For those who never saw the day

I have not written a poem in 30 years, and I probably will not write another one for 30 more, but while reading some of the essays on the recent marriage equality decisions (most notably Andrew Sullivan’s, which began “I think of all those who never saw this day”) I’ve been experiencing a combination of joy and grief that I felt I should try to express in some way other than my typical prosaic analysis.

For those who never saw the day

When they could speak their love aloud

Without euphemism or misdirection

When they would not live in fear of pronouns

With their telltale genders

 

Waiting while ugly doctrines

Are ratified by silence

Or loudly proclaimed by loved ones

Who open wounds they never see

And the wounded don’t complain

 

Whole lives muffled by shame

Curdled by loathing

Haunted by longing

Ended in despair

 

For those who never saw the day

And yet knew it could be better

Knew they were not broken

And did not need forgiveness or repair

 

What is better tribute now? Gratitude for better times

Or rage at past indignities

And what is yet undone

 

Neither seems adequate to the present task

Anger seems ungrateful

And gratitude seems servile

“Thank you for seeing at long last that we are human too”

 

We may need to invent a new emotion

Some hopeful indignation,

Some outraged joy

To give the past and the present and the future their due

 

The necessity of magical thinking

I’ve done a couple of posts now about how religious reasoning is more secular than people think (for example here and here), but the reverse is also true. Secular moral reasoning is much less empirical than people think it is. At its core, it relies on what could be described as magical thinking, although framed without reference to literal supernatural forces. Even those who pride themselves on their devotion to empirical rigor and the scientific method will find themselves thinking in abstract terms, bordering on mysticism, when addressing moral questions.

This should not be a surprise. Moral reasoning is, for the most part, about how we treat other human beings, and human beings are notoriously difficult to study scientifically. They are complicated and sometimes deceptive, and their reactions change dramatically if they know they are being observed or evaluated. Even if we could construct flawless experiments on human nature, we are still faced with what Hume identified as the gap between “is” and “ought.” No amount of empirical rigor can convert an observation about human beings into an ethical principle.

This may sound strange, but I think the only way to derive ethical principles about how we should treat other people is by essentially tricking ourselves. For example, our brains tend to react to observations of pain or pleasure in others by “mirroring,” reacting as if we ourselves were experiencing that pain or pleasure. It’s easy to see that the utility of such an adaptation in enabling individuals to learn more quickly about what to seek out or avoid in their environment. But it’s important to note that our brain is, in a sense, tricking us. We are not really experiencing the same stimulus as the person we are observing, we are simply reacting as if we were. Although it’s not “real,” this “mirroring” reaction is one of the fundamental building blocks of empathy. (The mirroring reaction is often noticeably absent in psychopaths). This empathy can give rise to complex moral judgments, most notably the “Golden Rule,” which exists in some permutation in every moral code ever devised by human beings.

But notice that this powerful engine of moral reasoning is fueled by an illusion. It only works if we suspend our disbelief and embrace the feeling of being in another person’s shoes. If we adopt a rigorously empirical stance, we can only describe the experience as the firing of certain neurons in response to stimulus, with no necessary connection to any broader ideas about behavior. At most, a strictly empirical view might allow that we should avoid harming people in our immediate vicinity, to avoid unpleasant neural reactions. But the idea that we should care about working conditions in a sweatshop on the other side of the world would never even come up.

Empathy is a sort of mental trick, but it’s the best kind of trick. If you examine creation myths from different cultures, one of the recurring themes is that the creation of the world, or of human beings in particular, is often sparked by a trickster. Some crafty deity will steal fire from the sun or makes people out of mud, and the world as we know it springs into being. Humans recognize, on a very deep level, that a certain amount of deception is necessary to bridge the gap between what we are and what we can be.

The author Terry Pratchett articulated this idea beautifully in his fantasy novel Hogfather. The novel takes place in Pratchett’s Discworld, and the Hogfather of the title is a more atavistic version of Santa Claus. At the conclusion of the story, the personification of Death and his adopted daughter (it’s a long story) have this exchange about belief in the Hogfather:

Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—

Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

So we can believe the big ones?

Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.

They’re not the same at all!

