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Bridging Social Rifts with Moral Psychology

Cynthia Sue Larson

“Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.” – Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

While we often picture visions of holiday celebrations as joyous gatherings of family members sharing traditional food and festivities, the reality can be less happy and more stressful. One of the most stressful aspects for many people during the holidays has to do with getting together with family members with different political and/or religious views. There’s a reason we’ve been cautioned against talking about politics or religion with those holding different views, and it has to do with the way few such discussions end up very well. But why can’t we talk about some of the things we care so much about?

The Righteous MindI recently read and thoroughly enjoyed reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist who gains insights into people’s true moral priorities based on uniquely disturbing surveys and questionnaires, designed to delve more deeply into an understanding of morality than has previously ever been done. Intentionally disturbing questions were asked in order to delve into matters that otherwise might not be obvious, such as why in certain cultures it is considered horrible for a widow to eat fish, for example.

The first truly big idea presented in Haidt’s book has to do with the way logic follows intuition in all humans, despite frequent assumptions that in actuality, we are being perfectly reasonable. Research studies show that humans lean in the direction of our gut feelings… our intuition… and once we start leaning one way or another, our busy rational minds get to work coming up with reasons this direction makes so much sense. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if we all tended to lean the same direction as one another, thus tending to generally agree, but it can present difficulties when individuals or groups of individuals all start leaning one way or another and sharing reasons for why that direction is better than others.

Haidt outlines something called Moral Foundations Theory in his book, in such a way that shows how people from different cultures around the world identify to varying degrees with several basic foundations of morality. These are a bit like tastes, so just as some people might have a “sweet tooth” and others prefer salty or sour, people also show preferences and varying degrees of identifying with the six basic foundational pillars of morality: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.

Intriguingly, these moral foundations illuminate similarities in viewpoints of members of groups who share concern about Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating (Liberals)… and the study of moral psychology thus illuminates reasons great rifts can sometimes occur between Liberals who presume Conservatives do not share their same concerns with regard to Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, when studies show Conservatives do care about these things… in addition to all the other elements of moral foundation, and perhaps a bit less than some.

So how does a better knowledge of moral psychology help in healing social rifts, such as those we may find around the holiday dinner table this year? Learning how people have initial intuitive leanings and viewpoints about things as being good or bad so they subsequently create logical support for them can be extremely important, so you can respect how feelings are the primary driving force. Jonathan Haidt recommends that when we really want to understand someone from a different viewpoint or culture, we do well to listen with open hearts, following a sense of sacredness. This is excellent advice for deep listening in general, and listening truly is the best way to show respect to others, and bridge gaps between ourselves and others.

How good can it get when you feel inspired to learn about someone’s world view? Keep in mind that every person has a unique way of relating to others and something bigger than themselves… and feelings are at the center of these relationships. When you listen with love and respect to peoples’ views, you just might discover something amazing and wonderful about some of the deepest mysteries of life.

You can watch me discuss this topic on my YouTube video, Bridging Social Rifts with Moral Psychology… and please feel free to comment with your thoughts and ideas here on this blog and in the comments under the video. I’d love to know how you feel!

Love always,
Cynthia Sue Larson
email Cynthia at

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