Step 4: Understand the Moral Matrix
“Reality it merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”
The writer William Gibson defined “the matrix” as a “consensual hallucination.” His novel Neuromancer was about a man who breaks out of the matrix and sees reality as it is. The novel was the basis of Matrix movies, and it offers a great metaphor for understanding morality and ideology.
So let’s begin the next phase of our journey: an exploration of the “moral matrix.” As we saw in Step 3, we are all prone to cognitive biases that warp and bias our reasoning, making us often wrong and over-confident. We will now go a step further and ask whether our perception of moral truths may be similarly distorted.
Perhaps you’ve already noticed that there are different set of values, norms, and unstated assumptions in different communities that you belong to – your religious community versus your secular school or workplace; your immediate family versus the home of some distant relatives. If so, then you’ve seen the moral matrix in action. You understand that groups of people develop different ways of seeing the world. But now imagine that you’ve spent all of your life within one single matrix, and you don’t even know that others exist. Wouldn’t it then be more difficult for you to get along with visitors from another matrix? Wouldn’t it be more difficult for you to tolerate your fellow students when you leave home to attend a morally and politically diverse university?
The readings and videos below will show you how the moral matrix works and what causes moral matrices to differ from one another. By exploring these resources, you will gain a better understanding of why most people in the world see moral and political issues differently than you do. You’ll see that when others hold beliefs that contrast with your own, you can’t just assume that yours are based on reason and evidence while theirs are not. Especially within the safe and supportive environment of a university community, the discovery of such conflicts should be the beginning of inquiry and learning, not the end of a relationship.
- Beyond WEIRD Morality, adapted from The Righteous Mind (2012) by Jonathan Haidt. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides an analysis of why moral judgments differ across cultures, including the “cultures” of the political left and right. Haidt introduces the concept of the “moral matrix” and explains that many moral matrices coexist within each nation. Haidt argues that by learning to step outside our own moral matrices, we can be released from partisan anger and better understand one another.
- Jonathan Haidt, The moral roots of liberals and conservatives, TED Talk (18:42). In this talk, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores what morality is and where it comes. He presents the five foundations of morality and illustrates how this theory helps us understand the differences between liberals and conservatives.
- Isaac Lidsky, What reality are you creating for yourself?, TED Talk (11:46). This video explores the nature of reality, truth, and perception. Lidsky demonstrates that what we see often determines what we believe. What we consider to be reality is actually a construction of our own mind.
- The weirdest people in the world? (2010) by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan.
- Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding (1995) by Lee Ross and Andrew Ward.
- Social functionalist frameworks for judgment and choice: intuitive politicians, theologians, and prosecutors (2002) by Philip E. Tetlock.
- Moral Empathy Gaps and the American Culture War (2011) by Peter H. Ditto and Spassena P. Koleva.
- The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm (2015) by Dan M. Kahan.
- Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs (2006) by Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge.
- When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions (2010) by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.
- Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning (1973) by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber.
- Edwin Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884). This satirical novella follows the protagonist, a Square geometric figure living in a fictional two-dimensional world as he fortuitously discovers alternative one-dimensional and three-dimensional worlds. Through these discoveries, the Square’s mind is opened to new, previously unimagined dimensions of understanding.
- Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). Appiah builds toward a theory to resolve serious differences between cultural values in a globalized world. He examines the sources of core beliefs and invites readers to perceive the internal logic, and authentic rationality, behind culturally alien views and practices. He makes the case that moral and religious disagreement between cultures is overstated. This book provides valuable concepts for thinking through how to respond when faced with a radically different, even offensive, cultural value.
- Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013). Synthesizing research from neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, Green posits that many of our modern conflicts stem from the fact that our minds were designed to be tribalistic. We have evolved to favor our in-group and to compete with and be hostile towards those who we perceive to be “other.” Green argues that modernity has brought different tribes into closer contact than before, resulting in clashes over differences in moral values.
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Drawing on decades of groundbreaking research, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains what morality is, how it evolves—both biologically and culturally—and why it differs across societies and centuries. Using this framework, Haidt demonstrates why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians differ in their beliefs and values.
- George Lakoff, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and It’s Politics (2008). Linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff draws on research exploring how the mind works and how this impacts our moral and political reasoning. Lakoff reveals that reasoning is less straightforward than we previously imagined and demonstrates challenges us to reassess many of our preconceived notions.
- Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett, The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology (1991). Psychologists Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett argue that our behavior and judgments are heavily influenced by the particular environments that we inhabit.
- Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (2003). Sociologist Christian Smith weaves together research from sociology, moral philosophy, and epistemology to shed new insight on our understanding of human nature. Smith argues that despite differences in individuals and cultures, humans possess a fundamental moral and spiritual dimension.