It feels so good to be right. Or rather, to believe that we're right – which means that other people must be wrong. This is a big reason religion is so popular. It offers a pleasant sensation of self-righteousness.
There's also a simpler way of feeling good. To just feel good. Janis Joplin sang it.
You know feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.
We can just say "I like," rather than justifying our preference with an "I'm right."
What a difference it would make if Christians said, "I like feeling that Jesus loves me and died for my sins." If Muslims said, "I like the idea that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet." If Buddhists said, "I like how the Eightfold Path is aimed at alleviating suffering."
Once we make improvable assertions into a matter of right and wrong, divisiveness necessarily follows. But in everyday life, most of the time we don't make likes and dislikes into moral certitudes.
I happen to hate beans. One of the few Mexican phrases that I know is "Sin frijoles," without beans. I need it to order in a Mexican restaurant. However, it doesn't bother me to see my dining companion happily devouring her frijoles.
Some people like beans. Others don't. Similarly, some people approve of gay sex. Others don't. Yet attitudes toward homosexuality are much more likely to fall into "I'm right" rather than "I like."
The New York Times Magazine recently featured a fascinating essay by Steven Pinker, "The Moral Instinct." Pinker says:
The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave.
Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral ("killing is wrong"), rather than merely disagreeable ("I hate brussels sprouts"), unfashionable ("bell-bottoms are out") or imprudent ("don't scratch mosquito bites").
We need to be careful, then, about getting all high and mighty when our supposedly universal moral judgment really is nothing more than a personal like or dislike. Pinker mentions the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
People don't generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.
So does this mean that morality inescapably is subjective, that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder rather than some objective Platonic realm of goodness?
Not exactly. Pinker says that while there isn't any sign of "cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts," a few If-Thens are evident which "point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction."
One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly.
…The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoned. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me – to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car – then I can't do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously.
It turns out, then, that "I'm right" runs a big risk of striking at the heart of morality, because it fosters a sense of privilege and entitlement that militates against the Golden Rule'ish balanced give and take described by Pinker.
I used to feel that drinking alcohol and eating meat were wrong. Not just wrong for me, because I didn't like to do these things, but for everybody.
I wasn't horribly moralistic in my tilt toward tee totaling and vegetarianism. But I did consider that I was on higher moral ground than imbibers and carnivores.
Now, not nearly so much. I'm sipping a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir as I write this, having become the person that I warned myself about.
However, I still don't eat animals. I don't like the idea of killing a sentient being to fill my stomach. I wouldn't say that I'm right and you're wrong, though, if you just had a hamburger.
Mostly, we're all trying to do the right thing – morality isn't the special province of any particular religion, nationality, or belief system. I liked this part of Pinker's essay:
At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries' agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us.
Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason.
…But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground.