On being wrong, cont’d: Liberals, conservatives, and moral imagination

Jonathan Haidt invites us to step outside the “moral matrix” of our own certainties:

The crux of his argument:

[Y]ou can’t just go charging in, saying, “You’re wrong, and I’m right.” Because, as we just heard, everybody thinks they are right. A lot of the problems we have to solve are problems that require us to change other people. And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are — understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we’re right — and then step out, even if it’s just for a moment, step out […] of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — […] for what they’re doing. Step out. And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.

You can read an interview with Haidt here. And check out YourMorals.org, set up by Haidt and his co-founders, where you can take quizzes and surveys to explore your own values and build up your “morality profile.”

Elsewhere, Andrew Sullivan, writing about Ron Paul’s foreign policy, quotes and expands on Bob Wright:

I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”– the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders. […]

I’d make a further point: understanding your enemy from the inside out is vital if you are to foil him. When your foreign policy is based entirely on abstract arguments about America and ideology, and not also on figuring out how your foe might act rationally (and the Iranian regime has acted quite rationally in its own self-interest since it began), can lead to fatal error. Moral imagination, in other words, is the twin sister of self-interested strategy.

(I have to admit I do not support Paul at all, for the reasons that Bob Cesca lays out.)

Fair enough. We have to always be open to the possibility that we have blind spots, and that “the other side” may have a point. But I should also note that understanding someone else’s position doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing it, a point that Haidt and Sullivan make clear; understanding where your opponent is coming from may not convert you to their point of view (although it can), but it may at the very least move the conversation away from demonization and gridlock, and open doors to compromise and common ground. (And, ultimately, getting at least some of what you want. Open-mindedness is also enlightened self-interest, as Sullivan suggests.)

What I wrote in an earlier post also seems to pertain here: “We should never smugly assume that we’re right merely on the basis of instinct, desire, belief, tradition, or personal feeling; and we should always be open to evidence and the perspectives of others. But if we are to avoid being stuck in paralyzing self-doubt, we should also have the wisdom to determine when we are right; the confidence to decide when certain questions are settled and certain perspectives no longer have credibility; and the courage — after carefully considering the evidence and arguments at hand — to speak and act on our convictions.”


1 Comment

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One response to “On being wrong, cont’d: Liberals, conservatives, and moral imagination

  1. Welcome, fellow blogger!

    I’m a diluent [I don’t know how to spell since my stroke], dilettante, [there you go] but I’m re-learning.

    I was reading Jonhathan Haidt and found you. I love knowledge and you seem to love it too.

    Jeep, Keep in touch.


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