Jeremy McCarthy ended his great review of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind by exploring Haidt’s statement, “Morality binds and blinds.” This encapsulates both a challenge and an opportunity. We blindly follow our moral instincts; the foundations are hard to shake even in the presence of rational countervailing reasons. But morality also brings people together with others who hold similar values. While there is no single way to define or describe a moral life, we all have the ability to transcend self-interest, albeit in different ways, and to contribute to the greater good of our own communities.
So, how do we transcend self-interest and contribute to the greater good of our own communities? I had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan Haidt, newly appointed professor of ethical leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business. I asked him for practical applications of his Moral Foundations Theory, in particular, how I, as a SOcial-eMOtional leader, can apply the theory with:
- My family (where some have politics very different from mine)
- My consulting work with businesses (where morality is sometimes a dirty word)
- My work in community organizations (where many turn a blind eye to immoral behavior)
- Our positive psychology community (where it’s most important we walk the talk)
Here’s what he said . . .
For (my) family
Haidt suggested that we attend to relationships first. “Put the elephant at ease before addressing the rider.”
I can look for things that the other side is right about, though it is hard to do, because my own morality is like a guard dog preventing me from seeing that they may actually be right. For example, I could say, “Yes, sometimes bureaucratic government agencies are difficult to deal with,” or, “You’re right, too much entitlement spending is going to ruin us. What can we do about it?” Stay open. Inquire. Don’t advocate.
Humans have evolved towards communion to overcome solitude. We need to build high quality connections with one another. In the book, Haidt explained that not long ago, American politicians elected to Congress would move their families to Washington, DC, where the families would come to know one another. This is not the case anymore as Congress people tend to fly in on Sundays and leave on Thursdays. Is it any wonder partisanship is problematic? We need to connect and intentionally build our tribes.
Many disastrous business decisions are made from overconfidence plus the confirmation bias, that is, tending to see only things that confirm previously held views. If you understand the flaws of human reasoning, you understand that better reasoning is possible with co-creation. SOcial-eMOtional (SOMO) leaders set up a culture where it’s expected for people to point out flawed thinking. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman recommends asking the people in a group to write down their opinions and hand them in to be read out loud. That way they aren’t swayed by the first people to speak up or by the loudest voices.
Haidt referred to the teachings of Glaucon, Plato’s older brother: people are more concerned about reputations than they are about money. “You want to set up any organization so that peoples’ reputations are on the line. People will suffer if they do bad things and revel in the glory if they do good things,” he said. In modern times we don’t want people to feel shame, “but I suspect that putting more attention on reputational outcomes would be helpful.” Doing so may minimize backstabbing and deception.
For Community Groups
Many people operate from a scarcity mindset, where for me to win, you need to lose. In community settings, it is also common for people to turn a blind eye when witnessing immoral behavior. Perhaps this is a “protection of the tribe” mechanism, but ultimately it separates people from what’s real.
Referring to his metaphor of humans as hive creatures, Haidt reminded me that we are 10% bee, not 100% bee. While we don’t want to turn everything into a hive, occasionally setting up events to have people move in synchrony can increase their willingness to act for the group.
This reminds me of Cleveland’s Wade Oval Wednesdays, where the community comes together to listen to music, eat food, and dance under the summer night sky. Events like this bind us and help us build social capital, which produces trust. Trust is a crucial ingredient to understanding one another and moving forward.
“You can’t stick ethics into anyone’s head,” Haidt said. Choosing to have an appreciation of difference means seeing them as yin/yang and not good/evil. To earmark another as evil eliminates any space for growth.
For our Positive Psychology Community
The darker side of Haidt’s book shows that we are all flawed hypocrites (do as I say, not as I do). We can each work on being more aware that we are not always right. If we do, people are less likely to perceive our efforts to enroll them into more positive paradigm as threats. Then they will be more inclined to be open to the science that shows what many ancient traditions have taught all along: be good, do good, expect good of others.
Haidt said that he considers himself a social, moral, cultural, and positive psychologist. He wondered if we might do a better job of being open to conservatives in our community. “Are we listening to them? Is the field any way hostile or insensitive? Perhaps what they have to say are things we just literally can’t see,” he said.
I’m trying my best to be open to seeing things differently. Are you?
I highly recommend Jon Haidt’s recent TED Talk: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. He’s an amazing teacher. You are also invited to visit SOMO Leadership Labs on Facebook where we discuss applications of positive psychology theory and research.
Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. London: Allen Lane.