You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet . . . you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

When I think about my own attempts at moral reasoning, one of the books that I go back to again and again is C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. It’s written as a series of letters from a senior demon to a junior demon about how to tempt a human being into sin. It’s a very cogent and thoughtful look at the myriad and often petty ways in which humans can make each other miserable. Lewis does something similar in The Great Divorce, which uses the conceit of a group of damned souls from Hell taking a day trip to Heaven and exploring all of the ways in which they are keeping themselves locked out of the rest of the universe.

At the time I first read both of these books, I shared Lewis’s religious beliefs. But although I am no longer a believer, I continue to find both books no less useful in thinking about the psychology of moral behavior. This makes sense when you think about it, since both books are already operating on at least one level of abstraction: Lewis does not literally believe in Screwtape either. Lewis did believe, literally and passionately, in the divinity of Jesus. But, at the risk of sounding dismissive, I don’t find that additional level of abstraction makes any difference in my appreciation of Lewis’s insights. The ideas that Lewis explored through Screwtape, and for that matter through Aslan and the rest of Narnia, inform my moral reasoning as thoroughly as they ever did. I suppose in this way I am like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

That’s really where moral reasoning should lead us. We can argue with each other about whether our abstract ideas are literally true in some sense, but ultimately we can never know. All we can do is try to imagine the world as it would be if it were created by someone wise and loving and just. Then we must continue the messy, imperfect business of moving our world a little closer to that ideal.

 

 

“People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion.”

I just read this excellent interview with Reza Aslan, in which he explains a point I was trying to make in this post about the relationship between religion and moral reasoning. Religion and moral philosophy are intertwined, but it’s the philosophy shaping the religion rather than the other way around. Aslan captures this concept in a really lucid way:

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. … People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

Indeed, the ambiguity of sacred texts is the reason those texts can be so influential across vastly different eras and cultures: “That’s the power of scripture, it’s the power of religion: It’s infinitely malleable. We do not read scriptures that were written 5000 years ago still because they’re true — we read them because they’re malleable, because they can address the ever-evolving need of a community, of an individual, because they can be shaped to whatever one’s political ideology is.”

Why arguments against marriage equality sound so stupid

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott just filed a brief in defense of the state’s marriage laws, arguing that the state’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage is “rationally related to the State’s interest in encouraging couples to produce new offspring, which are needed to ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race.” This has attracted a lot of well-deserved derision, and it’s just the latest in a long line of very bad arguments made against marriage equality. My personal favorite being the State of Indiana’s contention that its laws did not discriminate against homosexual people because “homosexuals often do marry members of the opposite sex.” Indiana law, in its majestic equality, requires the gay as well as the straight to marry members of the opposite sex.

I have a theory as to why these arguments sound not just weak but downright silly. Contrary to what many of my friends think, it’s not because the people making these arguments are stupid. These arguments are typically made by experienced lawyers, who understand perfectly well that the arguments are not very good. The reason I think these arguments sound so hollow is that they are really arguments about sanctity, being transposed into the language of harm.

I’ve written before about the idea of sanctity (or “purity”) as one of the fundamental building blocks of moral reasoning, one that looms much larger in the conservative worldview (this is based on the work of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which everyone should read). Put simply, moral arguments about sanctity focus on avoiding corruption by avoiding “unclean” practices in eating, drinking, sex and other activities. By contrast, more liberal philosophies put more emphasis on other moral concepts, primarily preventing harm and treating people fairly.

Modernists tend to adopt an unduly patronizing view of sanctity arguments, but they occupy an important place in moral reasoning. For those with a more liberal worldview, it might help to use a term like “dignity” rather than “sanctity” to describe this concept. All of us have certain practices that we feel should be prohibited, even if we can articulate a specific, concrete harm. A few years ago a company paid homeless people to serve as wi-fi “hot spots” during South by Southwest. No one was actually harmed by this, but people were outraged, as a matter of basic human dignity. Ideas about sanctity represent certain moral boundaries that purely utilitarian calculations cannot cross.

The thing about sanctity arguments is that they are very powerful, until they aren’t. That is, as long as most of the members of a community recognize a particular taboo, it controls how people behave and even how they think about certain subjects. But if such a taboo starts to be questioned from a secular perspective, it’s very difficult to muster concrete arguments in its defense.

