The Problem With the Moral High Ground (Part 1)

The US election is over. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been declared the new President and Vice President. We may now be entering a period of deep social unrest as citizens react to the news and the narratives that are being cultivated. The impact of this election campaign and what happened is far from over and will not be for years. If anything, it has highlighted how much work needs to be done. There are many who will want to turn away from this and we do so at the peril of all of us.

Change, deep abiding systemic change and reform is needed. We can’t force our way into this, into “fixing” the deep divides that exist in the US and elsewhere, no matter how much moral high ground we think we have.

Moral High Ground is Not a Dialogue[*]

Claiming moral high ground is problematic. It gives us satisfaction in believing in the rightness of our outrage. Not that we shouldn’t feel outraged. But operating from this response gives no opportunity to change a dialogue or a system. Moral high ground is a power suppressive position which silences voices and stops dialogue. It is filled with assumptions and judgments. It keeps us all stuck. If we want to stay attached to our moral certainty, it is not true dialogue we are seeking.

The more we believe we have the moral high ground, the more likely we are to consider people who do not think or act in accordance with our beliefs as wrong and even evil. It may give us some sense of satisfaction to think of people with opposing views as being immoral or uncaring or maybe even not very intelligent. It may even give us a sense of superiority.

However, if someone was telling you that you were wrong or evil, how would you respond? Pause for one second and really consider this question. Answer in your mind, feel it in your body. How likely would you be to engage any conversation with that person? How likely would you be able to bring in your curiosity and behave in accordance with your humanity and humility? When we are truthful with ourselves we might have to admit it would be hard and maybe impossible.

Making these divides solely about morals and moral judgments means we are already losing. We have made up our minds about what and who is right and wrong. We have decided we need to convince people to acknowledge how wrong they are, to acknowledge the rightness of our position so we may persuade them to change their views.  If only it was that simple.

Worldviews, Identity, Challenges and Human Behaviour

Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences and beliefs, and they influence the assumptions and the judgments we make. They are closely associated with our sense of identity. These individual and collective identities and worldviews are strengthened, conversation by conversation, decision by decision, action by action, confirmation by confirmation of what we already know; what we already believe. We see this in the human behaviours of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and sunk costs. We have written about this in Building Trust and Relationship at the Speed of Change.

Our worldviews are reinforced by the people we are most in contact with, the sources of information and knowledge we trust, and our social media feeds. Our views can and do become more extreme or we become more deeply attached to them the more these views and our sense of self are reinforced. This is the Law of Group Polarization. When this happens, we become less compassionate towards people who hold views, opinions and perspectives different from our own. Maybe you have witnessed this in yourself or others?

Changing Worldviews and Sense of Identity is Hard Work – We Actively Resist Doing This

Think about the last time you changed your mind, or your view, about something that is deeply important to you, something that is an aspect of who you think you are, your belief systems? What was it that caused you to change your mind or your sense of self? How fast did it happen? Or more accurately, how slowly did it happen? How much “evidence” did you need to make a shift?  

Why then do we believe it should be easy for someone else to shift their view? Why do we believe they would change their minds if they would only listen to the information and knowledge we possess and if they only understood the moral dilemmas the way we do? We want others to change. We don’t want to be the ones to have to change. It is hard work and it is human nature to be resistant to it.

The more morally outraged we are, the more we push away people who believe differently than we do. This leads them to solidify their own views even more. Similarly, we too can solidify our own views when others don’t agree with us. We fall into a deepening spiral and a widening chasm and it becomes harder to find a way to bridge the divides.

What Happens Now?

In these post-election days, we (Jerry and Kathy) have been in a-several-days-long running dialogue about what happens now. What could become possible through Worldview Intelligence? People who have been exposed to the Worldview Intelligence Six Dimensions Framework say it is value neutral. As the people behind this work, we recognize we are not value neutral. For the record, we didn’t come to this acknowledgement easily. We thought we wanted to maintain this sense of neutrality. However, we cannot mute who we are.

We have our own worldviews. We have our own identities. These are as important to us as they are for anyone. We do have a propensity to welcome an expansion of our worldviews largely because of our work and personal practices. But this would be expansions we invite, not necessarily expansions that are demanded of us.

Maintaining Personal Integrity While Expanding Worldviews

Much of the present conversation between the two of us has been focused on asking how do we allow ourselves to maintain our sense of identity and personal integrity while engaging in a new dialogue on issues we hold strong personal or moral views on, knowing these conversations can be very divisive? How do we invite a conversation without not-so-secretly intending to change another’s view? How do we be honest about and surface our own “hidden agendas”?

While doing this, how do we also create the space for another person or group to maintain their sense of identity and personal integrity while engaging in a new dialogue?  How do we create the same space for them we desire for ourselves? Because shaming someone for their views, positions and actions will not bring them to the table. Holding to a moral high ground is not an invitation. How can we acknowledge and then set judgments aside to invite in curiosity and learning? Especially if we fear compromise of some sort might challenge our identity, our core beliefs, or our sense of who we are.

Is the curiosity we say we will invite really about hearing how another person came to see and experience the world the way they have? Or is the curiosity we are bringing more about wondering how we can get someone else to compromise their own moral certainty once we have them in a conversation?

We know we don’t want to compromise who we are. We don’t want to lose our sense of moral certainty even as we want to ask someone else to do exactly this. If this is true, is there a point to talking? It will only end where it has been ending – in deeper polarization and in the same stalemate.

There is a Field Between Right and Wrong Doing

Our conversations and musings have led us to consider a new possibility. What if there is another space, as Rumi wrote, out beyond you and me that does not ask either of us to compromise our personal integrity but can lift us all up to discover new views and unexpected ways to bridge the divides in expansive rather than contractive ways?

This is the curiosity. This is the invitation we want to make. It will be hard to do because it requires personal examination and illuminating hard truths. There will be many not interested in this invitation. Our hope is that there are many more who will be so together we can build the capacity to seek and find new possibilities for dialogue and ways to be together better.

In Part 2 of this post, we will share ideas on how to bring this possibility to life as we reflect on the science of human behaviour, belonging, and shifting from stalemates to possibilities.

[*] Throughout this post we refer to the societal we, but what we reference here are the experiences, feelings and challenges that we, Kathy and Jerry, have been experiencing now as we reflect on what the election results might mean.

4 Responses to “The Problem With the Moral High Ground (Part 1)”

November 06, 2020 at 8:38 pm, Darlene Coelho said:

Hi there!
I am interested in diving into what does all our convictions means beyond political borders, and how does a person embraces deep social responsabiity for what happens at a collective level, regardless nationality.

November 23, 2020 at 1:27 pm, admin said:

Thank you Darlene. We will be organizing a call soon. I will make sure you are invited. Kathy

November 12, 2020 at 7:28 pm, Myrna Peterson said:

Difficult conversations are tough to have but they are essential for personal growth.

November 23, 2020 at 1:29 pm, admin said:

You are so right Myrna. I just had a conversation with someone I am mentoring about a conversation they have been invited to. I offered that the invitation is for their own growth and that they have choices about how they show up to the conversation.