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Morality in politics

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet!” writes Rudyard Kipling in “The Ballad of East and West.”

That seems an apt description of the politics in the Philippines. On one side, we have the government and its “diehard” supporters, and on the other, the so-called “destabilizers,” made up of the opposition party and sectors of the church, media and civil society. And it appears that a wedge has been placed between the camps, and this divide has gotten worse by the day. Indeed, with so much toxicity in the air, can the twain ever meet?

Jonathan Haidt, specialist in moral and political psychology, faced the same question in the quagmire that is American politics. In “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” he shares insights from his investigation of the moral divide between the liberals and conservatives in the United States. We like to believe that we are moral and ethical in our political stances, but Haidt offers these sobering “principles in moral psychology.”

First insight: Our sense of morality is first of all about emotions. We think, according to Haidt, that our morality is founded on reason, but most of it is instinctual. We just supply the reason to justify our moral sense, proving David Hume’s point that “reason is a slave to the passions.” As an example, Haidt asks: What is wrong with someone who uses the national flag as a mop in the privacy of his home? Although he is not harming anyone, deep down we believe he has committed something immoral, though we can’t put a finger on it. This is why we always fail when we try to reason with someone on the other side of the political line, even with our prodigious command of facts, logic and reason. “Intuitions,” as Haidt says, “come first, reason second.” If we are therefore to win over anyone in a moral argument, advises Haidt, we must learn first to enter his world, and understand where he is coming from.

Second insight: Morality is always complex. It encompasses human rights, but is also cognizant of cultural norms and standards. Americans, for example, are very sensitive about autonomy and freedom, and will fight for these. But other cultures, like in the East, also value community and spirituality. “The righteous mind,” Haidt says, “is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” In reality, however, we deal with political and moral issues simplistically when there is always a lot to consider. The drug problem, for instance, is not so much a peace and order issue as a health and economic problem. Again, we need to be open to the other and to his worldview if we are to solve our moral and political problems as a nation.

Final insight: Morality binds and blinds. We are genetically “groupish,” according to Haidt. Darwin proposed that the fittest survived, but in our evolutionary history, we needed to belong to a group in order to survive and thrive. That has been the function of our group identities; but the downside is that this can blind us to other groups. Observe how our politics has reduced us to warring tribes once again. Haidt writes: “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” The way out is rather obvious: to recognize that we belong to one big group that is humanity. We are groupish, but why not recognize everyone, each group, as part of that bigger group to which we all belong?

Haidt writes: “We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self interest and become simply part of a whole. It’s not just a capacity; it’s the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.”

Kipling actually ends his poem with hope. There is reconciliation between the native Kamal and the British Soldier: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

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Fr. Nono Alfonso, SJ, is a board member of John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues, and the executive director of Jesuit Communications. This article was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.