Dacher Keltner Analyzes the Role of the State to Impact Morality

Question: Can government influence morality?

Keltner:    Whether we like it in principle or not, you know, the manner in which the government protects the constitution and defines particular rights and legislates those rights clearly is there’s a moral direction to that kind of activity.  But you know, what I’m interested in as a psychologist and I think there’s a new movement in thinking about the nature of morality, you know, there’s one sort of high, higher form of morality which is abstract principles of rights and equality and protecting those who’re vulnerable, and that really is the work of the government.  But there’s all this everyday morality that we study in my lab of the ability to express compassion, the tendency to be grateful, to appreciate, the opportunity to revere and to feel wonder, and those are cultivated in our communities and in families and when the resources and opportunities, so the government is effecting that form of morality as well.

Question: Is a president responsible for setting a culture’s moral compass?

Keltner:    Absolutely.  You know, there are different conceptions of leaderships.  There’s, you know, the symbolic form of leadership which says that’s where the President’s power really is and then there’s more of a kind of bureaucratic conception of leadership which is you lead behind the scenes and shifting policy and legislation.  And, I think, you know, and I’ve talked to a lot of journalists in social fears about this that, you know, one of the striking things about Obama is his, pretty uniformly people believe there’s a sense of trust and goodwill at the core of this person and how it’s spreading out in rhetoric and in the manifestations of his character.  If you read his inauguration speech, you know, the simple cooperative acts of extending an open hand to the Muslim world, referring to humility, new kinds of power, that’s shifted the cultural discourse enormously and that’s I think  a moral responsibility.

Question: How does goodness differ from the individual to the institution?

Keltner:    The execution of goodness at the individual level in my line of work suggest it really honors this evolutionary principles that have led to the design of the human being and those are principles like to be humble, to be grateful, to show compassion towards those in need, and those are the raw materials out of which groups form and institutions form.  And when I worked with, you know, work place, organizations and schools, it is clear that those principles are in play at the institutional level but institutions can separate from the laws of face-to-face interaction and then, start to adopt their own principles. 

Question: Should we legislate morality?

Keltner:    We shouldn’t say we’re doing it but you know, I think if you take the words of Martin Luther King who said that you know the great ark of history is to our justice and you consider that in the context of what he was fighting for vis-à-vis the government, which is civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War.  That says that the government, you know, in legislating is defining our moral terms and having moral effects.  I think you know one of the things that we’ve learned in the study of morality in Psychology and it’s really something of a revolution is that, sure, they’re abstract moral principles guaranteed by the constitutions and the like, but morality is everywhere, right.  It is in a child’s opportunity and have equal resources.  It is in the pay that executives take.  It is in access to healthcare.  It is in the equality of schools.  Those are all moral issues and the government is inextricably intertwined with those, so it has to be a moral agent and we have to be honest about that.

Question: How does confronting suffering affect our sense of goodness?

Keltner:    In a lot of ways of knowing Buddhism, certain forms of Christianity, even in Darwin’s own writings, as he thought about his Theory of Evolution and it really was inspired by the death of daughter, his favorite daughter at age 10, there’s a common assumption that exposure to suffering, your own or other people’s, dwelling upon it, reflecting upon it, and in our research, that experience activates this moral nervous system, if you will, the vagus nerve and certain kinds of social behaviors and brain regions that we study.  The common assumption is really to make progress.  The first step is to understand suffering, and so, I think one of the, you know, as a parent of young children you have this tricky balance to strike, which is you do see your children.  I mean children have astonishing responses to an animal suffering or when they see people who are starving or to hear about genocide.  It really is astonishing; at the same time you don’t want them to be overburdened.  And so I think we have to engage in those forms of suffering.

Dacher Keltner on government ethics.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.