I was very excited this spring when I was accepted to The New School to get my Master of Arts in Media Studies . Besides that it’s an excellent program, there are a lot of very smart people at The New School – it was founded by people like Charles Beard and John Dewey,  and the list of alumni is basically a who’s who of progressive intellectuals, artists and leaders. When you want to be a part of some greater movement of ideals and thought, it’s good to find a nexus of those thinkers and align yourself with it.

Anyway, there’s a lot of interesting thought that comes out of such a place, like this:

Working with Emanuele Castano, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Leidner investigated how notions of right and wrong are affected by group affiliation. In his experiments, Leidner presented participants with fabricated newspaper articles about military troops accused of atrocities against Iraqi prisoners. One set of subjects read an article in which the offending troops were Australian; another set of subjects received an otherwise identical article in which the soldiers were American. The subjects, all of whom were American, were far more likely to demand justice for the Iraqis when the accused soldiers were Australian. In other words, shared nationality seemed to trump universal morality.

“Basically, what we found is that people don’t have one moral compass, but two: one for the group they’re in, and one for others,” Leidner says. “People shift away from moral principles of justice and fairness toward principles of loyalty and authority.”

Using current, relevant examples, this study clearly demonstrates  what we already know about social identity theory and in-group bias. What Leidner says also suggests that universal morality is inefficient for serving their social group – we develop exceptions to our ethics because it suits our interests. In this case true egalitarianism would merely be an authentic universal morality – applying the same set of principles to everyone. However, this is contrary to our nature when we are manipulated by ignorance and fear from various forces such as nationalism, racism, sexism, etc. We define our identities so rigorously within strict parameters which separate us from other  people – groups align by income, ethnicity, ideology, religion, etc. Unless people physically move to a community (such as historical “utopias” and the modern day developments and neighborhoods, gated or not), their physical community will be much more diverse then they would otherwise care for, and so they find themselves separated by those class and cultural distinctions.

So when people are divided like that, they have develop a substitute community via some means such as civic groups (largely extinct), country clubs in the case of the wealthy, community centers in the case of the poor, and so on. Sometimes, they do that online. But an internet community has significant disadvantages to a localized one – there is something to be said for physical interaction. And there’s somewhat less of a chance to affect one’s regional community if your fellow members or advocates are scattered all across the country. If your group is something large and ambiguous, meant for those in your determined class or culture, the second “moral compass” applies to people you don’t even know. And it works against other people you don’t know. It’s based on assumptions, stereotypes, generalizations, and other weak and flimsy rationalizations.  That’s why personal interaction is so important. It’s also why it’s better to have one compass which works all the time. Unless we’re committed to the idea of tribalism in 2011, we ought to recognize some universal human rights – but doing so requires a universal morality we don’t seem to have… at least not yet.