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?

bubble

We made a promise to ourselves that we were done writing about election-related issues, but much like our electoral college, promises were apparently made to be broken. -Oh, sick civics burn- Yet, if this election has proved one thing it is that we know nothing about how the other half of the country works, lives, or even what starting Pokemon they would choose. We believed that the Internet was going to open up the world and expose us to people from all around with different lives, opinions, and thoughts, but it’s quite the opposite. The Internet has only become a maddening bubble of echoes where our own opinions are shouted back at us, except in a deeper voice and sometimes in the form of a Kermit meme. So how did it get this way, and how do we stop?

Identifying Your Bubble
We realize that because of the very nature of the Internet, your Google search algorithms, custom advertising, the history of articles you have previously “shared” or “liked,” and because of Benedict Cumberbatch many of you will never even see this article, let alone read it. However, that is kind of the point we are making here. In small and large ways, we are all trapped in a bubble, and your first instinct may be to respond, “No, I’m not.” Well, than you are in the biggest bubble of all, Self-Denial. It is the nature of humanity and our genetic disposition toward tribal instincts that make us naturally gravitate to those we find similiar, whether those groups be based upon ethnicity, politics, sports teams, or even Star Trek captains. -Picard 2020-

It is also worth mentioning a bubble is not necessarily bad. They do serve a purpose, giving us a sense of community and a space to feel connected and safe among those of our own kind. It’s basically, the Comic Con factor. Dressing up as Link and Zelda in almost any other context would be weird and confusing, but in the convention hall it so common that no one looks at you twice. Moderate bubblization is fine until we take it too far. For example, Giants or Yankees’s fans have a good natured rivalry with Cowboys or Red Sox fans, and that is all part of the experience… until it turns into a brawl. If we become closed off to the opinions and experiences of those of other or opposing sides than we start to move into bad territory, and now, thanks to the advent of the Internet, we never have to hear another person’s opposing opinion again, if we so choose.

Yet, when bubblization is at its most extreme, that is precisely the time we need to take a step back and evaluate our own place and our own bubble(s). You see, our bubbles are more like Venn Diagrams than complete encompassing circles. We all belong to a variety of different bubbles and some are stronger than others. We might be Trekkies, or Republicans, or African Americans, or tax attorneys, or all of them all rolled into one. Each bubble that surrounds us will have a varying degree of strength and elasticity. One bubble may be mutually exclusive to another, but probably not as often as you might think. It is our job as caring and thinking humans beings to take stock of ourselves and not only start seeing the bubbles we live in, but how big or strong they are. We need to recognize where we live, what we do, what we believe in, and how we live our lives. These factors all help us build our worlds and our world views.

The real concern is when our bubbles become part of us. As humans preconditioned with tribal nature, we can sometimes confuse the bubble that surrounds us with our own skin. This happens when we feel as if we derive self-worth or importance from that flimsy soapy encasement. This is also what happens so often in politics. People begin to identify so strong with the labels of Democrat or Republican; or Liberal or Conservative that we lose sight of the smaller picture. We all share the human bubble, but thanks to our other bubbles no one man or woman among us will ever truly be the same as another. That means a candidate or a party will never fully embody everything we believe in, but if your political bubble is too strong -if you make it part of your self-identity- than you will face more than a few challenges. Not only will you need to find ways to ignore or integrate viewpoints and beliefs that you don’t normally hold, but you will intimately feel every little poke and prick that tries to to pierce your bubble’s exterior. That is the difference between laughing something off and starting a soccer riot.

Stepping Outside
Let’s be truthful here. You are never going to fully step outside your bubble, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a walk every now and then and get some fresh air. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” and that is something worth remembering. Putting yourself in others’ shoes helps in almost any situation. Trying -really trying- to see an argument from your opponent’s viewpoint not only lets you gain a better understand of their side of an argument but also your own. Now, we know that is easier said than done, especially when it comes to entrenched topics like politics. So our advice is: start small.

Don’t tackle an entire political landscape or doctrine all at once. Look at it in small parts and try to think about how and why people might support small positions. Is it out of fear or hope? Is it our of anger or laziness or joy or ignorance or what? And… this is important… don’t make a judgement. You have to be able to see what other people think without superimposing your own views and judgements on top of them. We know that is probably the most difficult thing anyone can do. We won’t lie, you will probably fail more times than you succeed, but for this exercise there is as much value to be found in the attempt as their is in success. Being able to stretch your mind to see the world as someone different is a great way to gain a wider perspective. In fact, it is a lot like traveling. You can never fully understand Hong Kong, Johannesburg, or even Cincinnati until you have seen them and experienced them for yourself. In the end, you may not want to live there, but you will be enriched for the attempt.