I distinctly remember, when same-sex marriage first became a political issue, watching Sen. Bill Frist on television saying that same-sex marriage should not be allowed because “marriage is a sacrament.” I was irritated on two fronts. As a civil libertarian, it irked me that a high-ranking official thought that the government should be in the business of protecting sacraments. And as a lapsed Presbyterian, it annoyed me that Sen. Frist did not know that our church does not actually regard marriage as a sacrament (Presbyterians, like most Protestant denominations, only recognize two sacraments: baptism and Holy Communion). He was using the word “sacrament” to appeal to a widely shared sense that marriage is sacred. And in the initial stages of the argument, that was sufficient.

But sanctity arguments are difficult to sustain int he court of public opinion, and even more difficult to advance in a court of law. Attorneys tasked with defending bans on same-sex marriage had to transpose these ideas about sanctity into an entirely different moral idiom, based on the types of concrete harms and equities that factor into legal decisions. And the resulting arguments sound vaguely ridiculous, just as this blog post would sound silly if I suddenly had to set it to music, or translate it into broken Spanish.

So you get weird assertions about procreation and economic growth, or transparently absurd claims that homosexuals have an equal right to marry members of the opposite sex. They are making arguments about harm where no real harm exists. One might as well oppose flag burning by complaining about the smoke.

This disparity is why I think Judge Richard Posner’s opinion on marriage equality was so powerful. Judge Posner is not at all concerned with arguments about sanctity. He is solely focused on concrete costs and benefits (which incidentally means that some of his views on economic regulation would horrify the people who love his take on marriage equality).

Because Judge Posner is writing in the idiom of harm and fairness, he can produce a truly robust, coherent argument. He can conclude, quite correctly, that opponents of same-sex marriage are not “going to be hurt by it in a way that the law would take cognizance of.” And he can mercilessly expose the absurdity and unfairness of the ban on same-sex marriage: “Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry,” Judge Posner wrote, “Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.”

For the record, I do think marriage is sacred, and its sanctity has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the people getting married. It’s a deep and powerful commitment between two people, sustained by the support and recognition of a broader community. It is based on what the poet Philip Larkin called “our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.” It is fundamentally an expression of love, which is the most sacred thing I know.

Love in the time of Instagram

At brunch, the official meal of Portland, I watched two other couples at nearby tables. The first was the very personification of the happy urban couple: drinking coffee and sharing the New York Times in a comfortable, companionable silence. At the second table, a similar couple looked at their phones, probably rotating through their respective social media sites. It occurred to me that, at least in the popular imagination, the second couple would be seen as uncommunicative, even alienated from each other. Yet for all we know, the couple on their phones could be reading the very same edition of the New York Times, engaging in exactly the same activity as the first couple, just using a different technological interface.

My first instinct, when confronted with this kind of disparity, is to chalk it up to the “rolling moral panic” inspired by social media. And that dynamic is certainly at play here. The sight of the couple reading the newspaper is familiar and therefore reassuring. The sight of the couple on their phones arouses all of our latent anxieties about technology eroding social connections.

As I was thinking about it, a sort of paradox occurred to me. For all we know, the couple on their smart phones could have been reading the exact same article. But that we know for certain that the the two people sharing the newspaper were reading different articles, because that’s how newspapers work. So the people reading newspapers are necessarily having different experiences, yet we perceive them as more connected in some way. And that’s not entirely due to bias against social media. Something about sharing a physical object really does seem to make a difference. It made me think of the idea of communion, in its broadest meaning.

When I was younger I sometimes took communion at different (Protestant) churches. At some, the communicants would be given small identical wafers, meant to simulate the unleavened bread eaten at the Last Supper. At others, an actual loaf of bread would be passed around, each person taking a small piece. The unleavened wafers were, in their way, more authentic and traditional. But the actual breaking of bread always struck me as much more true to the spirit of communion. Communion is about sharing a larger experience, which means that by definition each person may take something slightly different from it.

A relationship, which is a very specialized kind of communion, seems to work the same way. No healthy relationship is built around the idea of two people trying to have identical, simultaneous experiences. A relationship is about two people sharing something larger: a newspaper, a house, possibly a whole life. The very act of sharing a life may paradoxically require you to divide things up, taking on different roles or tasks, but even that separation is an expression of a deeper unity. We divide things up because they are part of a larger whole, and that larger whole is us.

