morality

It’s that time of the year again. The stockings are hung by the children with care and the chimney is nestled all snug in its bed… wait, no. Strike that and reverse it. Anyway, Old St. Nick is nearly here and as anyone who has ever watched a Hallmark Original movie knows, he is keeping a list of people who have been naughty and nice, and he is checking it… at least twice.

Yet, what does it mean to be naughty or nice? How are we defining these vague terms of morality? Because as you may soon discover, morality is a lot more complicated then that jolly old elf makes it out to be.

Milk and Cookies Foundations Theory
We here at The NYRD have talked a lot about morality before, but today we want to focus on a theory of morality called the Moral Foundations Theory. This theory, first proposed by Jesse Graham and Jonathon Haidt, -who is a moral psychologist and professor of ethics at NYU- uses six metrics to determine what different people prioritize when it comes to their ethical beliefs and actions.

  1. Care/Harm: The value of cherishing and protecting others.
  2. Fairness/Cheating: The value of enforcing justice according to shared rule sets.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal: The value of standing with a group/family/nation.
  4. Authority/Subversion: The value of tradition and legitimate authority.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation: The value of abhorring culturally taboo objects or actions.
  6. Liberty/Oppression: The value of abhorring dominating power and bullies.

In our society we talk about morality in a lot of different contexts: behavior, justice, reindeer games, etc, but Haidt was focusing on a much different context… “Christmas?”… No, its politics, because of course it is. In today’s fractured and divided world it is perhaps more important than ever to try and determine why two just and moral people can look at the same situation -or orange-faced President- and come to two different conclusions. It may not be because one is naughty and the other is nice. It may just be because they value different metrics on the above scale, but let us explain.

Making a Voter Roll and Checking it Twice
You see, Haidt and his colleagues used this theory to test people of different political ideologies, and like a little boy pulling on Santa’s beard at the mall on Route 78, they discovered a few interesting truths:

  • Liberals (Left Leaning) tend to score highest on the Care and Fairness metrics. They often value the protection and safekeeping of individual people over larger establishments, traditions, and governments. They believe in fair treatment and despise discrimination, and see government as a safeguard for helping the most vulnerable.
  • Conservatives (Right Leaning) tend to score fairly equally across all the metrics, but they do tend to be higher in the Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity metrics, often seeing themselves as the defenders of tradition, culture, and nation. However, they only trust government to take care of defense and believe that it is best left out of economics.
  • Libertarians tend to score higher in Liberty and Fairness. They believe in both economic and personal freedoms and are more skeptical of Authority and Purity. They believe strongly in self-reliance, autonomy, and independence from oversight.

Now, this can also be applied culturally as well. Researchers at Rutgers University have observed that college students from Asian cultures tend to score higher on the Sanctity, Loyalty, and Authority metrics, while American college students tend to score higher on the Care and Fairness metrics. This can account for the contrast often found between American and Asian ways of life, specifically those found in Japan, China, and Korea, where people are more prone to group-think and are more culturally shame-prone than their Western counterparts, but the researchers also admit that their testing has been limited, as it is hard hit every house in the world in one night..

On Dasher, On Democrat, On Libertarian, and Conservative
None of this may be surprising to you -or an omniscient fat man sitting at the North Pole- but there is some interesting implications to the Moral Foundations Theory as it pertains to our own cultural divide. The most important of those is something we have suspected for a while, Democrats and Republicans just look at the world different… shocking… Each group values different things and thus when they look at the same situation they view it through different lens.

Again, this is not surprising, but it is worth trying to quantify. So when a Liberal looks the Trump Migrant Separation Policy, they think: that is terrible because they are doing Harm to those children and it is not
Fair that they are being punished and detained for crimes they did not even commit. Whereas Conservatives might look at the same issue an think: Those people knew what the penalty would be for crossing the border and yet they came anyway. This policy is only enforcing the Sanctity of our borders, and is safeguarding the Authority of our country and its Loyalty to the American people above all others.

