President Trump inherited an incredibly divided nation; one that daily demonstrates it has little interest in becoming less so. In fact, the one thing people can agree on is that there is a lot of disagreement.
In William McKenzie’s interview with Arthur Brooks, “How Americans Can Live, and Thrive, with Intense Political Disagreement,” Brooks argues that competition between differing ideologies is not only productive and necessary, it’s the mark of a healthy society. Vigorous disagreement is the process through which we recognize ideas as valid and distinct, provoking people to reason through and advance ideological positions while considering counterpoints presented by the opposing side.
“Liberals should be liberals. Conservatives should be conservatives. We should not be bashful about smart, strong disagreements about which public policies are the best instruments for helping more people access freedom, prosperity and the pursuit of their happiness,” Brooks says.
In a society governed by the people, for the people, wrestling with various ideological paradigms is how we arrive at optimal consensus and maximum freedom. This is why Brooks advocates for “localism” as a way to prevent national policies that are insensitive to the regional issues affecting Americans where they work and live.
So if diversity of thought is such a good policy objective, why are we currently experiencing such an incredible resistance to it? Across the political spectrum there is pushback against even the hint that perhaps we should move past the emotional upset of the election and towards the myriad other policy issues that could benefit from honest, sincere input from both parties.
A New Study Suggests an Answer
One possible explanation for how we became such an ideologically entrenched society may be found in Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay’s study on moral superiority. The two researchers took on the challenge of studying beliefs of moral superiority to better understand how this phenomenon relates to conflict and conflict resolution.
“Most people believe they are just, virtuous, and moral,” they write. “These beliefs demand scientific attention for several reasons. For one, in contrast to other domains of positive self-belief, they likely contribute to the severity of human conflict. When opposing sides are convinced of their own righteousness, escalation of violence is more probable, and the odds of resolution are ominously low.”
One doesn’t have to click many times to find real-life evidence of escalating violence, unapologetic self-righteousness, and lack of interest in resolving what ails the country. Americans have a moral superiority problem. A central feature of moral superiority, also known as “self-enhancement,” is irrational thinking.
A key finding of the study was almost all of its 270 subjects “irrationally inflated their moral qualities.” So not only do most people have feelings of moral superiority, they are completely unfounded. The strength of self-enhanced beliefs varies across the moral spectrum. Participants felt more strongly about their moral superiority in areas like honesty, as opposed to competence or intelligence.
Moral Superiority Isn’t Linked to Self-Esteem
The second key finding was that self-enhanced feelings of superiority were not linked to high self-esteem, as previously thought. Anyone, regardless of personal estimation, can jettison reason in believing in his or her lofty moral station. The authors attribute the almost universal findings of moral superiority to participants’ strong sense of personal virtue accompanied by an irrational view of how moral others are in comparison.
President George W. Bush captured this concept beautifully during his speech at the Dallas police memorial: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
Although the authors’ conclusions suggest the self-enhancement phenomenon is “robust and widespread,” they don’t evaluate whether this is a good or bad thing, or why people believe it in the first place. In light of current and ongoing conflicts among the various factions in our society I think it’s reasonable to suggest widespread self-enhanced thinking certainly isn’t helping.
Furthermore, the negative aggregate social effects of thinking so highly of oneself and so poorly of others should give us all pause. Absent some pretty powerful motivation, I don’t kid myself that people will spontaneously choose to become less self-centered and high-minded. But I do think bringing attention to this issue and understanding irrational moral superiority as a part of the problem helps move us in right direction.
This can help us get closer to an ideological marketplace where our opinions and beliefs are examined and debated based on the strength of the argument, and not discounted out-of-hand simply because we don’t like who said them, what group they belong to, or for whom they voted.
Give Opponents the Benefit of the Doubt
For us to sustain a thriving marketplace of honest, productive ideas, Brooks says we need two things: “First, it does require real, hot intellectual firefights over particular public policy questions. But second, it require us to remember that more often than not, both sides are aiming at the same moral consensus, on which the vast majority of Americans hold in common.”
We will never understand we have common moral objectives, however, if we don’t first humble ourselves to accept that perhaps we are not morally superior, and perhaps we may have something to learn from listening to someone who thinks differently than we do. The troubling part of irrational self-enhancement is its potential to drive irrational behavior.
We see this on college campuses all over the country. Guided by a skewed moral compass, students are shutting down free speech, and in some cases even the pretense of free speech. The escalating effort to moralize everyone’s beliefs and actions is being waged by individuals who haven’t an accurate understanding of their own moral failings. The real tragedy in all this is if we don’t start getting a grip on our misguided sense of grandeur, there won’t be a marketplace left in which ideas can compete.