Usually the best way to do this is to ask questions and to listen. People want to explain their point of view and they want to do it to a person who is willing to hear them out. Let them explain their position and then ask genuine and thoughtful questions about it. Try to learn why that person believes what they do. Piercing your own bubble is about gaining a greater understanding of opposing viewpoints and a greater appreciation for those that hold them. Often a person’s perspective is shaped as much by their circumstances and their environmental factors as it is by their own intelligence and emotions. Thus, making a effort to understand why a person believes something is as much about understanding them as individuals as it is about acknowledging their ideas.

Lastly, just because you entertain a different idea does not mean you have to accept it. It is okay to examine an idea or a doctrine that is completely opposite and still come back with the conclusion that you were right all along. For instance, you may try to understand why some people think The Force Awakens was not a completely hackneyed attempt to rehash A New Hope, but that does not mean those people are right. In fact, being right or wrong is not actually what this exercise is about. It is about building bridges and understanding. You may never believe that JJ Abrams is nothing more than someone out to ruin your favorite space-themed franchises, but that should not stop you from meeting those who -incorrectly- think otherwise.

Don’t Make it Personal
Perhaps most importantly, you need to show other people respect. The only way you will ever expand your view and the view of others is to have conversations with those that disagree with you. Yet, you can’t make it personal. You can argue with someone about their ideas of policy or their opinions on the news of the day, but when things degenerate into: “You’re a filthy and ignorant liberal…” or “You’re a racist…” or “you’re a Nazi…” then the argument breaks down into petty name calling. You will have failed. All name-calling does is force people to retreat back to their own bubble and close off to what you are saying. Personal attacks don’t work. They are the last refuge of the ill-informed and the frustrated.

Engaging someone with a different view is a two way street. You will say things that will make them upset and they will do the same to you, but for the process of breaking out of your own bubble that is necessary. It is like getting a tooth drilled or a cast set. There will be discomfort, there may even be some pain, but it is how the healing begins. Always remember to treat each other with respect and to try and understand where the other person is coming from. You may not convince anyone. Actually, you almost certainly will never convince anyone no matter how many sources or logical ideas you bring to the table, but there is purpose in the effort. When we stop reaching out, when we stop reaching across to those who think differently, than that is when we wake in a country that cannot be fixed.

It doesn’t matter who the damn President is. It doesn’t matter what the people in Washington say or what they do. America is not a country built by rulers. It is a country built by people, and as long as we make the effort to break out of our little Internet shells and engage others thoughtfully and respectably, than this world will get better. You also shouldn’t be afraid to have your mind changed, because growing and gaining new understandings of the world around you is not a betrayal of who you are. It is a sign that you are living a vibrant and well-examined life.

For homework:

  1. Identify your bubbles;
  2. Read something from a news source* that does not necessarily reflect your worldview;
  3. Engage with someone who does not normally agree with you; and
  4. Keep an open mind.

*Conservative Reading to Consider                                                                *Liberal Reading to Consider
National Review                                                                                                – Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal                                                                                   – BuzzFeed
The American Spectator                                                                                  – The Atlantic
The Weekly Standard                                                                                       – Slate

video games

Game OverHave you ever spent hours or even months on getting some achievement in a video game? Did you have to kill 200 spiderlings to get that gold armor piece, or maybe travel every part of the world to read all the randomly spawning mystical texts that have no bearing on the actual game play, just so you could get the special pet that no one has? Did you spend months of your life gathering the right supplies so you could craft a Green Steel item in Dungeons and Dragons Online? Congratulations, you may be what gamers call a completionist, a person who spends hours and months of their time achieving things in video games, just because. Maybe you wanted the Glowing Weapon of Coolness or the title of  Emperor Badass, or maybe you are just a happier person.

Some people might find it absurd to spend so much time pursuing goals which give no tangible outcome IRL, but our happiness rarely distinguishes between the imaginary and the real. Have you ever felt happy after a very good dream, or satisfied after watching your team win the big game? Those things give us no solid benefits, other than the feelings we keep with us. Happiness is not linked to physical things, and video games and their achievements have been astounding players since Link opened his first treasure chest. Some people may argue that it’s fantasy and has no impact on real day-to-day life, but it affects us nonetheless. Everything impacts us through our mood, and our mood colors how we see and interact with the world, whether it be the real one or a virtual one.

