The dangers of moral fixation

We live in a complicated age.  Information overload is unavoidable.  Even people with the luxuries of phenomenal intellect and plenty of time possess only a superficial grasp of all the issues that matter.  We all miss things.  Critically important things.  We are overwhelmed and we know it.

Moral fixation, what French psychologists used to call an “idée fixe”, is a cure for complexity.  We latch onto one facet of a single issue and view the cluttered moral landscape through the lens of that settled reality.

Moral fixation can take a multitude of forms.  Some people become so preoccupied with physical appearance that every other consideration retreats into the shadows of awareness.  Some fixate on sex and give little attention to anything else.  Some are consumed by professional ambition.  Others fixate on food or on their right to own and carry firearms.  The list is endless.

All these forms of fixation are moral in the sense that, however trivial they may appear from the outside, they represent the ultimate concern for the fixated person.  All else is secondary.

We hear a lot of talk about “single issue voters”.  The single issue is usually abortion or “second amendment rights”.  Similar forms of moral fixation are also evident on the political left. 

I have met people who, although they identify as political progressives, are really driven by a single issue.  It might be a woman’s right to choose, it may be systemic racism and “colonialism”, it may be climate change, it may be the evils of capitalism, it may be the ravages of patriarchy.  Whatever it is, all other concerns are relegated to the back burner. 

It isn’t as if the morally fixated person has no opinions about the host of hot button issues discussed by Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson.  But bring up their pet issue and you will get an encyclopedic recitation; change the subject and (a) the person will fall back on vague generalities, then (b) return to their idée fixe at the earliest opportunity.

For the purposes of this brief discussion, I am willing to stipulate to the complete accuracy of all moral fixations.  But even if our understanding of our single issue is well-informed and well-reasoned, we will be largely incapable of appreciating counterarguments.  Constructive debate requires that persons on both sides of a contentious issue be able to state the contrary argument in terms that would seem fair to their opponent. 

Victims of moral fixation can’t do that.  Not even a little bit.  In fact, the inability to provide a dispassionate account of an opposing viewpoint is the big tip off. 

Take abortion, for instance.  I have met few pro-choice progressives who can dispassionately lay out the pro-life position before launching into a point-by-point rebuttal.  Many can’t stand to hear a pro-life talking point uttered.  When they do, they will interrupt as if the opposing argument isn’t worthy of a moment’s consideration. They have never felt the moral force of the pro-life position. Moreover, they don’t wish to. 

The same is true of the pro-life variety of moral fixation.  There can be no discussion of the practical challenges an unwanted pregnancy creates for women, or the great difference between a cluster of cells at four weeks and a viable fetus.  For the true believer, every abortion involves the heartless murder of a fully formed child.  Fixed ideas are always simple.  That’s what makes them satisfying.

The same is true of antiracism.  (I speak, by the way, as a convinced antiracist.  If you read my stuff, you need no convincing on that point.)  But it is possible to be so laser-focused on the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration that you can see nothing noble or praiseworthy in the American experiment.  It’s just one prolonged horror show.

Moreover, those in the antiracism camp often exhibit only a superficial appreciation for patriarchy. Alternatively, many feminists see everything through the lens of patriarchy have no real understanding of systemic racism.  They may hold the correct progressive opinions, but they don’t feel the wounds of racism the way they feel the damage wrought by powerful males.

True moral fixation makes it impossible to genuinely care about more than one thing.  There are environmentalists, to cite another example, who are so wrapped up in the threat of climate change that evils like mass incarceration fail to register at the emotional level.

Moral fixation is addictive.  Outrage stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine as well as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline which, according to Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, “kick-start our sympathetic nervous system, causing oxygen levels in the blood and glucose levels in the brain to rise. Our heart rate, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure go up — energizing us for a fight.”

And this happens to monomaniacs on both sides of the ideological divide.  We fixate on a single issue because it feels good.  We keep coming back for more.  Moral outrage allows us to feel alive, engaged, and consequential.  But it is addictive.  And addiction ultimately leads to despair.

Inconsistency is another symptom of moral fixation. Pro-choice partisans often ask why “pro-life” people support the death penalty, the defunding of prenatal programs and universal childcare.  The reason is simple. It is impossible for a personal in the grips of moral fixation to shape a balanced moral outlook.

Victims of moral fixation are suckers for cynical politicians.  Many evangelical Christians say they vote for Trump because he doesn’t support the indiscriminate slaughter of defenseless babies.  Single issue voting is a symptom of moral fixation.  Politicians know that by embracing a cluster of moral fixations, whether on the right or left, they can accomplish great things. 

This works because, although many voters only care about their single issue, they will lend weak support to a cluster of issues if they are marketed as a package deal.  A pro-life voter will typically support open carry laws even if they don’t care about gun rights.  If all the pro-life politicians are selling the same package, the single-issue voter has no choice but to sign on.

In Democratic politics, pro-choice rhetoric has become mandatory.  There are a few pro-life Democrats, but not many.  Expressing any degree of discomfort about unregulated abortion is tantamount to surrendering your progressive credentials.  The abortion issue, as a consequence, is rarely debated in public.  People shout slogans and the faithful cheer.  That’s as nuanced as it gets.

Religious piety can also fall hostage to moral fixation.  Politicians like the thrice-divorced Newt Gingrich can win the support of the religious right simply by reciting a stilted religious formula.  “I have given my life to Jesus,” or “I have fallen on my knees and prayed for forgiveness for my sins.”  Donald Trump can’t bring himself to repeat the required religious talking points, so he just holds up a Bible.  It was enough.

Followers of Jesus Christ must declare war on moral fixation.  When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to pray for them and to return evil with good, he is insisting that we see the world through their eyes.  We don’t have to agree; but we must understand.  If people have been damaged by religion, for instance, our first impulse must be to understand.  The unbeliever must be respected.  And loved.  Unconditionally.  Walking away from bad religion may have been an act of moral courage verging on heroism.  We can’t know.  We must love.

The Church of Jesus Christ will always be riddled with myopia, greed, selfishness and stupidity.  It is, after all, a human institution.  The disciples of Jesus manifested all these flaws, yet we call them apostles.  To be a Christian, in theory at least, is to be radically open.  We respond compassionately to everyone, especially those who think we’re wrong.  

To some extent, we are all guilty of moral fixation.  It is inevitable.  But if we want to bring salt and light in a wounded and confused world, rigorous self-examination and confession are indispensable disciplines.


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