How We Determine What is Good

Ed Shaw 2 weeks ago
Blog 3 mins
Found in: Culture

Changes in how we do our ethical thinking and decision-making are key to understanding changes in attitudes to same-sex sexual relationships. On this, a genuine ‘must-read’ is American psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In this best-selling book, Haidt argues that the factors most important in determining what we think is right and wrong have changed significantly in recent decades and are now the things that most significantly divide conservative religious believers from their liberal secular neighbours. To illustrate this, he has drawn up this helpful matrix:     

The moral matrix of American liberals1

  1. Care/harm
  2. Liberty/oppression
  3. Fairness/cheating
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degradation

In this matrix the numbers matter – the top three things are the most influential in determining the morality of a belief or behaviour for an American (or British) liberal. What they care about most is the avoidance of harm – if no one is harmed by an attitude or action how can it be wrong? Individual freedom of expression matters too and restrictions to this (other than those that prevent harm being done) are seen as oppressive. Fairness or equality is often appealed to, and hypocrisy or cheating sniffed out wherever they can be found.

What they care about most is the avoidance of harm.

This leaves the bottom three factors much less influential to most of our contemporaries – but Haidt goes on to point out how they are often the most influential for religious believers. The moral matrix works – in many ways – in reverse order for us. Talk of sanctity or holiness and degradation or sin is regularly used in Christian ethics. The Bible is held up as our primary authority and attempts to reinterpret it are seen as subversive. Those who depart from traditional sexual ethics are seen as disloyal and barred from church leadership and membership due to their betrayal of community standards. We care most about very different things to our secular neighbours (though of course all these factors matter to us all to some extent, just in different ways).

I think Haidt’s matrix helps us get why our condemnation of permanent, faithful and stable same-sex sexual relationships gets no traction in our society today (especially with younger generations). Our friends and family question us: ‘Where is the harm in such a loving monogamous relationship? Is there not more harm in denying anyone that experience?’ They exclaim: ‘How oppressive and unfair to say that there are some people who don’t have the freedom to express themselves sexually! How hypocritical to talk about the beauty of sex within the marriage of a man and woman and then to deny that beauty to two men or two women!’ And there is so much cultural power in such arguments isn’t there? We feel it internally even as we seek to contradict it in an argument.

We are speaking a language, appealing to values, they don’t get.

And there is so little cultural power in our regular responses as a result. Our replies focusing on God’s definition of sin, the authority of his word, the need to be loyal to biblical standards, all fall on deaf ears because these concepts just aren’t that important to many people anymore. We are speaking a language, appealing to values, they don’t get – they are the ones using words and concepts that have the contemporary power to persuade.

The challenge for us is to work hard at using all parts of Haidt’s moral matrix – not just the categories we are most comfortable with – so that we can help our contemporaries hear God’s Word (it promotes all six values), and best determine what is good. 

This post is an excerpt from an article entitled 'Life in a Foreign Country' originally published in True to Form: Gender and Sexuality (FIEC, 2016) which is freely available here.

  1. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin, 2012), p.351.