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Moral dissonance

September 23, 2018

Matthew Whoolery

In the field of cognitive psychology, we have a term we call “cognitive dissonance” that is used to describe the experience of holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. The idea is that when we have two conflicting beliefs, we feel the need to resolve the dissonance created by that conflict and therefore do something to change one belief or the other.

This week it has struck me that we often find ourselves in a kind of moral dissonance. We claim a certain set of values, but in our actions or in our lives we show that we don’t actually believe those values. The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy said this about Christians who claim that love is the highest law but then support the killing of other human beings, as if the commandment to love is “for home use only.”

I have written before about a very memorable conversation that I had with a friend at work. It was during the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq War. I was arguing that torture is wrong and that we should avoid war in almost all or all circumstances. He was taking the side that torture is okay in certain circumstances and that war was a good thing in the case of the Iraq War.

I imagine that if I had asked him first, “Do you believe in the value and dignity of all human life?” that he would have replied, “Of course I do.” I might follow up with, “Even if they are not of your country, religion, or skin color?” “Yes,” I think he would have replied. What intervened between his belief in the sanctity and value of human life and his support of the torture and killing of other human beings?

It may be that he should have qualified his answer (as I imagined it above) with, “I believe in the sanctity and value of all human life except when they are Muslim and have attacked my country.” Or, “Violence is justified if they are of another country than mine and have threatened or attacked people in my nation.” In this case, nationality, religion, or the other’s behavior precedes or takes precedent over his value for human life.

We see other examples of moral dissonance as well. If I had the chance to ask you, “Do you believe in fidelity in marriage and that all people should act this way?” many of you would answer, “Yes.” But in the case of Bill Clinton, my liberal friends had all kinds of excuses, and now my conservative friends excuse Trump’s long-known and significant infidelities to multiple spouses. So, do you believe that marital fidelity matters or don’t you?

Maybe you need to be clearer and say something like, “I believe the character of my political leaders matters only when it is a problem in the leader of the other party.” Or, “Unrepentant sexual abusers are only a problem if they are not in my political tribe.” In this case, you are putting your political allegiance before your moral values. Which, I suppose is fine, but let’s be honest about it.

The one that started my thinking about this today was on something that is more political than moral, I suppose. It’s about the national debt. I remember watching liberal documentaries during the George W. Bush administration about the dangers of the national debt and how we were selling out our childrens’ future. When talking with a conservative friend, he said, “That’s exaggerated and not as big of a deal as liberals make it sound.” But under the Obama administration, with ballooning debt, suddenly my conservative friends felt like that same debt was a national emergency. Many Republicans, including Donald Trump, campaigned on getting rid of the national debt altogether.

But now it is reversed again, and my Republican friends are somehow silent about the national debt (which has increased by more than $1,000,000,000,000 this year), and my Democrat friends are all fired up. So, which is it. Does national debt matter? Should the government practice fiscal restraint? It would probably be most honest for people to be saying, “The national debt is an issue when the other party is in power but not when my party is in power.” That would be more honest.

There are a few values that I would like to think that I would never give up for anything. For me, those include values like compassion and the value of all human life regardless of race, religion or nationality.

If nationalism, patriotism or party tribalism leads me to start giving conditions for these values, should I abandon them? I don’t want to be willing to compromise such deeply held moral values for the sake of my political affiliation or my nationality. If I do, I believe that I had better be honest with myself about it. For me, the abandoning of party affiliation or nationalism should come before abandoning my moral values. How about you?

Matthew Whoolery holds a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He can be reached by email at drwhoolery@gmail.com.

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