Photo by donskarpo
Why do people treat others with little empathy? From child and partner abuse to buying products that pollute and destroy biodiversity, immorality is rooted in a lack of moral presence with those whom your actions affect. Whether from a sense of superiority, disgust, fear, duty or anger, it boils down to moral absence, a lack of relational presence-in-the-moment. It can happen to all of us.
Moral presence means being emotionally present in the moment, not distracted by personal fears and preoccupations. It means being relationally attuned to those we are with. It’s an egalitarian, reciprocal dance of intersubjectivity, a person-to-person discovery and creation of a unique relationship in the moment. This requires flexible adaptability, which is built on a well-functioning physiology (e.g., vagus nerve, stress response and right hemisphere). When good physiological functioning is lacking, we are likely to become stiff and rigid in our thinking and relationships. Instead, we follow scripts and rules because we have a hard time being flexibly responsive in the social moment.
Following scripts is one thing we do when we fail in presence. Failure in social presence can come about from multiple causes:
- Lack of personal experience and knowledge about something. Instead of facing the unknown with humility and openness, we take up someone else’s opinion—an authority figure, a friend, public relations folks who tell us what to think or feel.
- Past trauma can lead us to ignore our feelings, deep intuitions and inner selves (our deeper dreams). Then we are likely to push away anything that is threatening to our current, fragile, superificial self perception.
- Ideology—a set of beliefs adopted not from personal experience but that seem to offer a shield from what we see as threats. So, for example, if you were raised in a family that felt unsafe, a particular religion can offer a harbor of safety by assuring you that something better is coming if you behave or believe a certain way.
- Role expectations. How many times have you met someone who treated you like a category instead of an individual? This has happened to me (and many women) with older (usually) males countless times where they treated me like a know-nothing youngster (female), an inferior being who should be catering to their interests and needs. I work at not doing that with young students.
We can also be focused on something else at the time of moral action.
- Distraction. We may lead ourselves away from capacities to concentrate with constant attention shifting between one screen or another and forget to be present in the moment (see book,Distracted).
- Focus on an alternative goal. Famous experiments have shown that focused attention (counting ball passes) can make us miss the otherwise obvious (a gorilla walking through the scene). We can also have a “moral” goal that makes us insensitive to immediate needs of others around us, as in the experiment showing that time constraints led to seminarians stepping over moaning victims (actors) on their way to giving a sermon on the Good Samaritan.
- Distance. We can also be distant in decision making, always a danger for immoral action. Deciding on the fate of people you don’t know from a desk or computer is a way to diffuse responsibility (‘I was just following orders’).
Of course, sometimes following a script is the thing to do to show respect, such as protocol during weddings or funerals. Sometimes emotionally detaching protects life, as a doctor does in an emergency room. But generally, it is important to keep tuned into one’s emotions as one takes actions. Failure can happen in multiple contexts where we are led away from moral presence and from communing and imagining with one another. For example, moral absence can occur in contexts like these:
- Parenting: When parents, told by so-called experts that they should not follow their intuitions about staying physically close to the baby and responding to the baby’s signals, follow the script of shutting out baby needs.
- Family: When, instead of relating to one another as fellow human beings, a hierarchy of value is imposed. Typically the husband is at the top of the hierarchy and his opinions and desires are primary. Mother and children tiptoe around his demands and never fully flower in his presence.
- Politics: In state politics these days, outside groups (e.g., ALEC) are providing templates for legislation, templates that impose multinational interests on local issues, and circumvent the normal wrangling and persuasion involved in real problem solving.
- Relation to natural world. When we treat non-humans as things, as dead objects, we lack presence to them as agents with their own life purposes.
Why worry about a lack of presence? Lack of presence means we are detached from the reality in front of us. Detachment makes destructive actions easy to take because we are morally absent in that moment. It’s like being drunk: we are minimally perceptive, and unable to take into account the consequences of our actions. Learning to be morally present means practicing at three levels. First, we need to learn various self-calming techniques, like deep breathing and mindfulness. Second, we have to learn to be socially present–flexible and responsive. We can do this little by little, at first with moments of social connection (without running away physically or emotionally) that increase in frequency, length and depth. Third, we have to expand our imaginations and understand that all we do, say and are can influence the wellbeing of other humans and non-humans. We learn to take actions that minimize harm but also contribute to the flourishing of the Whole. But we also learn that the environments in which we place ourselves, physically or imaginatively, change our worldview and influence our intuitions. So we learn to select experiences that build virtues instead of vices. See more in my new book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.
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