Seeking moral wisdom? UAB philosopher offers tips to boost moral enlightenment

Key to moral insight is taking a proactive approach to understanding different perspectives, such as befriending opponents and practicing mindfulness.

Moral Wisdom StreamKey to moral insight is taking a proactive approach to understanding different perspectives, such as befriending opponents and practicing mindfulness. In a polarized world filled with confrontation and diverse perspectives, understanding where to stand morally can be challenging. One philosopher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is shedding light on ways to seek ethical wisdom in his recent work published in Psyche.

According to Josh May, Ph.D., professor in the UAB College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Philosophy, changes in values do not come easily or often. But moral insight can be helped along with transformational events, such as falling in love, becoming a parent, serving in the military and learning about diverse perspectives in college.

“Transformative experiences change our knowledge of the facts and our values,” May said. “Many life-changing experiences, such as battling cancer or losing a loved one, are tragic; but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways to cultivate moral insight through more positive experiences.”

Here are some methods May encourages when seeking wisdom on controversial moral issues that divide us.

Escape Echo Chambers


May says that enlightenment and understanding can arise from intentionally seeking opposing views and recognizing one’s own political allegiances and biases.

“If we seek moral knowledge on controversial issues, it is crucial to be willing to escape our own echo chambers,” May said.

As philosopher C. Thi Nugyen puts it, being in an echo chamber amounts to “wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and webpages and social media feeds.” May emphasizes that the effort has to be deliberate and personal.

Although May believes in the power of ideas, expanding one’s sources of information is not enough. May, who teaches courses like Contemporary Moral Issues, says people rarely change their minds about politics just by becoming aware of opposing ideas and arguments.

Moral Wisdom InsideMake Human Connections

Building connections with individuals who differ from oneself is crucial for appreciating alternative points of view, according to May. “Only when you appreciate different people can you come to appreciate their differing ideas.”

May recommends talking politics, but doing so respectfully. “It’s not easy,” May said. “Blood often boils when we talk about controversial issues, but having more productive conversations is the only way to truly step outside of bubbles that confirm our current values.”

Expand Your Moral Circle

“Expanding one’s moral horizons can also be done alone,” May said. Meditation is one example, as it can help develop intellectual virtues like self-awareness, humility and empathy.

In a stressful political environment, the human brain is particularly liable to wander and dwell on self-centered thoughts. Meditation helps alter that network, opening the mind to seek more meaning by being present in the moment and connecting with others.

“Even if meditation alone doesn’t lead to moral insight, research increasingly suggests that contemplative practices help ready the mind for new perspectives,” May said.

While seeking moral wisdom, May emphasizes that it is important to be careful. Transformative experiences are powerful and can radicalize. He suggests the best ways to avoid a moral regression are to start small and rely on methods that avoid tribalistic us-versus-them attitudes and instead expand one’s circle of moral concern.