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The Paradox of Exploring Taboos to Become More Moral
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The hard part of dealing with moral issues is the possibility for self-deception. It might be easy to pinpoint flawed arguments by others but the task is much harder when directed inwards. Unfortunately, many of the moral debates in the modern world revolve around topics where people possess strong, stable, and highly certain beliefs. Topics such as abortion, gun rights, and the death penalty as a punishment for murder.
To illustrate the challenge of deciding on ethical problems, consider the following situation:
A family's dog was killed by a car in front of their house.
They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut
up the dog's body and cooked it and ate it for dinner.
Is the family acting ethically and if not, why not?
Pondering this issue, students in my Science of Well-Being class arrived at a variety of conclusions.
Some thought it was ethical. The family didn’t hire a sniper to kill for food. An accident occurred and they made an independent decision to eat a deceased animal. As an analogue, families raise chickens to eat eggs and if starving, the wings, thighs, and breasts. A behavior that is socially acceptable entertainment for millions of Survivor television fans. Plus Americans eat approximately 25 million chickens per day with not guilt but pride. People eat animals for food, with nary a thought about their cortical power.
Some thought it was unethical. A pre-existing relationship existed. You don’t eat family members. Eat the dog and the portal opens to other ghastly acts such as cannibalism and necrophilia.
Expecting this comparison, I shared a quote 20 years ago from Alabama attorney and nominee for federal judge Bill Pryor who claimed consensual sex among same-sex couples is “historically recognized as a wrong.” Furthermore, Pryor writes, “a constitutional right that protects the choice of one's partner' and whether and how to connect sexually must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia (if the child should credibly claim to be willing).”
The students arguing against eating the dog produced soundbites eerily similar to homophobic lawmakers in the 80’s and 90’sdrawing logical leaps in lieu of rational arguments.
We detoured into strange moral dilemmas to shed light on how often people have strong, confident moral reactions in the absence of rational arguments for their positions. This is the province of Moral Dumbfounding.
Knowing the problem is a first step to reducing political animus.
It is hard to change people’s minds.
Sometimes an indirect strategy works best.
Our conversation about eating dogs initiated a conversation about contentious topics such as gay rights and abortion. Topics that are often scary to address in the academybut in the context of moral psychology ended up being illustrative. We all realized how our emotions are the primary channel driving moral attitudes and beliefs. Emotions such as disgust and compassion. Whereas we think deep logical analysis is the primary channel behind our thinking.
Recognize the flaws in your own thinking and an opening emerges to seek out and explore the perspective of the other side. Just remember that getting and taking perspectives does not require any commitment to change. It is about understanding the feelings and values that lie underneath such that maybe, just maybe, a sense of common humanity and dignity can reign.
My student Tobias Phillips captured the paradox of this psychological lesson:
Leaning into the absurd allows people to take the topic more seriously
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Please support my work by sharing it online (and click the free ❤️ button). For my science-based handbook on the courage to deviate from the status quo and the intelligence to know how, read The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.
I am fully aware that similar quotes can be found today but thankfully continue to decline over time.