How Can We Enhance Our Moral Attention Span?

How Can We Enhance Our Moral Attention Span? August 3, 2018

Girl Scout concentrating on her lanyardRandy – originally posted to Flickr as Concentration; Wikipedia/Creative Commons

I have been making preparations with a neuroscientist for a forum on depression in the context of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In the course of our preparations, we discussed the need to help care-givers understand that these matters are extremely complex. We all need to increase our attention span on the subject. As a result, statements like “Will yourself to stop being depressed” is not sufficient for addressing psychological and mental health concerns. We also acknowledged that we may never reach a resolution on such matters as depression in the context of ADHD. Moreover, we agreed that empathy goes a long way in addressing such concerns, while encouraging those combating mental and emotional stress to seek professional assistance and care.

This brings me back to the last blog post that involved analogical extensions of ADHD in how we as a society approach various social and moral complexities. If, as with ADHD, we are not able to focus on anything or only on one thing due to such factors as stress and trauma, we need to cultivate empathy and patience in our attempts to reason out competing moral claims in search of common ground and comprehensive solutions.

In the same post, I reflected on empathy in the following manner:

Empathy, a disposition that [social psychologist Jonathan] Haidt encourages us to foster, can help us decrease our sense of disgust and increase our attention span when viewing rival arguments on pressing ethical matters. Empathy entails a capacity to hear one another out. When coupled with humility, which entails acknowledging our own limitations to grasp all matters with total awareness, we can actually make headway toward social harmonization and cooperation.

In what follows, we will bring two of Haidt’s six moral foundation categories to bear on the subject of immigration reform. Liberals tend to prize care/harm. Although conservatives also account for care/harm, they are known to cherish authority. Here are Haidt’s definitions of the two:

Care/harm: “…involves attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.”

Authority/subversion: “…underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.”

Haidt encourages people from across the spectrum to account for all moral intuitions in seeking to make ethical determinations, as in the case of immigration reform. We should be attentive to the pain of others, including those outside our own groups, such as those seeking refuge in our country because of various forms of social strife in their native lands. As such, we would be attentive to the moral intuition of care. But there is more. We should also be concerned for just law and order. This concern suggests the moral intuition of authority. If we can’t feel pain outside our sphere of normal relations, what does that say of our humanity? But if we do not have concern for just laws that bring order, how can we ever truly care for putting in place legal structures to help persons seeking asylum find protections, as well as care for our own citizenry.

One of the best guides to the subject of immigration reform that resonates with the six moral intuitions described by Haidt and his team is the set of principles or values provided by the Evangelical Immigration Table. These principles are as follows:

  • Respects the God-given dignity of every person
  • Protects the unity of the immediate family
  • Respects the rule of law
  • Guarantees secure national borders
  • Ensures fairness to taxpayers
  • Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.

If we were to try to account for all of Haidt’s moral intuitions and each of these principles on immigration reform we may be able to make significant headway in our efforts on policy change (Haidt also discusses immigration in “Can a Dividied America Heal?” with approximately 16:10 remaining of the Ted Talk video interview).

Unfortunately, all too often, we focus on one or just a few of these principles in our ethical deliberations due to cherishing one or a few moral intuitions to the detriment of others. Similarly, due to our own societal and personal upheaval, we may ourselves be in a state of trauma, not unlike those seeking refuge in this country. As a result, we are not able to focus our attention on ethical deliberations for long and so shut down and defer to those moral intuitions with which we are most familiar and comfortable. In that event, it is easy for our mood to swing in depression, anger and frustration and lash out and demean those who emphasize different moral intuitions and different principles on immigration reform. We readily label them as unrighteous and portray ourselves as possessing a “righteous mind,” to employ the title of Haidt’s book.

Christian Scripture can assist us with fostering a state of mind and heart that keeps us from settling for quick, short-sighted conclusions on pressing ethical issues as well as judgments on those with whom we disagree. The following texts are very important to consider in fostering the necessary state of mind and heart:

  • Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19; ESV)
  • Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5; ESV)
  • So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4; ESV)

The more secure we are in Christ Jesus and the Spirit of God the less likely we are prone to covet the first word or last word in a conversation on complex moral deliberations. The more secure we are the more we seek to understand the other before seeking that we are understood. It is not a matter of caring less, but of caring more, not short-circuiting the process and oversimplifying complex issues as we are all prone to do. We need to operate empathically rather than out of disgust, as Haidt exhorts us, seeking to move forward with greater attentiveness to the multiplicity of factors that must be considered if we are to come upon effective, long-term solutions on matters like immigration reform. We need to keep the conversation going rather than force a conclusion in one conversation or debate.

With this point in mind, I wish to conclude this blog post with drawing attention to the need for pastoral care in ethical deliberations. If due to trauma and stress, we find it increasingly hard to work toward sustained discussions leading toward lasting ethical solutions, we need to cultivate empathy and discernment on how to process discourse on hot topic issues. Here we could benefit from the pastoral care in conversations that I have witnessed in Pastor Paul Lyda of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Beaverton, Oregon. When a parishioner raises a pointed question on a hot topic cultural issue, Pastor Lyda tries to step back in his mind and ask himself, “Where is that question coming from?” It’s usually not an abstract, disembodied item, he adds. Instead of engaging the topic immediately, he tries to ask questions that will draw the other person out. In listening and seeking to understand the other, he is able to slow down the hot topic discussion and help cultivate the attention span for all parties. Pastor Lyda realizes that we often engage the surrounding world out of our trauma and anxiety. There is so much ringing in our ears that we cannot hear the other. We need to slow down, take a deep breath, and ask questions that draw people out rather than shut them so as to increase our collective attention span. 




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