The problem with morality

People use the words “tribalism” and “opposite sides” to describe American moral ethos these days and I feel they are labeling to outcome, not the cause. If we do not understand the cause, the core reasons for people’s decisions, for their seemingly intractable immoral positions, then they will never have any reason for listening, for reevaluating their position in the coming years. Whole civilizations have faltered in these divisive circumstances before.

If we have learned anything in these past two years, it is that people made decisions based on emotions — emotions always based on personal need linked to core beliefs. They were not wrong to have personal faith, they were not wrong to have made moral evaluation based on what they liked or (as was often the case) against what they knew they did not like. Voltaire said, “Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” Much of opinion TV and radio depends on fostering beliefs not facts.

Reasoning and belief are interlinked in humans. We reason based on what we learn or are exposed to on TV and radio, and steadfastly form our belief, our core values, based on that input (spun, truthful or false). The difficulty comes when we make that next leap from “I believe...” to “I have faith in...” Faith labels the person as a steadfast, deep-core believer — it becomes who they are, how they value themselves; completes their sense of pride. To paraphrase Will Rogers, “Too many people promote their prideful beliefs... beliefs they really don’t fully believe... to try and join with people that they don’t really like.”

Can you change that prideful person’s belief? Can you really change faith in others (without torture in one form or another)? Always remember, to seek to destroy someone’s faith is to make an enemy because that very attempt at destruction — even when applied with reason and facts — strikes at the very core of the being, all the beliefs, all the morals, all the accumulated interpretation of knowledge. It attacks who they are, how they see themselves. If you criticize them for who they are, who they see themselves as, they can only react in panicked defense with even more dogmatic absolutism.

It is hard being liberal. Being liberal means being open-minded to truth, to fact, to knowledge. It means allowing a vulnerability of one’s own inner core of beliefs, and values. In many ways, being liberal is akin to “turn the other cheek” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If one is fully liberal (and I am not sure many of us can claim that absolute mantle, especially not me), there would be no animas against those who take wrong-factual, bigoted, or contrary-to-logic views. Seek to correct their view? Perhaps it is impossible in a polite and non-violent way. Indeed, with many it is better not to try even the slightest correction with fact as even that strikes at the ego. Remember, if history has taught us anything it is that the true reformed person comes to that evaluation themselves, changes him or herself from within without fanfare or false ego. The Spanish Inquisition never converted anyone’s inner core.

True religious conversion is most often a solo journey. Guidance? Yes, perhaps. Instruction or edict? Rarely successful. So too is the journey to any enlightenment, it is a one-person journey to overcome pride (false or not) and allow reason and logic to have the upper hand. Voltaire said, “We are rarely proud when we are alone.”

Alone, that’s my motto for this year and for our country. Leave people alone. Do not try and effect change in your neighbors, allow them to find their own path to change. Oppose dangers to our democracy? Yes and indeed the Federalist Papers are very clear on that topic. But start to lay personal blame and tell people they are wrong — that’s an attack which will cause each of them to double down protecting their pride. Threaten to punish those in November you disagree with? That’s tantamount to personal challenges to every member you disagree with and will guarantee their participation in opposing your beliefs. Dialogue may not be the answer here, silence and personal introspection may be-along with trust in the Constitution.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.