Moral Feelings and Reactions

Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times rounds up the exceptional work of Jonathan Haidt and others in his opinion piece, here. In reading it, I was reminded of the complicated reactions I encountered to an opinion piece I authored in the local paper about five years ago.

I wrote the piece, titled “Scouts and the Constitution,” following helping neighbors develop a rousing audio-visual tribute to their son’s achievement of Eagle Scout status in the Boy Scouts of America. His journey was not without complications: the parents had misrepresented through omission certain moral failings of the boy, and the boy had, himself, some misgivings about the requirements that were involved in becoming an Eagle. Yet, they had all persevered through steadfast inertia and asked me to help put together a short video. It was not difficult, though I tried to point out that Steve Miller’s  Fly Like an Eagle probably sends the wrong message on closer analysis (more on that in a moment).

We attended his Eagle event at a local church and I got to witness my video being used as part of the activities. The scout leader spent some time describing the number of local scouts who had moved on to military careers and how scouting prepared them for national service.  But then he let slip that it was the conjunction of their religious commitment and scouting that made them especially suited to defend the US Constitution. I felt oddly hollowed out by that comment, though I myself have sworn that oath as part of joining the US Peace Corps several decades ago.

The problem that led to my editorial is that the US Constitution specifically calls out that there shall be no religious test for any elected position in the United States.  That seems wildly at odds with an organization that requires its members to swear allegiance to God, though allowing polytheists in while excluding Buddhists.  I suggested rather calmly that I thought that Eagle Scouts should lead the charge to make scouting less controversially patriotic and more American.

And the reactions began, in online forums and among my neighbors. To sum up, those who considered the Boy Scouts to be sacrosanct simply considered me to be an ass and a liberal one at that for even bringing up the idea that there was something unpatriotic about the policies of scouting. But, amazingly, I never heard a single complaint that I was factually wrong or misrepresented the Constitution or the policies of the Boy Scouts. In fact, like Jonathan Haidt’s studies, the people were simple offended at the violation of their feelings about the institution of scouting.  I, despite having been a Boy Scout for several years, had no such feelings; the institution was subject to scrutiny based on its merits like any other institution.  Quoting Kristof, I violated the “loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity” portions of the landscape of their moral feelings.  Moreover, Steve Miller’s song about a revolution to feed the poor probably doesn’t work for most of them, either, although the Boy Scouts are otherwise strong in the charitable-giving department: revolutions just don’t respect authority.

My takeaway, like Kristof’s, is that reason is secondary to the ethical calculus that is at play in social and political reasoning. Still, it leaves us with the quandary as to how one’s upbringing determines what valences are attached to the different dimensions of moral reasoning. There is some evidence, for instance, that authoritarian parents instill conservative values to their children, while liberals transmit reason-driven considerations of fairness. Kristoff distances himself from that work through a few rhetorical efforts to soften and diffuse the role of reason in moral decision-making.

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