How To Make Morally-Based Political Decisions

Much of the current political conversation seems crude, hostile and immoral. Yet our country’s founders stressed that a virtuous, educated and moral citizenry is critical for the functioning of our Democratic Republic. 

Thomas Jefferson said: “…no government can continue good but under the control of the people…to be encouraged in habits of virtue … to follow truth as the only safe render the people a sure basis for the structure of order & good government.” So, are we behaving virtuously, based on moral standards, in our political views and voting behavior?

Most of us are confident that we make reasoned decisions based on our moral values. Social sciences research suggests otherwise. Drs. Daniel Kahneman and Herbert Simon won Nobel Prizes for research on how our political, economic and other life decisions are often based on emotional or “tribal” factors.

When we hold conflicting views, one of which goes against our professed moral standards, while the other conflicts with our tribe’s stance, the strong urge is to go along with the group’s opinion. Peer pressure doesn’t end with the teenage years! 

Our tribal urges seem to be related to our evolutionary history, where going against our group risked our being banned from the tribe and left alone to survive in a dangerous world. Thus, we evolved a brain that tends to agree with our group’s beliefs, even when those beliefs go against our individual calculations.

In civilized society, our decisions don’t usually involve life or death. But it still feels dangerous to have opinions that differ from our peer group. As a result, we cling to the beliefs of our peer group, usually without conscious awareness of doing so.

However, we are not doomed to be enslaved to our emotions or the beliefs of our peer group. It is a tough task and requires constant attention and practice, but we can delay our impulses and let reason and adherence to our moral standards reduce the pull of anger, fear and peer pressure.

We must regularly exercise our higher cognitive brain functions to help moderate the strong, primitive urges of the survival mechanisms that make us vulnerable to emotional reasoning and tribal pressure. Humans have recognized this challenge and developed rational, legal and moral standards to guide us and to counteract our baser instincts. 

However, this isn’t foolproof. Do you think you are too smart to be controlled by emotions and peer influence? 

There is good evidence that high intelligence can also be used to develop rationalizations that defend our emotionally based decisions. A high IQ doesn’t ensure better decision-making.

How can we ensure we are operating based on moral standards rather than emotional or tribal factors? For one, start with intellectual humility, the willingness to acknowledge that we make mistakes and don’t always get it right. If we are unwilling to entertain the possibility we may get some things wrong, we miss the chance to self-correct when we veer off the righteous path. 

Another helpful practice is to, when possible, delay your responses and decisions, especially if emotion or peer influence is involved. We learned to count to ten as children when we are angry rather than give in to the instinctive urge to punch that annoying classmate in the face. This uses the higher-level reasoning parts of our brains to delay or inhibit our primal impulses, giving us time to make better decisions.

As grown-ups, take time to think carefully and rationally. Always seek out verifiable facts to help your decision-making. This usually means listening to credible, substantive arguments by those with whom you disagree.

Instead of treating disagreements as personal attacks, see them as opportunities to explore differing views as part of an effective problem-solving strategy. This can sometimes help us find common ground with others and work together in areas where we agree.

The best way to accomplish this is to learn and use ways of interacting and communicating that promote honesty in a civil and respectful manner. The goal of each human interaction should be to seek common ground and strengthen the relationship, not to defeat your “enemy” by winning an argument.

If someone is unwilling or unable to go this route, respectfully remove yourself from them and find someone else who may eventually be open to having a respectful relationship, even in the face of strong differences.

Focus on consistently identifying and following sound moral standards as an individual or as part of a group. Humans have long explored and developed moral standards in a group context within a religious community, working to improve behavior and abide by widely shared standards. The “Golden Rule” (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is a moral standard that is found in each major world religion. 

Other key sources of guidance can be found in philosophical schools of thought and legal codes (“the rule of law,” which makes societal decisions based on codes of law rather than social influence, power, financial status, or group identity).

Also, recent scientific findings show the value of positive attitudes and behaviors in promoting a better quality of life and mental/physical health. These could also help us develop standards for behavior and in political decision-making. 

Another group process for pursuing personal virtue is through working with others in a community group devoted to common goals. We are increasingly seeing attempts to heal our political climate and decision-making through the work of

Arkansas co-coordinator of Braver Angels, an organization leading the nation’s largest cross-partisan, volunteer-led movement to bridge the partisan divide.

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