Thursday, March 27, 2014

Whose side are you on? Morality World Vision & Righteous Minds

Feeding Children in South Africa



World Vision made waves earlier in the week when they announced plans to hire same-sex married couples. Multiple news sources carried stories and blog posts were filled with comments from irate donors. To be sure, there were supportive comments as well. After a few days, World Vision announced a change of heart. They issued an apology to their upset supporters. And reversed their policy. The wide variety of remarks offers a trove of data to illustrate how people focus on different aspects of a situation when reaching a moral decision. In this post I will draw on the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues to frame the six dimensions of morality.


First, several researchers have written about how the mind works when thinking about anything—including morality. One of the best summaries of thinking is the book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Fast thinking is automatic. A part of the brain manages a great deal of daily tasks that require little thought such as breathing, walking, and so forth. But a lot of other things become automatic as well. Once we learn to bike, drive, and engage in chit chat, these functions become automatic as well. In addition, we make quick decisions on very small samples of behavior. We hope that experts have a refined “gut reaction” when it comes to medical diagnoses. And we find that artists know great music and paintings but sometimes have difficulty explaining the bases for their decision. A lot of morality works like that too. Most of us don’t need laws to tell us it’s wrong to commit murder, steal from our neighbors, and abuse children. We respond quickly to situations partly based on innate responses to care and protect others from harm. And sometimes our automatic responses are so much a part of our culture that we may not even consider the morality of an act until someone brings it to our awareness.

Sometimes we struggle to know what is right. Some situations are complex and we need to move into slow thinking mode in order to solve a problem. But slow thinking has a price. Our brains require additional energy to think carefully about a situation. It takes time and it takes concentrated effort to think about the consequences of a course of action. Sometimes we hire experts to solve complex problems. Sometimes we work it out ourselves. Some complex decisions are about life and death as in medical decisions or going to war. These can overlap with moral decisions. The WV decision to hire same-sex married persons had immediate and profound consequences. How might companies weigh such decisions? And the reversal will also have consequences.


Haidt and his colleagues (see Haidt, The Righteous Mind) have discovered six moral dimensions. Each dimension has two poles. And analyses of responses to moral dilemmas helped researchers find that conservatives and liberals rely on different dimensions to form their morality. For the most part, the responses that fall into these categories are driven by fast, emotion-driven, decisions-- fast thinking. The language appears more like a servant to the emotions rather than the product of a carefully reasoned response. Just look at the comments on Facebook or in response to news posts about the WV policy change.

Here's how liberal and conservative minds appear to differ:

The liberal mind tends to emphasize 1) Care/harm, 2) Liberty/oppression, and 3) fairness/cheating.
The conservative mind tends to give close to equal weighting to the above three but also considers 4) Loyalty/ betrayal, 5) Authority/subversion, and 6) Sanctity/degradation.


I will provide the quotes, link to sources, and comment on the key words or phrases indicating the moral dimensions. I’ll add boldface for the key words. After a little practice, I think you will see how Haidt's research can be applied to moral messages.

Care/ harm
Liberty/ oppression


A Few Quotes

SB Russell Moore  “At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Moore said. “If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2,000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel.”

“There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to ‘evolve’ on the sexuality issue without alienating their base,” Moore said. “I don’t mind people switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in.
Authority = Scripture, tradition

Harm = “cruel” in the sense of eternity perhaps?

Loyalty/betrayal = “switching sides.” It is as if WV became a traitor to the tribe.

SB Albert Mohler: Stearns insists that he is not compromising biblical authority even as he undermines confidence that the church can understand and trust what the Bible reveals about same-sex sexuality.
Referring to 1 Correlation 6: 11 “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified…”

Authority = obviously bible as authority for moral actions

Sanctity = washed, sanctified- a common theme when sex is viewed as pure or dirty

Rachel Held Evans: “Finally, all this overdramatic “farewelling” over non-essential issues is getting tiresome. It’s shutting the door of the Kingdom in people’s faces. It’s tying up heavy burdens and placing them on people’s backs.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that in rejecting the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, the outcast, and “the least of these,” these brothers and sisters have essentially “farewelled” Christ Himself. What a lonely world they have created!

RHE post reversal: “Honestly, it feels like a betrayal from every side.”

Liberty/oppression = burdens on same-sex oriented persons

Loyalty/betrayal = conservatives betraying Christ by defunding those Jesus cared for.

Feeling of betrayal experienced after WV reversed their decision.

Trevin Wax: “No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond.”

Care/harm = concern for children- and their lives

Notes: SB- Southern Baptist; WV- World Vision


There are so many more comments to read and analyze but it does not take long to identify the common themes. In addition to the themes, I noticed the order of appearance of the themes. If you are interested, click on the links and see which themes appear before the others. Conservatives were clearly outraged about the lack of respect for biblical teaching about homosexuality and considered the decision of WV a breach of trust—an act of disloyalty—a profound betrayal. Notice where the care for children theme appeared for conservative and liberal voices.

Both liberals and conservatives mentioned concern for the potential harm to the children. Conservatives encouraged funding conservative organizations. Liberals appealed to liberals to replace the loss. A number of comments by Rachel Held Evans fit the liberal mold but I included her challenge to the loyalty of conservatives as quite different from a traditional liberal response.

Another matter that comes into play is how fundamentalists interpret Scripture. For more on how fundamentalists use Scripture as a guide, see my post about the principle of intratextuality.

I wonder how the decision-makers at World Vision reached their first decision about hiring people in same-sex marriages? Their quick reversal of policy suggests they did not consider the strength and the nature of the moral foundation within the minds of a large number of their supporters. Can an apology reverse the damage? Will they be forgiven? Take a look at my post on effective apologies. What do you think about their apology?

This World Vision-Same-Sex-Marriage topic may still be too hot to permit rational analysis. I hope by understanding how conservatives and liberals approach moral matters that we might somehow promote more courteous discourse when we disagree. Judging by some comments on social media sites and blogs, I am not too optimistic.

"Morality binds and blinds."
Jonathan Haidt in
The Righteous Mind

I'm inclined to agree with Haidt's view that "morality binds and blinds." After reading Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes, I find his quest for a metamorality not only appealing but crucial to more cooperation and less hostility in the future. It is rare to see people sincerely care for the welfare of others who do not belong to their religious or political tribe. At best, they cooperate on a common project. Entry to any tribe comes at the cost of personal freedom.

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON


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