Deep roots

I dug a maple stump out of my front lawn. Not a particularly huge stump. We had planted the tree when we moved to this house in 1993, so it was only 18 years old. But it acquired an incurable fungus infection. This spring, no leaves came out. The tree had to come down.

I dug a maple stump out of my front lawn. Not a particularly huge stump. We had planted the tree when we moved to this house in 1993, so it was only 18 years old. But it acquired an incurable fungus infection. This spring, no leaves came out. The tree had to come down.

I started work with naive enthusiasm. I’ll cut through the surface layer of roots, I thought. Then the stump will come out easily.

Not likely! By the time I got down to the bottom-most roots, I stood in a pit as deep as my hip joints.

So I have added a new maxim to my collection of wisdom sayings – “Underneath every large root lies a bigger root.”

I offer that insight to anyone dealing with conflict resolution.

Because it seems to me, from my experience, that one can spend months analyzing factors that contribute to conflict, negotiating agreements, working towards reconciliation… Only to find that the problem hasn’t been resolved at all.

It has merely shifted to a deeper root.

The people involved seem to share the same values. They can talk rationally. They understand the principles of conflict resolution.

Yet it’s almost as if they’re talking past each other.

Perhaps they are.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (of the University of Virginia) has studied the moral values by which we make decisions. He claims that there are five dominant values, found in all societies and civilizations:

1. Care for others, avoiding harm.

2. Fairness, justice, treating others equally.

3. Loyalty to one’s group, family, nation.

4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority.

5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, and actions.

But we each rank those values differently in importance. According to Haidt, people who identify themselves as liberals tend to give priority to the first two values; people who consider themselves conservatives are more likely to lean on the last three.

More specifically, conservatives ranked fairness lowest; liberals ranked purity lowest.

As a result, wrote professors Jane Dryden of Mount Allison University and Mark White of the College of Staten Island, “The two sides have difficulty understanding each other. It’s not just that they disagree on issues, they have significantly different ways of conceiving morality itself.”

Both sides assume that their ranking of values makes the only possible common sense. In fact, state Dryden and White, “They are deeply at odds with each other.”

They offer three potential scenarios. Some will argue that practical decisions should promote the greatest good of the greatest number. For others, more focused on duty and universal principles, it will seem self-evident that respect for individual rights must take priority. A third group, whom Dryden and White call “care ethicists,” will see social contexts and relationships as paramount.

For this third group, the “impersonal calculations” of the other two “can seem excessively cold and unfeeling.”

“While our own moral principles are obvious to us,” Dryden and White conclude, “they’re not obvious to everyone.”

The deeper the root, the harder it is to dig down to.


Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments;

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