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Losing the Moral High Ground

in Nick Wolff/Opinion/Politics
losing moral high ground
From Pexels.com
From Pexels.com

Heroes and Villains

We all see ourselves as the hero in our story. Simple minds cast others as the villain. The moment you come to believe that you unquestionably occupy the moral high ground is the moment you have lost it.

Dehumanization of your opponent is easy. Understanding them is difficult, but it’s the only way this is going to work. If we care about solving problems, we need to realize that people who contend with our ideas likely have a point. They probably have important information and perspectives to bring to the discussion.

We bring our differing values (or beliefs) into every interaction and situation we enter. We do not prioritize our values the same way–nor should we.

It is my hope that by highlighting the diversity of human values, we can advance human progress in much kinder ways. These fundamental disagreements will be resolved, but they don’ t have to. I want adversaries across debates to become more humanized in the minds of their opponents.

Internal Threat

Our values are visceral. Even when they are grounded intellectually (often they are not) the fact that they under-gird so much of our lives, we will have a deep seated emotional reaction to anything that would move us to reconsider our perspective. We react in fear because having to re-define our assumptions about the world is a tremendously traumatic experience. We react harshly and often aggressively toward anything that would threaten our worldview.

New perspectives which adversely impact our relationships are terribly difficult to adopt. Many of our social groups are defined by certain commonly held beliefs. If we were ever to depart from them, we may face social ostracism from close friends, colleagues, and sometimes family members. For some, that cost is too great. For that reason, challenging ideas are seen as an existential threat.

People are different. I have devoted many hours of my life to understand why people disagree. When I say disagree, I mean deep, durable disagreement. One of my colleagues, once said that poor communication was the source of all conflict. That is patently false. Sure, better communication helps to clear up misperceptions, miscommunications, and build trust. But intractable conflict isn’t about communication problems. It’s about fundamental differences about how we believe the world ought to exist and function. Because of these differences, we all believe we are operating on the moral high ground. That’s when things get dangerous.

Stop Fighting

When it comes to interpersonal conflict, the biggest danger arises from an inability to see the noble, ethical, or valid ideas that form the basis of one’s position. If after discussion, you can see the moral and philosophical basis for that opinion, if nothing else we can “agree to disagree,” shake hands, and move forward–accepting our differing prioritization of values. But when adversaries end the conversation with no clearer understanding of the noble basis for the other’s position, terrible things happen. The “othering” occurs. We’ve lost the moral high ground. We attribute malice, ignorance, or dis-ingenuousness to others. Relationships are destroyed and collaboration is impossible. 

In subsequent articles, I’ll be discussing the six pairs of competing value orientations. In them you will see the basis of every intractable disagreement. Some orientations will resonate with you. Others will not. But my hope is you will come to understand the nature and positive basis for each orientation, even if you strongly disagree with the ramifications of that belief.

We need to stop fighting each other.

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