How Do You Get the U.S. Off Life-Support?

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Photo Credit: Lars P.

The citizens of the United States have gotten into far too many car wrecks on the highways of social media and public forums during the lead-up to the November elections. As a result, we are on life-support when it comes to the subject of incivility. How might our country get off life support?

Who better to ask than a medical doctor who has served as a leading voice nationally on palliative care. Dr. Robert Potter practiced internal medicine and geriatrics for 30 years while teaching in a community hospital affiliated with the University of Kansas School of Medicine; more recently, he was Senior Scholar for the Center for Ethics in Healthcare at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon (See here for a fuller bio). I have gotten to know Dr. Potter through his work as a science adviser for the grant initiative through the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Multnomah Biblical Seminary where I teach. Over the last several years, Dr. Potter has also become well-versed in social psychology, including the work of Jonathan Haidt on moral intuitions/moral foundations. Potter approaches the discussion of Haidt’s framing of moral intuitions as he might palliative care for a patient: “What am I missing? Who am I missing?”

Dr. Potter learned to ask such questions when dealing with a patient near the point of death. “What needs to be done?” In order to answer that question, one needs to discern all the variables in order to make an informed decision. Thus, the questions, “What am I missing? Who am I missing?” Have all the factors, concerns and parties been accounted for, including the closest of kin, and especially the patient?

In a similar vein, Dr. Potter ponders whether or not we have considered every aspect of a particular issue and particular impending vote. Listen here for his conversation with Multnomah students in this recent forum on politics hosted by The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins at Multnomah University. According to Potter, Haidt proves helpful in that he and his team have classified several moral intuitions that liberals and conservatives possess to lesser and greater degrees. We must attend to the moral intuitions that drive conservatives and liberals if we are to move toward informed decisions on politics. A well-rounded person does not cultivate a narrow political trajectory, but seeks to account for other positions. He or she asks: “What am I missing? Who am I missing?”

We need to consider how liberals and conservatives tend to approach various subjects, including such matters as immigration reform, sexual expression and lifestyle, abortion, and government surveillance. Whereas liberals tend to emphasize moral intuitions like care, fairness and (lifestyle) liberty, conservatives tend to approach all of Haidt’s six moral intuitions rather evenly: loyalty, authority and sanctity, in addition to the other three. See here for example a recent TED Talk on empathy, where Haidt addresses the subject of immigration reform and assimilation (See also an earlier talk on the moral intuitions found here). People on the left and right and at every position in between make moral decisions all the time in view of their intuitions and values. Not always is it the case that we understand the complexity of their decision making, and we can easily assume that those who disagree with us are either stupid or uncaring or disloyal, etc. … While those of opposing camps might not come to see eye to eye, we can at least learn to account for more dimensions to consider in voting and related decisions. Learning how to complexify others helps us not to over-simplify them and their positions, which easily leads to demonizing them and being ridiculed as well. So, we need to make sure we are not missing important information, or missing people, who are always important. Always ask when confronted with ethical challenges: “What am I missing? Who am I missing?”

If we become more aware of the various dimensions of political and social issues and the people who hold them, we will likely not run over them with road rage on the various social media channels and busy streets of life. If at all possible when dealing with ethical and political debates, stay out of accidents and the emergency room. With all the trauma resulting from incivility in the election cycle, you might find that if you do crash into others, you may be in for a long wait.

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