An Evolutionary Approach to Moral Judgment

Sometimes…rarely…a news article creates an immediate ‘of course’ experience. I think we’ve all had these moments when we hear or read something that resonates so deeply with our personal experience and history that it is welcomed like an old friend. It’s like someone connected the dots in just the right way to make a surprising picture appear where we thought an incomplete picture would continue to take shape. Our first response to this new vision is ‘of course…it was there all along!’ Well, I had one of those rare moments this morning as I read the opening lines of today’s New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks, The End of Philosophy. And here is…the rest of the story.

For more than a decade, I’ve been involved in the practice of public deliberation through the National Issues Forums (NIF) and subsequently with various research projects of Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH. NIF-style conversations were created to work through the ethical and moral dilemmas of complex public decisions in political and community life. ‘Deliberation’ has been the ‘different way of talking’ that NIF folks create in local community, small group forums, so people can share their deeply-held ‘common ground’ values and then change public policy to match these foundational moral judgments. At the heart of this kind of conversation, we believe that many effective public decisions are blocked by politics-as-usual debates that oversimplify the dilemmas that desperately need a moral resolution.

During the past decade, I’ve been very fortunate in working with other committed NIF practitioners in California and across the country as we’ve sought to continually learn more about how communities gather to talk about their most bumfuzzling public problems. Sadly, we seem to have many anecdotes of deliberative practice, but very little evidence that this practice actually connects ‘moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior,’ in the words of Michael Gazzaniga as quoted by David Brooks.

So, where’s the ‘of course’ in today’s Op-Ed? Of course! Moral judgments are far more emotional than rational…and our emotions evolve throughout our lives as we experience fulfillment and frustration, love and isolation, peace and anger. Of course! As a pastor for over 30 years, I’ve seen time after time that emotions drive most of our decisions for good or ill. Most of these decisions are automatic…they’re pre-programmed to be released for application with few societal safeguards. Of course! Some of these automatic emotional judgments do evolve through pro-active reason, but these adjustments in moral judgment almost never happen in a social vacuum.  Our emotions are most likely to evolve into satisfying moral judgments through respectful and caring conversations with family, friends and neighbors. That’s the role that NIF-style conversations can and do play when deliberation includes how we feel along with what we think about a critical public issue.

Didn’t we already know this? No, not really. We know that many of our anecdotes about what makes deliberation work well have an emotional component where a person shares a powerful experience, but our deliberative methods haven’t matured much with that recognition. To be relevant and effective, our practices need to be less like a ‘town hall meeting’ and more like an ‘immersion experience’ where the intricacies, frustrations and trade-offs of a sticky issue are exposed with all of their emotional baggage included. Our NIF Practice can and should start with the emotional nature of moral judgment in order to provide an evolutionary public conversation where communities are strengthened, cooperation is learned, and shared values are trusted as the foundation for public decisions.

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