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In a divided America, humility and love will help us heal

Children wave American flags before an event with President-elect Joe Biden on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

As the bloody American Civil War was winding down, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. In doing so he tried to heal a nation that was bitterly divided. In the attempt, he ended his address with the following words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right; as God gives us to see the right; let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

With the call of the election for Joe Biden on Saturday, approximately half of the citizens of our country are likely frustrated, sad, heartbroken and dismayed, with some even angry. Short of major legal battles, President Donald Trump has likely lost this election.

In almost 50 years of paying close attention to presidential politics in the United States, I have never seen a nation as divided as it is now. While significant disagreements and close elections are nothing new, I have never witnessed the level of vitriol currently being displayed among family members, neighbors and friends. Significant healing will now need to commence, for as noted by Lincoln in an earlier speech in 1858, quoting from the book of Matthew, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

As one who has had the opportunity to research and teach ethics at the University of Washington, Emory University, the University of Pittsburgh and Brigham Young University for the past 32 years, I would like to share some insights that might be helpful in understanding such vitriol, in overcoming it, and in helping our nation to heal. While most arguments tend to cause us to have negative emotions toward those with whom we disagree, those arguments that have moral content cause the most significant outrage.

To suggest, for example, that my mother is not a good cook, could upset me. However, to suggest that she is a liar or a cheat would take me to a much deeper level of anger. The first suggestion might make me question your judgment, the second your character. In this election, we are experiencing both questions, but with more emphasis on the second question than in prior elections. We simply cannot understand how a good person could possibly vote for a particular presidential candidate, given the choice between the two.

The arguments are common. Many of you wonder, for example, how any person of moral character could possibly vote for a presidential candidate who supports the right to kill a baby in utero, has been accused multiple times of inappropriately touching women, allowed his son to earn significant money in foreign countries based on his relationship to him while he was vice president, sponsored a crime bill that caused mass incarceration of our minority communities and wishes to move us closer to socialism through greater taxes and government spending — when we have the choice of our current president, who destroyed the ISIS caliphate that was terrorizing the world, brought record employment and wages to minority communities before China unleashed a killer virus on us, kept most of his 2016 campaign promises, and confirmed hundreds of judges, including three to the Supreme Court and will uphold the Constitution.

Meanwhile, many of you wonder how any person of moral character could possibly vote for a presidential candidate who has cheated on all three of his wives; pays hush money to keep his bad deeds secret; has been accused of sexual assault by 26 women; brags about sexually assaulting women; tells falsehoods on a daily basis; bullies, mocks, fires and belittles almost anyone who disagrees with him; has saddled our children and grandchildren with $7 trillion of additional national debt; was a corrupt businessman; who doesn’t believe that the citizens of the country have a right to know about his personal finances; doesn’t believe in science and because of his poor example and leadership has caused tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of unnecessary deaths; and who seeks to take away people’s health care without any viable plan to replace it — when we have the choice of a former vice president who rode a train to Washington, D.C., for decades to be a dedicated father, who led the rebuilding of our economy after the 2008 economic meltdown, and who has demonstrated and promised to return civility to the White House.

In my ethics classes, I’ve experienced many similar disagreements. In my classes, we talk about the types of moral issues that cause very deep passions and divisions. It is not unusual for members of my classes, and for me, to recoil at the things other people consider to be right, ethical, honorable or virtuous. As I have attempted to understand how seemingly good people can disagree with me and with each other in such profound ways, I have come to a deeper understanding of the following things:

  1. Each one of us has lived a different life, with varying personal, cultural, racial and religious experiences that color the way we see things. When we take the time to learn about another person in a deeper way, our understanding and appreciation for their perspective tends to grow. Many of those whose perspective on the presidential election you don’t understand have likely had powerful personal experiences with one or more of the issues enumerated above.
  2. We are all subject to bias. The findings of social science demonstrate that human beings are not always completely objective. We are all subject to various biases, including confirmation bias (a tendency to filter out information that is not in agreement with our beliefs and to seek out and retain information that confirms our beliefs), anchoring (a tendency to stick with our first belief in spite of evidence to the contrary), overconfidence (a tendency to rely more on our own abilities than is justified), and halo effect (a tendency for a positive impression about one aspect of a thing or person to positively affect our impressions about all other dimensions). To overcome such biases, we need to be aware of them and actively work to counter them.
  3. We pick and choose among different ethical perspectives based on our own self-interest. Philosophers and theologians have developed multiple theories of right and wrong based on various perspectives. Alternative approaches involve the actions we use to accomplish goals (deontology) or the outcomes of our actions (teleology). Often, individuals are not consistent in the perspective they choose, but rather choose the one that best fits their desires at the time. For example, some argued in this election that a person’s behaviors didn’t matter as much as what they accomplish, whereas others felt that how a person behaves is most important. A lot of the hypocrisy being pointed out in this election cycle stems from people switching the basis of their ethics depending on which candidate they would like to support.
  4. We rationalize our opinions and behaviors. Most of us know that we don’t always act in accordance with our values, but sometimes abandon them for our selfish desires. Behavioral ethicists have found at least a dozen distinct rationalization techniques we employ to justify our own opinions and behaviors. For example, we sometimes deny that we are responsible for our actions, that our actions matter when we did not intend harm to others, and that our actions are OK because they are the norm in society. We also sometimes point out the personal faults in those with whom we disagree instead of listening to their arguments.
  5. To come to a better understanding of each other, or in other words, to heal, we must demonstrate love for others by humbling ourselves. My colleague Brad Owens’ research has found that humble individuals are teachable, accurately understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and notice, appreciate and verbalize the strengths in others. In my personal efforts at influencing the minds of my students and colleagues regarding ethical issues, I have found that I am much more successful when I demonstrate humility than when I attempt to do so through supposedly superior intellectual prowess. In virtually all cases, humility brings us closer together.

Like so many of you, I had strong opinions about this presidential election. At the same time, I have many family members, neighbors and friends whom I love and respect who held very different opinions. I was, and continue to be, sorely tempted to label them as ignorant, dumb and lacking in moral character. While that might be true for some (and also true for some of those who agree with me), it is definitely not the case for most.

To heal, it will be necessary to heed the religious call and humanistic demand to love one another. To do so, I must humble myself by listening closely to others, by trying to understand their life experiences and their current worries and fears and by examining my own biases, ethical perspectives and rationalizations. For the good of our nation, I invite you to join me on this journey.

Brad Agle is the George W. Romney Endowed professor and professor of ethics and leadership at Brigham Young University, and lead author of “The Business Ethics Field Guide.”