Moral fights

| November 23, 2023

Throughout history people have been fighting – for God, justice, freedom or because they were told to by their leaders. The crusaders fought for the holy land against the Moslems; Saladin fought against the Christians for Allah.

When we are born our brains get filled with the beliefs of our parents, friends and the community at large. Each group has its own interests, opinions and ways of dealing with its environment e.g. loyalty and obedience and by nature we tend to think of our ways as being the best. Not everything we learn is checked for accuracy – we tend to accept a lot of data which does not contradict what we already know, especially in the area of religion. It is easy to believe that someone else’s religious beliefs are inferior to ours.

Recognising morality as a cause and justification for conflict is challenging, because we tend to think of our moral motivations as wellsprings of harmony and social progress. People with a strong sense of moral identity feel more obligated to strangers, while people who fail to perceive moral value in others are more likely to act cruelly.

In appealing to and upholding moral values, people have accomplished some of society’s greatest achievements, such as Indian independence and the end of South African apartheid. But other people claim morality to justify injustices, in cases such as “honour killings” and the criminalisation of homosexuality.

Research shows that moral mindsets are frequent obstacles to achieving peace and progress. In the case of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, the two sides are weaponizing morality to frame their attacks as a necessary means of eliminating evil from the region.

People with high moral values tend to treat others as inferiors who need to be corrected – viz some of the tales of students taught by nuns or the various religious cults which have sprung up around the world throughout history.

We often consider violent behaviour indicative of a person’s broken moral compass. However, many people who commit violence do so out of a sense of moral duty. When people are ideologically committed to values that they consider sacred, they become more and more willing to do anything necessary to preserve those values. Studies show that Israelis and Palestinians who feel a sacred attachment to their homeland express more support for intergroup violence and are less likely to pursue compromises.

People are sometimes inclined to use their moral convictions to seek revenge on perpetrators of what they believe are moral transgressions. When we engage in vengeance, we rarely try to deter future crimes or to reform violent actors, but instead explicitly aim to cause suffering – hence our incarceation rate when we know it does little long-tem good.

Additionally, studies show that people often direct retribution toward groups rather than individuals, such that people seeking revenge consider all Israelis or all Palestinians to be collectively blameworthy for the most extreme actions of a small number of people.

Commitments to moral principles not only spark retribution, but also serve as the fuel that perpetuates vicious cycles of vengeance. Because moral ways of thinking do not allow for compromise or reconciliation, it becomes nearly impossible for morally motivated leaders to find clear paths to end moral conflicts.

In the end, our commitments to moral values can get in the way of basic humanitarian goals, like protecting civilians’ lives and promoting reconciliation, especially when moral disagreements exist or when there is competition over limited resources. Just as focusing on being charismatic makes a person decidedly less charismatic, pursuing rigid moral ideals is likely to backfire. Moral motivations frequently exacerbate––rather than relieve––suffering, injustice and hatred.

Thinking of practical solutions rather than moral ones allows people to pursue humanitarian aims in clearheaded ways. Tempering a moral mindset and focusing on the future rather than the past, and on maximising benefits rather than defending sacrosanct values is probably the best technique. In other words, joining a group which is strongly pro or anti something is probably not a great idea.