 

Illusions of control

I’m reading The Magician’s Land, the last book in Lev Grossman’s transcendentally good Magicians trilogy, and ran across a line that really resonated with me. (Warning: this post might be construed as containing mild spoilers, but nothing that would really detract from your enjoyment of the books).

It’s spoken by a character, Jane, who has spent most of her life using a magical watch to travel through time, constantly trying to fix things. Jane is now in her 70s, living quietly in the woods, building an array of beautiful clocks. Eliot, the king of a magical land, comes to see her and assumes that she is building a new time-travel device. She says that she is not:

“If they don’t control time, what do they do?” Eliot asked.

“They tell time,” Jane said. “That’s enough.”

Our minds are heavily biased toward control, or at least the illusion of it. Behavioral psychologists have documented a strong tendency for people to underestimate risk in situations where they are in control (such as driving a car) and to overestimate risk when another person is in control (such as being in a car driven by one’s spouse). We want control because we believe on a very deep level that we can make things turn out all right.

And sometimes we can. But control is not the only objective worth pursuing. Sometimes the best thing that we can do is to bear witness, to experience a moment for what it is, without trying to push the hands of the clock forward or backward, or stop them altogether. The urge to exert control, to do something – whether or not it is likely to make things better – is at the root of a great deal of human misery and folly.

The rapacious desire for control is akin to what Buddhists call “attachment.” The overcoming of attachment – “detachment” – is a prerequisite to achieving wisdom and peace. Or, to bring things back to the realm of fantasy literature, we could consider this passage from Ursula LeGuin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea:

You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.

 

 

A funny thing

I wrote recently about the “ick” factor, the instinctive feeling of discomfort or even disgust that some straight people feel about the idea of gay sex. Such feelings are not in themselves bigoted or homophobic, nor are they somehow evidence that homosexuality is wrong. They are just feelings that need to be acknowledged and addressed.

I’ve been watching Transparent, a new Amazon show in which Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, a person transitioning from a male to female identity, and it occurred to me that trans people face a similar kind of instinctive reaction that may be even more painful: laughter. The sight of a man in women’s clothes has been considered funny across many different cultures for centuries.

I don’t think this involuntary reaction is, in itself, malicious or bigoted. Many hateful people do use mockery and ridicule as weapons, but I suspect for most people the urge to laugh comes from a less hostile place. The essence of humor is incongruity, and a mismatch between perceived gender identity and the outward trappings of gender are humorous at a very basic level.

I admire the fact that the people involved with Transparent — particularly Tambor — are not relying on this incongruity as the source of humor.  The show is a comedy, but they manage to make it funny without presenting the mere fact of Maura’s gender identity as the punchline. Tambor, who is an extremely gifted comic actor, finds the comedy and the drama in the character while taking the emotional context seriously. Other characters laugh at Maura, sometimes cruelly, but often in an awkward, nervous way. Tambor does an excellent job of showing how painful that laughter can be.

More broadly, the idea of gender identity as farce poses real challenges in the fight for trans equality. It’s easier to dismiss people’s demands for dignity and justice when the whole idea can be dismissed as a joke. But as in the case of the “ick factor,” it’s counter-productive to scold people for involuntary reactions. Anyone who’s ever been in church knows that being told not to laugh creates an irresistible urge to giggle. Someone who has that reaction can still see that the issues facing trans people are serious – often literally matters of life and death.

We can also hope that increasing visibility of trans people, in real life and in the media, will take away some of the unfamiliarity that fuels nervous laughter. Paradoxically, comedy can be more powerful than drama in that respect. A show like Transparent – that finds humor and absurdity in its characters’ common human foibles – provokes a laughter based on empathy and identification. It’s the kind of laughter people mean when they say “laughing with” rather than “laughing at.” And perhaps we can take solace in Gandhi’s words about social movements: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Stumbling toward wisdom

If you’re like me, you learned a patriotic song called “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” And then later you probably learned that the tune is taken from the British anthem “God Save the Queen” (or “God Save the King,” depending on the presence or absence of a Y chromosome in the reigning monarch at any given time). And for some reason thinking about these two songs has helped me clarify some of thoughts about religion that I’ve been struggling to put into words.

In addition to sharing a tune, the songs are very similar in emotional terms. Both arouse and celebrate a sense of national pride, with a very Anglo-American kind of self-congratulatory zeal. Both seek to engage the listener with something intangible, precious and transcendent.

