Empathy, Charity, and Moral Foundations

It’s been a long time since I last posted. A lot has been going on in my life and I have been very busy between family, moving, starting a new job, and other things. But I am hoping to get back into a good habit of regular blog posts. General Conference is the perfect time to rededicate to that goal. I am hoping to write a post for each talk again this time so that I can review and share my thoughts about each of the talks.

I decided to start with President Uchtdorf’s talk from the Women’s Session last Saturday since the text from that session is available online and that talk really stood out to me.

President Uchtdorf spoke of three sisters. One was sad throughout her life, the second was mad and the third was happy. When speaking about the attributes of the angry sisters, President Uchtdorf spoke some incredible truths about the human condition and what generates so many of the conflicts that wreck relationships on both the inter-personal and international stage.

The second sister was angry at the world. Like her sad sister, she felt that the problems in her life were all caused by someone else. She blamed her family, her friends, her boss and coworkers, the police, the neighbors, Church leaders, current fashion trends, even the intensity of solar flares, and plain bad luck. And she lashed out at all of them.

She didn’t think of herself as a mean person. To the contrary, she felt that she was only sticking up for herself. Everyone else, she believed, was motivated by selfishness, pettiness, and hate. She, on the other hand, was motivated by good intentions—justice, integrity, and love.

It is human nature to always see the good in our selves. We are always paragons of “justice, integrity, and love.” We are rarely willing to blame ourselves when things go badly. Unfortunately, we are also equally quick to see the bad in those around us. We See others as selfish, petty, hateful, and hypocritical. In other words, we see the mite in their eyes even while ignoring the beam in our eyes.

Unfortunately, the mad sister’s line of thinking is all too common. This was noted in a recent study that explored conflict between rival groups. As part of the study, researchers interviewed Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, and Republicans and Democrats in the United States. They discovered that “each side felt their own group [was] motivated by love more than hate, but when asked why their rival group [was] involved in the conflict, [they] pointed to hate as [the other] group’s motivating factor.”3

In other words, each group thought of themselves as the “good guys”—fair, kind, and truthful. By contrast, they saw their rivals as the “bad guys”—uninformed, dishonest, even evil.

I recently read a book that is one of the more influential ones I have read in years : “The Righteous Mind” by Johnathan Haidt. That book discussed the basis for morality and categorized how human beings understand and categorize moral teachings. Haidt identifies six “moral foundations” that he analogizes to our senses of taste (sweet, bitter etc.)

Care v. Harm

Fairness  v.  cheating

Loyalty v Betrayal

Authority v Subversion

Sanctity v Degradation

and Liberty v Oppression

What is significant about Haidt’s research is that it suggests that people relate to or “speak” different moral languages. Some of those concerns resonate more with some because of some mix of background, culture, faith, and perhaps genetics. Liberal western society is primarily (almost exclusively) concerned with Care and Fairness. More traditional societies often reflect a concern for a more diverse collection of moral languages, but do not value care and fairness quite as highly.

Much of our political and social disagreement can stem from not speaking the same language or valuing and prioritizing them differently.  For instance, when conservatives speak of concepts such as the “purity” or “sanctity” of human life in the abortion context, that is basically a foreign language for someone who does recognize those notions. A stark example will be a libertarian minded individual who will be extremely critical of anyone who imposes laws to either care for the needy (modern liberalism) or in order to preserve purity or codify respect/law & order (more traditional conservatism).

Looking back to President Uchtdorf, I think a lot of our ability to vilify and to disagree vociferously with others stems from speaking a different language. We tend to prioritize our moral foundations and then judge others based on those same priorities. Because others prioritize moral goods differently from us, it is easy to begin to assume that they are not acting in a moral fashion.

When someone opposes or disagrees with us, it’s tempting to assume that there must be something wrong with them. And from there it’s a small step to attach the worst of motives to their words and actions.

Of course, we must always stand for what is right, and there are times when we must raise our voices for that cause. However, when we do so with anger or hate in our hearts—when we lash out at others to hurt, shame, or silence them—chances are we are not doing so in righteousness.

So what’s the solution to this problem. How can we overcome our moral blindness and be filed with greater empathy and compassion? Haidt suggested being more aware of the merits and strengths of moral foundations that we do not prioritize as highly. For instance, conservatives can recognize that liberals are motivated out of a desire to serve the most needy and rectify what they see as long term systematic injustice. Liberals can recognize that tradition, sanctity, order, and unity are significant moral values that need to be respected and reconciled. We can see the good motives underlying the actions of others even if we do not agree with the actual balancing. That is a very valuable suggestion.

President Uchtdorf offers another divinely inspired suggestion. We can seek for Christlike empathy and realize that we are all brothers and sisters on the same journey of mortality. We can also be aware of the light of Christ that is in all of us that pushes us to do good.

What did the Savior teach?

“I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”4

This is the Savior’s way. It is the first step in breaking down the barriers that create so much anger, hatred, division, and violence in the world.

I particularly loved President Uchtdorf’s emphasis on how we must do so even if it is not reciprocated. Sometimes our path as a disciple of Christ will be a lonely and unreciprocated one.  But that is our divine mandate.

(If anything, Haidt’s research suggests that for members of more conservative faiths living in a more progressive liberal society there will often be a lack of reciprocal empathy. That is because, as already mentioned, liberals tend to be almost exclusively focused on care and fairness to the exclusion of other values. So conversations about sanctity, authority, and loyalty will simply not resonate. On the other hand, conservatives do tend to value care and fairness though to lesser degrees. )

“Yes,” you might say, “I would be willing to love my enemies—if only they were willing to do the same.”

But that doesn’t really matter, does it? We are responsible for our own discipleship, and it has little—if anything—to do with the way others treat us. We obviously hope that they will be understanding and charitable in return, but our love for themis independent of their feelings toward us.

Perhaps our effort to love our enemies will soften their hearts and influence them for good. Perhaps it will not. But that does not change our commitment to follow Jesus Christ.

So, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we will love our enemies.

We will overcome anger or hate.

We will fill our hearts with love for all of God’s children.

We will reach out to bless others and minister to them—even those who might “despitefully use [us] and persecute [us].”5

I

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