Now that does not mean that neither side cannot see the merits of the other. After all, just because one political ideology scores lower on a particular metric, that does not mean that they are unaware of its benefits. Liberals score lowest of Sanctity and Loyalty, but they still score in the 25% range. Conservatives score lowest on Care and Fairness, but as we said before they stay pretty consistent across most metrics. No one here is being Naughty or Nice, they are just approaching the situation from different understandings based on their own morality.

Moral Self on the Shelf
This is the real idea that we need to take away. One side of the argument is not bad and one side is not good. We are just different, and the key to putting aside this fig-pudding-political-fighting over the holiday season is not about passing arbitrary judgements on one another. We are not Santa Claus and his big list of names. We are just people doing our best to understand and interpret the world, and get through Christmas dinner with our conservative uncle who thinks colored is still an appropriate word.

However, our constant fighting often has an adverse effect on our opinions. Arguing with your aunt over child detainment on Christmas Eve is only going to serve to drive her backward into clinging to her beliefs. It will only serve to make those relevant metrics more hard-line. People’s morality is affected by moral arguments, but not always in the ways we expect. That is why this holiday season we need to consider the values of those whom we find ourselves talking politics with. We need to try and see the world from their side and find a way to bring about compromise and agreement. A big part of that is learning our own moral values first, and about the beliefs and deficiencies in our own moral self

A new year is dawning, and it is a time for resolutions. So let’s all take a good hard look at ourselves and how we can relate to those around us, not how we are different. After all, for this holiday season we need to be looking in a mirror, not at some magical list of arbitrary moral judgement… because when you really think about it, what kind of person keeps a damn list anyway?

This Sunday marks the start of the sixth season of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Rick and the group have come a long way over the past five seasons and this one promises to be no different. The wolves are not far. However, as much as we may sometimes simplify our favorite zombie series, there is a lot more going on in the world of the The Walking Dead than questions like, “What is the best way to kill a walker.”-Hint: It’s not fire. If you set a zombie on fire than all you have is a flaming zombie.- After all, surviving in the apocalyptic wasteland requires a lot of things, but sometimes you have to wonder, “Is morality one of them?”

Universal Sheriffism
Moral universalism  is the idea that there exists a right and a wrong outside of our own judgements and decisions. Basically, it means that the universe has a static right and wrong to it independent of human thought and circumstance. As the show opens, way back in season 1, this was Rick’s view of the world. To a young and beardless Sheriff Grimes there was a right and wrong, and he walked that line as best as he could. There is even a moment in that first episode when he apologizes to a zombie for what has happened to her. He then wastes a bullet from his gun to “kill” her out of “mercy.” These are the actions of a moral man. Rick also goes back for Merle after he was abandoned on the roof, and in season 2 he pleads and negotiates with Hershel to let them stay on the farm. The idea is that the ends could never justify the means.

Rick’s foil throughout the first two seasons is Shane, his best friend. Shane could be said to represent a sort of moral relativism. Shane’s morals are guided by the situation, the environment, and by his own need to survive. There are several types of relativisms and in the beginning we see Shane acting more in accordance with what you might call contractarianism, or social relativism. He bases his decisions and actions on what is right for the group, and what is dictated by the society he inhabits. It’s why he demands that they storm Hershel’s farm instead of asking to use it. The ends justified the means. However, as Shane becomes more isolated from the group he slides toward ethical egoism. Right and wrong become about what is best for him. It’s why he kills Otis and why eventually he plots to kill Rick.

You need to remember that both Rick and Shane were sheriffs, but maybe for different reason. As uniformed officers they were expected to uphold the law and to Rick that made sense. His universalism was reinforced by being and agent of justice. Shane, however, upheld the law because it gave him a position of power in a world of social relativism. As he saw it, the law dictated the morals of civilized society and he helped execute those rules. When the civilizations and its laws collapsed he abandoned his sheriff persona, as he believed those rights and wrongs no longer applied. Even physically he opted for more practical and comfortable clothing. On the other hand, Rick’s first action in the new world was to put on the uniform that he believed represented law and order, because his morals were universal. Civilization or no civilization he saw the uniform as representing something more. The Walking Dead has since taught us that law and the uniform do not represent morality, as demonstrated in the first half of season 5 by the rulers of the Atlanta hospital, but it is a lesson our favorite sheriff had to learn after many hard decisions.