Here’s what struck me as interesting. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” is directed at the nation as an abstract entity, a “sweet land of liberty,” while “God Save the Queen” identifies the nation with an actual person, the reigning monarch. And although this seems like a large difference – between a largely metaphorical construct on one hand and an actual 88-year-old woman with a fondness for Corgis – the fact that Queen Elizabeth II actually exists is not that really that important. The song is not trying to convince the British to love their country because of the personal attributes of any particular monarch. The monarch serves as a focal point for a person’s patriotic (or unpatriotic) feelings, but the song could just as easily be addressed to “Britannia” or some other fictional construct. Indeed, for purposes of the song the Queen is essentially a fictional construct. If the British someday stopped having a monarch, they would not stop having patriotic feelings. They would just have to find different rhetorical devices with which to express them.

Both the “sweet land of liberty” and “the Queen” are simply ways of talking about aspects of a national character that can’t be fully described in concrete terms. And obviously people listening to either of these songs will have different feelings about these abstract concepts, but the difference is not a function of which construct is used. Two British people listening to the exact same rendition of “God Save the Queen” might have diametrically opposed reactions, even though they are using the same focal point to process their patriotic (or unpatriotic) feelings. Conversely, some Americans listening to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” might have feelings very similar to those of their British counterparts, even though the focal point of that song is a fictional construct rather than an actual person. In each case, the identity and attitude of the listener is vastly more important than which rhetorical device they happen to be using.

A similar dynamic seems to apply to religion. I’m not sure that it actually matters that much whether you accept the premise that God exists. And I say that as a fairly committed atheist. But I find whenever I am thinking about the really important intangible questions – things like justice, compassion, equality, and forgiveness – my thought process could easily be described in religious terminology. Roughly speaking, I am trying to imagine how a loving, omniscient intelligence would deal with a particular problem. Or to put it another way, “What would Jesus do?” I view this thought experiment as a hypothetical exercise, but I do not think that really changes the result. If we are going to ponder abstract questions at all, we have to project ourselves into some perspective that transcends our individual experience to some degree. The precise terminology that we use to describe this contemplation is less important than we seem to think.

John Rawls famously employed the image of a “veil of ignorance,” from which a person could make theoretically unbiased choices about how to structure society. Rawls did not really believe that such a thing was possible, but he used it as a way of articulating ideas about fairness and equality. If, centuries from now, a group of people got confused and came to believe that Rawls’ veil of ignorance really existed in the distant past, like the Golden Fleece, would that make any difference to its value as an intellectual tool?

We spend a great deal of time talking about what focal points people are using: Christian, Muslim, secular, and so on. The implication is that the choice of a particular religious or philosophical focal point makes an important difference in the result, but I don’t see any strong evidence for that view. People working within an ostensibly Christian or Muslim worldview have produced staggeringly different approaches to ethical and metaphysical questions, and there does not seem to be any consistent correlation between the religious framework and the result. Strict, authoritarian personalities tend to adopt strict, authoritarian philosophies, whether they find them in the New Testament or the Koran or a purely secular book. Tolerant, liberal personalities tend to find tolerant, liberal philosophies in the same books.

And none of these people are being dishonest. The texts support a wide range of different conclusions, depending on what one chooses to emphasize. Robert Wright wrote an excellent book called The Evolution of God exploring why this is the case. The short version is this: Any religious tradition that survives will go through different periods of war and peace, of scarcity and plenty. Sometimes members must be rallied to defend the group, sometimes the group needs to make peace. These changing conditions end up being reflected in the group’s oral and written traditions, meaning that later generations will have their plenty of material from which to call for either belligerence or conciliation, orthodoxy or tolerance. Just within the Gospel of Matthew you can choose to quote the sentence “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” or to meditate on the words “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Seek and ye shall find. Or, to quote a member of my personal pantheon, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This does not make religious texts meaningless or unworthy of consideration. These books contain real wisdom about how to live, acquired and refined over centuries by often brave and brilliant people. Dismissing all of that as “superstition” or “fairy tales” is profoundly short-sighted. Whether or not you consider a text to be literally true, you may find guidance and inspiration there. Shakespeare was convinced that people’s personalities were guided by the “humours” in their bodies. That error does not mean that Shakespeare’s thoughts on the human condition should be disregarded.

