Problem People

By JIM NICHOLS

We all have these people in our lives, do we not? Problem people. There is a person down my street who has flown a gigantic TRUMP flag in his front yard for at least three years. I have exchanged pleasantries with him at the mailbox and he seems like a normal person. What is he thinking?

There are two categories of knowledge for me. Category One contains pieces of information about which I know something because of my education or experience. This is a small category.

Category Two, on the other hand, contains those topics about which I know little or nothing. This is a deep and wide category. In some cases, it is so expansive that I do not even know what I do not know about it. Some items in this category are trivial, but others are important enough that I could be a better person (and follower of God) if I had at least a basic understanding. It is helpful to me to stumble upon someone else’s identification and explanation of a topic; at least then I have heard the words and suggested ways of thinking about them. The source may not be reliable, but it does give me a direction to consider.

Author John Koessler (Truth, Love, and Social Media) posed a troubling question for me: “To what degree should we entertain ideas that we find untrue or offensive?” If we wish to avoid our tendency to become outraged, to respond, and to register that this is not okay, what are our options?

Because of my background in science, I am interested in evidence. Facts and data weigh heavily in my decisions. Life, COVID, and the ex-President have shown me that facts and data are unimportant to many people. What really counts is a gut reaction. I do not mean to disparage such reactions; I have them too and they can be important, even Godly. They can, however, cause quite bad decisions to be made. It is, though, worth wrestling with a bit.

A decade ago, author Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion) rephrased for me the term “gut reaction” as “moral values.” He suggested that people make decisions by how much weight they assign to each of six moral values. In alphabetical order they are:

authority
care
fairness
liberty
loyalty
sanctity

Let your eyes read back through this list again and ponder which ones seem to jump out to you as, “Of course, this is really important.”

Who could argue that “authority” is necessary for civilization to function reasonably? If we miss a stop sign and see red lights flashing behind us, we will be unhappy but also realize we need to pull over and speak to the officer.

During the holiday season we are seeing multiple efforts to extend care to those with fewer life advantages.

The number one desire of students over my education career was that the class be “fair.” They may complain if a test is hard, but they will be insulted and angered if two similar test responses are graded unequally.

In the United States we pride ourselves on the liberties we have, unique from many other countries. We collectively believe this is a fundamental good.

Loyalty is highly valued and expressed in protection, guidance, and support of others in our family, group, or team.

Sanctity, the state or quality of being holy, may be more nebulous to some, but for those of us trying to follow God, it is an important moral value.

Haidt’s point was that different people emphasize different moral values and therefore make decisions based on that. Although true, this is extremely messy. Ethical dilemmas occur when values come into conflict with one another.

Finding an explosive example is easy. Try to fit your argument about abortion into those six values. Now squeeze in your stand on capital punishment. Immigration? Does my position rest on authority, care, or fairness—or sanctity?

Clearly, this is complicated. Thinking about it with these categories in mind is helpful to me, however. Apparently, my TRUMP neighbor emphasizes different values than I do. As a follower of God, what should be my response to that?

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

One comment

  • At a past Abilene Interfaith Council meeting, Dr. Dan Stiver spoke about the subject of your article. Understanding a person’s basic values can help us understand the origin of what we might consider morally disgusting.

    Like

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