Following Our Moral Compass In an Era of Shifting Earth Axis

Feb. 15, 2019

Al Kaszniak shares insights on compassion and the current political climate

people sitting on bench


Those who overreach themselves in positions of leadership rarely finish anything successfully. It seems that their virtuous qualities are superficial and their measure is narrow, and their learning from experience is low. Also they cannot follow the good and strive for righteousness and use that to expand themselves and achieve realization.”  - Lingyuan

Words of election year encouragement from Song Dynasty China (10th to 13th centuries), in Thomas Cleary, translator (2007). Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership. Boston:Shambhala. Later, in this same collection, when describing the virtuous qualities of Lingyuan himself, it is written:

"The essential thing is repeated self-examination ..., not letting thoughts of fame and profit sprout in the mind."

Apparently, both egalitarian altruism and narcissism existed in the 10th to 13th centuries in China, with considerable concern among Chan Buddhists that the former was in decline and the later increasing.

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissism is "...a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy."

In this year of intense presidential politics, examples fitting this definition come quite readily to mind. And, many of us have concern that an egotistic insularity and self-focused grandiosity seem to be increasingly attractive, and compassion proportionately in decline among U.S. voters. I'm not interested in giving obvious politician surnames to narcissism, but rather in exploring the contributors to individualism, nativism, and narcissism, as well as what supports and cultivates altruism, compassion, and moral discernment.

Several news media pundits attribute the appeal of politicians who promote "Me first, my ethnic group first, my country first" to the fears of those who feel displaced by the cultural and technological changes. Such fear is clearly real, and no doubt contributes to the appeal of political narcissists who boast that they alone have the power to effect a return to an imagined glorious and monochromatic past.

However, I don't think this is a complete and sufficient explanation.

The experience of my father during an analogous period of change in the last century provides a different perspective. My father made a living repairing electric motors, an important trade during the post-WWII boom in automobile ownership. Cars had starters and generators that would burn out, and my father could make a working class income, paying the rent for our small basement apartment, by the physically hard work of rebuilding these electric motors. However, by the mid-1960s, innovations in technology and automation resulted in starter motors and alternators in new cars lasting longer. And, when older electric motors failed, they could be replaced by new ones made by assembly automation that cost less than it would to rebuild them.

My father tried to keep his small repair shop alive by working 7-day weeks and taking on larger tasks, such as repair of the enormous motors that powered electric trolley cars and busses. However, the time and labor intensity increasingly limited his income from this work. Even as an adolescent I could sense his palpable fear for the future, and found it heartbreaking when I overheard him say to my mother that he always wished he could have been a toy maker, but felt it too late in his mid-40s to start a new craft and trade.

Along with this threat to his livelihood also came cultural changes. Our neighborhood, once comprised of familiar Eastern European immigrants, was now being populated by successive waves of people from Appalachia, from Puerto Rico, and from Mexico, all seeking work in the Industrial hub of Chicago. His fear of being unable to support his family, in combination with these cultural changes could have been expected to render my father xenophobic, blaming those who didn't look or talk like us, or perhaps the government, for his misfortune.

But this, by and large, didn't happen. Though frightened, he remained clear-eyed about the cause of his financial difficulty being inevitable technological change that he knew was also bringing many benefits to 20th century life. Though not always understanding our multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-linguistic neighbors, he didn't blame them for taking "good jobs," aware that they were following the path of his own immigrant parents, who came seeking work and escape from the devastation in Poland at the start of WWI. Though the physical and psychological stress of his economic situation contributed to his death at age 48, he never wavered in his commitment to democratic social ideals, to a belief that government had an important role in society, and to an empathy with and compassion for all who suffered and struggled.

He managed to still follow his moral compass, even though in his time, like ours presently, the earth's axis seemed to be shifting.

So why did my father not become embittered, self-focused, hostile to immigrants, and enamored with bombastic politicians who promised to make his life better by making the lives of others worse? Some of you are old enough to recall that there was no shortage of such politicians back then either.

This is among the questions that have motivated my work this year, in a collaborative project with Roshi Joan Halifax and Johns Hopkins clinical ethicist Cynda Rushton.

The project aims to develop a model of moral discernment, exploring relevant scientific research and contemplative experience to understand the multiple interdependent processes that support principled moral action. We have been developing this model with a particular eye toward practical utility, especially for leaders in diverse sectors of business, health care, government, and other domains. Doing the research and writing in developing our model, I was particularly struck by the concept of "Ethical fading," where moral issues fade into the background and are no longer perceived.

Interestingly, recent experiments have shown that greater attention to bodily cues of our typically pre-conscious biases, and similar bodily signals of violations of moral integrity, appear to counter ethical fading.

For those who study Buddhism, or mind-body practices from any tradition, it is not at all surprising to learn that our bodies provide a kind of early warning system regarding conditioned biases and potential moral issues, whether in our own behavior or that of others. Nor is it surprising that the practice and cultivation of steady, nonjudgmental attention to these bodily cues are the foundation of moral discernment and of leading a life characterized by an ethics of caring. The historical Buddha, after all, named mindfulness of the body as the first of the four foundations of mindfulness.