I started thinking about all of this because of a series of conversations with my older brother Steven. He believes in God, and I do not. And yet we have both been surprised by how little difference that makes to our views on ethical and philosophical questions. Our approaches to these questions is strikingly, almost eerily similar. If the choice between a religious and secular worldview were determinative, we should have much more divergent opinions. What seems to be happening is that we are each picking out a very similar tune, using different instruments. Certain chords resonate no matter how they are produced.

Scott Adams wrote an excellent piece along these lines, describing religion as a form of “user interface” with reality:

Today when I hear people debate the existence of God, it feels exactly like debating whether the software they are using is hosted on Amazon’s servers or Rackspace. From a practical perspective, it probably doesn’t matter to the user one way or the other. All that matters is that the user interface does what you want and expect.

This pretty much sums up my current attitude toward religion. If someone has a philosophy of compassion, justice and honesty that is derived from a holy book, I will gratefully accept whatever wisdom I can glean from it. The substance is much more important than the source.

 

Moral imagination

I highly recommend reading this article, which urges Americans to think about how our military actions are seen by people in other countries. But the point its making is not confined to foreign policy, and it’s summed up in these words: “The first step in moral reasoning, after all, is the imaginative act of placing oneself in another’s shoes.” We usually call this quality “empathy,” but that can lead to confusion. For various reasons, “empathy” strikes many people as a touchy-feely, therapeutic term, like “self-esteem.” They instinctively feel that a call to “empathy” is just a smoke screen for bleeding-heart sentimentality and rationalization. (This suspicion was voiced in characteristically despicable fashion by Karl Rove, when he accused liberals of lining up to “offer therapy and understanding” to the 9/11 attackers).

A related mistake that people make about the role of empathy in morality is in thinking that empathy requires us to excuse or ignore immoral behaviors by the people we are seeking to understand. This is exacerbated by well-meaning but vapid sentiments like “To understand all is to forgive all.” C.S. Lewis wrote a devastatingly brilliant response to this misconception in an essay on forgiveness, arguing that it was a mistake to imagine that “forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are.” Reflecting on the injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Lewis asked “how exactly do I love myself? Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. . . . In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.”

It is entirely possible, and sometimes essential, to empathize fully with another person’s motives while disagreeing with their actions. But the act of moral imagination is still a vital exercise. It is far too easy — and often downright enjoyable — to condemn others with different views without any real effort to understand their position. It’s very satisfying to dismiss another person’s beliefs as thinly veiled envy or greed or prejudice. But that sort of condemnation does not really deserve to be called moral reasoning. Rejection of the unfamiliar is practically the default setting of the human mind. If we’re seriously trying to assess moral claims, we should be stretching our intellectual capacities a little further.

And the essence of that moral reasoning — the essence of any moral reasoning worthy of the name — is a genuine effort to understand another person’s point of view. Not just in a perfunctory way, where we mumble “I get where you’re coming from” before launching into our predetermined argument, but in a real way that may impose some psychological cost. We should actually try to ascertain the other person’s coordinates on the wider moral map, not just their opposition to our own perspective.

That may require translating some things that strike as obviously bad or morally neutral into terms that relate to our own values. For example, when I was thinking about religious objections to birth control, I tried to put myself in the position of people with sincere moral opposition to birth control. This was difficult, because I think birth control is an unalloyed good both practically and morally. So I tried to construct a thought experiment in which I was being asked to pay for something I really did have strong moral objections to, such as “reparative” therapy for gay people. The exercise did not change my ultimate conclusion: I still think it’s appropriate to require birth control coverage. But I think I understand the costs of that requirement, in terms of restrictions on individual conscience, a little better. And it also made me more aware of the connection between the birth control arguments and other issues of individual conscience with different ideological valences (such as the justified outrage over this Texas school’s attempt to bar a Native American boy who had long hair for cultural and religious reasons).

In addition to cultivating empathy, these acts of moral imagination create a healthy sense of humility. When you are standing in another person’s shoes, you can get a much clearer view of yourself. And the interaction of empathy and humility can produce a useful feedback loop, making us more understanding of others’ positions and more critical of our own. (This is even more important in light of the mounting evidence that our brains are heavily biased in the opposite direction). Marcus Aurelius had this advice, which remains highly useful: “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”