Moral Development and the Political Divide

There is no question that the human mind is capable of astounding levels of growth and development, particularly in the realm of the intellect and the exercise of ingenuity. Since the beginning of the industrial age, the advances in technology to create tools for living demonstrates just how clever we can be. Today, I want to consider if we are capable of a comparable development in our moral/ethical foundations

In my opinion, moral and ethical development has lagged so far behind our intellectual development that we risk becoming overwhelmed, if not controlled, by our creations. (I am reminded of the popular sci-fi theme about robots taking over the world and destroying or enslaving their creators.) In some ways, Western culture’s mad pursuit of the latest gadget has distracted us and has tied up the energy necessary for the development of a healthier moral/ethical structure.

Before going any further with this thought, I want to clarify what I mean by moral/ethical. Too often, the idea of morality is used in a superficially judgmental way, resulting in what could be called “moralism.” Moralistic judgments are usually pointed at someone else’s behavior without benefit of sufficient context or experience. For example: It is being moralistic when a heterosexual person proclaims that homosexuality is wrong (or right, for that matter) without any knowledge about what it is like to experience same gender sexual orientation. There are even cases where people point moralistic judgments at themselves based on an arbitrary code of behavior without taking their own inner experience into proper account.

While moralistic codes may have the power to enforce behavioral compliance in a group, they do not build community. In my judgment, moralistic judgments actually undermine community. Clearly these last two statements reveal my bias: that building healthy community is a more worthwhile goal for humanity than enforcing behavioral compliance to arbitrary rules. A significant part of building healthy community involves the creation of a moral/ethical foundation that can grow as needed to balance our technological advances and to feed our souls and communities in ways that are impossible for technology. There’s that word “moral” again. Healthy morality is not the same as being moralistically judgmental. Healthy morality must be based on something other than rigid lists of dos and don’ts. Healthy morality, just like healthy community, must find a foundation in compassion and connection. Healthy morality is fundamentally relational.

The central question in this essay involves whether or not humanity is capable of growing and developing beyond moralism. I am particularly interested in how the development of a healthy morality is necessary to mitigate the excesses of the present world of politics. I am aware of two factors, at least, that can promote moral development. The first is time. Often the adolescent world view is relatively amoral, but people grow out of that view and into adulthood. The same process happens in groups, but the larger the group, the slower the process. Also, some people do not make it out of adolescence for a variety of reasons, and it is still not certain whether we will have time to outgrow our cultural adolescence. The second factor that can promote moral development is having to face consequences. The world is filled with challenges, and it could be argued that much of what we face is due to our cultural adolescent reactivity and lack of foresight. As we learn to deal with the effects of global warming, of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the fragility of the world economy and delivery systems for food and other necessities, we may discover a deeper moral foundation that demonstrates how connected we all are to each other and to the planet.

Clearly, we cannot simply wait for the “culture” to grow up. Healthy systems to some degree are products of healthy individuals who are capable of mutuality and non-coerciveness in their relationships. While I do not promote individualism (any more than moralism), individuals are still capable of maturing themselves. I would suggest that we each take responsibility for our ongoing moral development (none of us have yet arrived at full development because it is a lifelong process). I suggest that we develop the courage and ability not to be reactive to the reactivity around us. And finally, I suggest that we resist the temptation to think in a one-sided way about the political issues that have become so divisive.

I suggest a book that, while written for religious congregations, helps to define healthy, morally developed leadership: Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Remaining Calm and Courageous, No Matter What by Peter Steinke and also, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman.

Among other things, these books remind us that we need not be alone when we assume our responsibility as individuals to grow into adulthood.

This is how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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