Advancing Levels
Happiness, in not an exact science. In fact, it is one of the hardest human emotions to understand, if only because it can be triggered and affected by so many factors. Certain ancient and modern thinkers have tried to group these levels of happiness. Level 1 is momentary, such as the joy you get from eating an ice cream cone or playing Angry Birds. It is a happiness quick fix. Level 2 is what happens when your accomplishments become acknowledged by others, such as when people admire your rare mount or golden ID patch. It is a more visible sense of lasting accomplishment, and envy by others. Level 3, -which we think is the Underwater Temple Level- is about relationships, feeling accomplished in a group setting. It is the happiness that comes from raiding with your guild or by positively interacting with others online, your-mama jokes and teabagging notwithstanding. Level 4 happiness is about finding balance between yourself and the universe, and it is the level that most humans rarely achieve. Think of it like the end game content of humanity, but with less epic gear. The idea of levels of happiness is just one way humans have tried to classify an emotion that is incredible complex.

Drago SlayerMartin Seligman, states that the requirements for happiness are PERMA, pleasure, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. Coincidentally, video games fulfill all five criteria. They offer not only pleasure and engagement, but also the potential for the creation of relationships, both real and imagined. Video games even have one advantage over real-life, they give the player meaning. They are goal oriented and accomplishment-based. Even the old Mario and Zelda games were about battling to save a princess. Nowadays, regardless if whether you are playing as Solid Snake, Nathan Drake, or your Level 70 smuggler/pistoleer you have goals, desires, and ambitions within that virtual world. You adapt the character’s motivations and add motivations of your own, such as assembling the coolest weapon, or collecting all the heart gems. Accomplishment, big or small, is often a big part of determining happiness, and it is the one thing that video games offer in spades.

A lot of people in the media like to talk about the negative impacts of gaming, but no one seems to take the time to highlight the positive ones. According to a study conducted at Oxford University, children who play video games for an hour a day tend to be happier, more social, and less hyperactive. Ultimately, it makes a lot of sense. Video games help relieve stress, give children something to look forward to, increases creativity, and even gives purpose, as we talked about above. They give us experience and fun, which scientists have concluded are much larger factors in happiness levels than even wealth or materialism. Actually, according to University of Illinois psychologist, Ed Diener, “Materialism is toxic for happiness.” It is true that happiness increases once a family or individual’s wealth reaches a certain comfort level, but any excess wealth or material possessions beyond that do not significantly impact a person’s overall happiness. Much like video games, it is more about experience, than loot.

Looking for a Party
Yet, experiences are only one of several factors as we have been talking about. Another large contributor to joy is relationships. You might be thinking that is the one thing that video games cannot offer, but you would be wrong. First of all, gaming is more social than it has ever been and that trend is only increasing. Online play is common and encouraged. On the Internet people regularly form parties, groups, guilds, hate-mobs, and more. Even in single-player based games the experience can be social. Sharing the experience with a loved one can strengthen a relationship, giving both parties a mutual object to bond over. Even when there is no person around to bond with, it is possible that we could form parasocial relationships with the fictional characters in the game. It is a phenomenon we have all experienced, often feeling sad because our favorite character died or how we cheer for a specific character because we empathize with their plight and their personality. Our brains still understand that those characters are fictions, but the bonds we form with them can have tangible psychological benefits.

MerryChristmasRelationships at their core push us to change and grow as people. We often adapt and compromise with those around us, both consciously and subconsciously. The same happens when we interact with both real and fake characters in a video game. The immersion of video games gives us an environment for self-growth and achievement, despite the fact that the environment and the people who inhabit it are just pixels on a screen. Humans, by nature, are empathetic creatures, whether we talk about a lost puppy or a deciding whether to kill/save a small girl in order to harvest her ADAM. Video games offer us the opportunities for social growth and empathy.

Now, let us just clarify. All we are saying is that people tend to not give video games enough credit. Often society treats the gaming community in the same way the literary community treats comic book readers. This article is in no way meant to persuade you, the reader, to park yourself in front of a game console and never see the sunlight again. We would not tell you to give up your real-life to spend it entirely as a well-rendered avatar in a virtual world, anymore than we would advocate giving up your job to volunteer full-time at the homeless shelter. Too much of anything -good or bad- often forces paradigms to implode upon themselves like the Death Star after a well place photon torpedo hit.

After all, Level 4 Happiness is about finding balance as well as a fulfillment with yourself and the universe around you. That means finding a balance in all the things you do. You will never find your ultimate bliss in a virtual environment. That is where IRL experiences and actual friends come into the picture. However, chances are that playing video games in moderation -and even the occasional binging- will make you a happier person.

The real reason happiness is so hard  for physiologists to define is because it is not a single destination reached by a single road. It is the goal at the end of a quest, a new pet that you get to show off to friends, or a new relationship you form with someone you care about. There is no one perfect way to achieve happiness, much as there is no single build for becoming a high RPG level wizard or Jedi Knight. Those accomplishments take work and experience, like real life. All any of us can really do is just continue to grind and strive to find our happiness in both the real and virtual world.