Relative Beardism
Rick killed Shane because he had to. Morally right or wrong, the situation necessitated that Shane die and Rick live. There was a significance in that action. Rick changed forever after being forced to run a knife through his friend. It was not the first human he killed on the series but it was a threshold of sorts. In essence, he kill the character but the moral relativism of Shane endured, infecting Rick as sure as any zombie virus. Over the next three seasons we then watch as Rick’s actions change. He claimed dictatorship of the group, he turned away Tyreese’s group, and never hesitated to kill any cannibal or threat that came along. People were no longer someone he had to help. They were either part of his family, -not just Judith and Carl, but the whole group- or a threat to that family. You are with us or against us.

It is not a coincidence that as Rick’s actions became more extreme so did his look. He shed his sheriff’s uniform piece by piece, literally losing parts of himself as the series progressed. He did give his hat to Carl as if trying to bequeath his son his last bit of morality, and as he lost those ideas of law and order he also let his facial hair grow. It started as a dark stubble before becoming a respectable and even attractive beard. Yet, by the mid point of season 5 the beard and Rick’s actions had taken on a life of their own, obscuring the truth of what lay beneath. The thing about morality and beards is that if you let either of them become extreme you sometimes just come off looking like a crazy person, as Rick did when confronted by Aaron and his offer of haven in Alexandria. Michonne was right when she pointed out that they had been in the wild too long. Rick’s facial hair certainly seemed to agree.

Maybe that is why it was so shocking and so interesting when The Walking Dead once again presented us with a clean shaven and clipped Rick Grimes. Even better he was put back in a uniform and given back the responsibility of upholding law and order. Except this time, it was not the same. Those words meant different things in the new world. This time the dichotomy of the two law enforcement officers was not Shane and Rick, but Rick and Michonne. In that grouping Rick becomes the extreme one. There was no hesitation when he was finally let off the leash to kill Pete, Alexandria’s doctor and resident wife beater. The show was giving us a very stark symbol of how far Rick had come. Visually and even responsibility wise he appeared as the same person as he did from episode 1, but personality-wise he was still the survivor and the killer his experiences had made him. Yet, is he really a different person?

The Dilemma of Moral Compasses
The Walking Dead never gives us bad characters, not really. -The Governor had a small shred of humanity, the cannibals had their reasons- but we do get very good characters, Dale, Hershel, Tyreese, and even Noah and Beth. In some way they represented moral compasses or an innocence. They also did not last long. The argument can be made that Rick is the group’s ultimate moral compass, not  because he does immoral things to survive but because he still recognizes the immorality of them. Rick’s journey has been long and hard, but maybe he has not come as far as one might think. The difference between him and people like the Governor, Shane, or Gareth is that they have embraced their new ethical standing. They no longer feel the guilt that comes with the acts they commit, but most of Rick’s struggle comes from his unwillingness to do so. In essence, he is sacrificing his morality, and a part of him recognizes that, because to fully relinquish those old ideals would be to become something else.

In the world of The Walking Dead, it is not the zombies who are the monsters. Becoming a zombie means becoming a creature without thought. You have no desire, no honor code, no drive other than basic hunger. No, it is the people like Rick and the group who are left to worry about ideas of morality, heroes and monsters, and that is the point. It is no coincidence that every writer on AMC’s The Walking Dead is required to read psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a narrative about a true-life account of a concentration camp survivor and how he must reconcile civilized morality with an uncivilized situation. How do we stay human in a dehumanizing world? What even is morality in a world without civilization?

In truth, all the characters follow some form of morality. Carol may be more on the “ends justify means” spectrum but she still feels for Jessie and her kids when they are faced with a problem she can personally relate too. Glenn finds it in himself to forgive a man who shot him and got Noah killed. Even Sasha with all her PTSD refuses to pull the trigger on Gabriel. We tend to label some characters as “moral compasses” because they embody a morality closer to what our modern society considers ethical, but maybe that says more about us than about Rick and the gang. Our concerns about what action is just or right are not always the same as the show’s characters. They do what they need to in order to survive. That means the real judgment of morality is purposely left for us to judge, because what would any of us do in their situation?