Young children , as now shown in numerous studies, display an inherent altruistic disposition, coming to the aid of others almost as soon as they are mobile, and are highly attuned to their own bodily feelings that reflect empathic resonance with others. If this is so, how can it be that such a seemingly large number of adults today manifest ethical fading, no longer perceiving the moral issues in their own daily lives, and blind to the self-focused bombastic untruths of would-be leaders? In large part, explanations can  be found in the ways in which our American culture conditions our sense of self, our worldview, and our distractibility.

As I've often commented, there is no inherent problem with having a sense of self, which we all have, nor certainly in having confidence that this "me" is capable of meeting most challenges - what we usually call self-confidence. Our ability to mentally simulate a self, as if looking back from the outside, and projecting this constructed self into alternative possible scenarios is critical for anticipation and planning. The difficulties arise when we become preoccupied with our sense of self, lost in future fantasies in which we play the central role, and constantly monitoring how we are seen by others, our social image and public persona.

When my father was an adolescent, most of his generation aspired to a life of modest comforts and the rewards of close family and friendship ties, where being part of a group was more important than being apart from and better than others.

Humility was considered to be a virtue.

In recent studies of millennials, more than 80 percent state that it is very important that they become rich, and over 50 percent say they most want to become famous.

In 1951, for those between the ages of 14 and 16, only 12 percent agreed with the statement, "I am an important person." By 1980, this had risen to 80 percent!

And in another study of tens of thousands of questionnaire responses, 93 percent of high school students had a markedly higher score on a measure of narcissistic traits in the year 2000 than in 1980.

In 2006, one out of every four students fulfilled the criteria for narcissism, and one of ten met criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

Our consumer culture increasingly promotes self-focus, knowing that people who are preoccupied with their social image are likely to spend considerable money on adorning and enhancing their persona with a range of products and possessions. And, our culture increasingly champions selfishness as a virtue and portrays altruism as a weakness. From Machiavelli, through Friedrich Nietzsche, to Ayn Rand, highly visible figures have advocated for basing all human relations on business principles, arguing that altruism is a weakness, elevating selfishness to the highest virtue of an advanced society. As a corollary of their fierce promotion of individualism, these writers have influenced many of the current generation of American politicians toward a doctrine of government as having no role other than protecting individual liberties. By this worldview, government should not be concerned with the poor, the elderly, or the sick, and should certainly not levee taxes to aid the unfortunate. The poor, by this view, simply kill economic growth, harming entrepreneurs who deserve advantage by virtue of the sweat of their brows or that of their ancestors. According to Ayn Rand, it is the poor who exploit the rich in modern so-called welfare states, whether through social security, a guaranteed minimum wage, workplace gender equality, or corporate regulations.

So, how do we counter these cultural forces and follow the moral compass with which we have been gifted by evolution? All of my contemplative experience and scientific study points toward attention. When a morally relevant event occurs, such as witnessing another being harmed or treated unfairly, or when we are self-focused and tempted to elevate our social position by degrading someone else, our bodies react quickly and prior to any conscious cognition. Our evolved natural empathic resonance and altruistic disposition, and our similarly evolved natural disgust begin as bodily activations that provide felt cues that can be brought into awareness with mindful attention.

However, when we are preoccupied with our constructed sense of self, attention can be hijacked, missing these cues.

When this happens repeatedly, the ethical fading I mentioned earlier is the result. We become literally ignorant of moral issues, of others’ suffering, and of our own violations of moral integrity. If, however, we have the intention to awaken from the bonds of self-focused craving, aversion, and delusion, we can develop a committed practice of training a steady, vivid, and unbiased attention, and regain access to those bodily cues that are the early warning system of our moral compass. Informed by the natural wisdom of our bodies, our moral reasoning can more skillfully discern how to bring our actions with others into greater moral alignment and integrity. And, as shown in recent experiments, when we act with unwavering fairness and selfless compassion, others around us respond with an experience of moral uplift, motivating their own greater kindness and commitment to the benefit of others.

Some might object that there will remain those who are egoistically motivated who will try to seize power, fame, and wealth at a cost to others.

Certainly, we must engage with this reality, calling out immoral, unethical acts when we discern them, and doing all we can in a democratic society to prevent such narcissists from coopting the constitution and its carefully structured processes of governmental checks and balances. However, we must also remain awake to when, in our opposition to narcissistic would-be leaders, we do not ourselves adopt the very actions and strategies that in them we find morally offensive. It is in this commitment to virtue and integrity that our practice of cultivating clear attention, equanimous balance, and a compassionate heart becomes so critical.

About the Author

Al Kaszniak, Ph.D, is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His scientific research has focused on the neuropsychology of Alzheimer's disease and other age-related neurological disorders, memory self-monitoring, the biological bases of emotion, and emotion response and regulation in long- and short-term Zen and mindfulness meditators. He also serves as a sensei in the tradition of Zen Buddhism.