American terms, that may seem like long ago, but it’s really not. Remember we’re comparing it to established systems that have lasted over a thousand, if not thousands of years. Yes, humanism has strongly influenced Christianity (especially the Protestant versions) in the last 300 years. And yes, it can go off on it’s own form of secular morality (while lacking divine providence, it can be unquestionable authority to true believers). But what we don’t understand is concepts like egalitarianism, liberty, equality, freedom and rights (for everyone) — ideas we’ve been conditioned to take for granted as self-evident truths, and in some cases #THETRUTH — are in fact, extremely Western-centric.
There’s a few problems with this. First we fail to realize that our acceptance of humanism is a belief system. (It is no more scientifically demonstrable as any other religion.)
Second, as implied in the previous sentence, it can be turned into a religion. (That religion requires the worship of a ‘supreme being’ is another Western conceit). This second point opens the door to orthodoxy, dogma, interpretation, heresy and sects within humanism.
Third, we don’t realize when we start going on about humanistic beliefs (equality, human rights, liberty, etc.,) the rest of the world looks at us like we’ve grown a second head. That is not a shared frame of reference. For example, they see nothing wrong with inequality and racism. (Or as my favorite quote from Star Trek DS9 goes, “Oh no! We Ferengi aren’t against oppression. We just want to be the ones doing it.”) In order to believe there is something wrong with those, you have to be coming from a humanistic perspective.
Fourth, humanistic based morality can be twisted into my rights and freedoms are sacrosanct — and I get to decide what those are and what they mean. That last is a very short step from there to the source of chronic rage over perceived oppression and wrongs. Which brings us back to using Liberty/oppression as a basis for morality…
What do rights and freedom mean to you? What do they mean to someone else? Often individuals’ interpretation of their freedom becomes a form of zealotry regarding their selfishness. If they perceive you are infringing on their freedom to do as they will, they will come at you tooth and claw. You have no right to tell them what to do. While we’re at it, you have no right to judge them or to try to stop them.
But this is an incredibly one way street. You can’t judge them, tell them how to live their lives or tell them what not to do. You don’t have that right, but they do. They can judge and condemn you in a heartbeat. This behavior is especially common among those who feel oppressed or victimized by events in the past. In more extreme cases you can see this taken to where a person feels that it is his right to break the law (including assaulting you) because of past and currently perceived oppression.
Basically you’ll find this kind of sacred outrage comes in two basic flavors:
1) those that will act on their own and
2) those who act through proxies.
Either way, they’ll come at you with righteous rage. Not only do they attack, but they act in the absolute conviction they are morally justified in doing so. You have wronged them. According to their moral standards, you deserve it.
Someone who is acting in moralistic rage cannot be ‘reasoned’ down, nor can they be appealed to. At the apex of their rage they can only be deterred or stopped (as in physically). This is not a bluff, you have to be ready, willing and able to do it. If you aren’t they’ll see it and just escalate beyond what you’re willing to do. Acting as if you are or using your authority as a shield is another good way things can go bad. But especially do not try to shame them; that is a tactic that will blow up in your face.
That does not mean however they cannot be stopped — especially before they get a full head of steam. The question is how far down that road are they? Someone who is acting from anger is easier to deal with than someone who is acting out of fury. Someone who is being hostile is different than someone who is being verbally or emotionally abusive. Someone who is verbal is a on a different level than someone who is being physical.
Therefore the issue isn’t if that’s what they are doing, it’s how far down the road is it? This is going to have major influence on what it is going to slow it down, much less stop it. That is important, because you’re not going to be able to change the mind of someone in this state, all you can do is limit the damage they do or — more practically — persuade them to leave you alone.
Worse, if they can ‘win’ on their own, they’ll run to human resources, administration or other authorities to do it for them. In extreme cases they’ll doxx you, organize a protest, vandalize your property and stalk you — all with clear conscious and moral certitude. Again, you deserve it. In case you haven’t guessed it there’s a strong connection between the rising victimhood culture and this kind of anger based morality. They were wronged, therefore what they are doing is justified.
When it comes to zealots you will find a greater numbers among individuals whose moral frameworks function on only one or two foundations. In fact, let’s call them — uber-pillars. These are foundations that have been blown out of proportion and to the exclusion of others. No other pillars matter as much as what they’ve focused on. For example someone obsessed with Liberty/oppression often has no respect for authority (Authority/subversion foundation). The only moral authority they recognize is themselves. The rules don’t apply to them. That’s if they’re not aiming for subversion (overthrow).
For example, what will be the morality of someone whose entire moral framework is predicated on Liberty/oppression and Harm/care? What rules (much less laws) will that person be willing to break because of perceived wrongs and injustices? How much anger and fury will that person carry at the world? A world so obviously wrong and hurtful? A world that deserves to be hurt back. We tend to think of fanatics in terms of religion, but secular ideologies can become just as extreme and harmful.
Earlier in this article I said, ” In some situations not only isn’t negotiation not going to work, there’s a good chance trying will make things worse. ”
Those lines should make a whole lot more sense now. But let me state, trying to compromise with someone intent on hurting you is not impossible. What you’re negotiating for takes on a different shape though.
I will also say the definition of ‘good faith negotiations’ change when dealing with people whose morality either condones your destruction or doing you harm. They aren’t playing for a win/win. They’re playing of a win/lose. And just so you know, their version of winning is you losing. Many of them are willing to sacrifice for that goal. For example in a work situation they may lose their job, but if they can get you in trouble that’s still a win — at least in their book.
Recognize that with such a personality, the best compromise is a draw. In a one time situation, you both walk away still breathing and go on living your lives. In a more long-term situation, you both withdraw to and stay on your respective sides of the street. You do not tolerate, but neither do you transgress over those boundaries. If forced to deal with one another, both you remain formally polite so as not to trigger a negative response that would have unwanted consequences.
We’ll talk more about how to handle such folks next time