Human morality is evolving

I want to give some of my final thoughts on   Jonathan Haidt‘s book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In Morality and the “worship” of reason my interim judgement (after reading one third of the book) was favourable – but I had concerns. Now, having finished the book, my judgement overall is very critical. I don’t think it’s a book I can truly recommend (except for the first third).

Partly because I feel Haidt really uses the later parts of the book to promote his own hobby horses – prejudices about atheism (or the “New Atheists” – whoever they are), political ideology and the role of religion in morality and society. But also because his scientific analysis of human morality was too reductionist – in a bad way.

Why badly reductionist?

Throughout the book I was acutely aware Haidt’s analysis was of human morality – as it exists. To his credit, as it exists in several different societies. To me its important philosophically to study things in their environments.

But the big mistake was to study human morality as a static phenomenon – he didn’t investigate it in its development, as a constantly changing, evolving thing. (Again I think the investigation of things in their development is philosophically important).

The fact is human morality in most cultures is evolving. And there are huge factors in today’s world which make this inevitable, probably even escalate moral evolution.

A role for reason in moral evolution?

So yes it is useful for Haidt to draw out two principles in his book:

1: Morality is about emotions, not rationality. Our emotions enable us to react quickly in moral situations and our intelligence enables us to “explain” why after the fact. Haidt’s slogan is “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.”

2: His second slogan is “There’s more to to morality than harm and fairness.” He describes six different foundations underlying human morality:

  • Care/Harm;
  • Liberty/oppression;
  • Fairness/cheating;
  • Loyalty/betrayal;
  • Authority/subversion;
  • Sanctity/degradation.

But he does little to elucidate the role of intelligence and reason in moral change and evolution. He limits this to only the possible education of one person by interacting with another (and hence inhibiting somewhat our inbuilt desire to rationalise rather than reason properly). But ignores the much wider role of society in general, especially in today’s world of modern communication and entertainment, mass entertainment, the internet, etc.

Also, in concentrating on the six different intuitive or instinctive foundations of human morality – as it exists - he does not investigate the relative roles of these intuitions, and their resultant human values, in the evolution of human morality and laws.

How do we change human morality?

Obviously this is not simple. Nor is it always, everywhere, and for everyone a rational process. A result of reasoning, discussion and democratic decision.

But, despite all these other factors we should recognise that reasoning, rational discussion and democratic decisions are involved. Look back over your own life time. In my case I have seen huge evolution in aspects of human morality like attitudes towards discrimination – racial, gender and even species. For the average person in the street these changes may have occurred subconsciously – because of changes in social acceptance of women and gays, of interracial marriage, etc., or because they were habituated to a new morality by what they saw on TV or read in books. But this was also accompanied by the intelligent debate that occurred, and is occurring in society. The challenging of old prejudices. The argument for recognition of human rights, etc. Even the passing of anti-discrimination laws – which of course require intelligent discussion and decision.

So while a static view of human morality must emphasise that emotion comes first, rationalisation after, when we look at the evolution of human morality in today’s society we must recognise an important role for reason, intelligent discussion and decisions.  So, I think there is a lot of value in Haidt’s metaphor comparing our subconscious feelings and emotions to an elephant -(which usually goes its own way) and our conscious and intelligent reasoning to its driver (who thinks he is in control). But using that metaphor there are times when those drivers can educate the elephant. Train it out of old habits and into new ones.

What role for Haidt’s moral foundation theory?

And what role do the six foundations of morality Haidt identifies play in the the evolution of human morality. Well of course they operate at the non-conscious, non-reasoning, emotional level – and continue to. But when it comes to intelligent collective discussion and deliberation of moral issues I don’t think they have the same importance.

Yes, citizens of a specific nation may argue for recognition of authority, loyalty and purity when it comes to discussing laws and acceptable behaviour regarding oaths, respect for the national flag, etc. But in a modern, pluralist society such foundations will not play the same role when consider laws and behaviour on blasphemy, defamation of religion, genital mutilation, freedom of speech, freedom of association, marriage equality, gender equality, discrimination, rights of individuals, etc. When we come to applying reasoning and rational discussion to human issues the values based on the foundation of harm and care will be dominant.

That’s not to say the values based on purity, authority, sacredness, etc., won’t be involved. Just that in a modern pluralist democratic society these cannot play a controlling role. Partly this is just a fact of the way democracy must work in a pluralist society. Minorities should not get the freedom to override and dominate majorities. But it is also based on the reality that there is actually a more objective basis for the foundations of harm and care than there is for the other foundations. That objective basis is fundamental to biological life (how could it be otherwise – life would not have survived and evolved without these objective biological values).

Looked at this way – seeing human morality in its development and not as a static phenomenon – leads, I think, to quite different conclusions to those drawn by Haidt. He sees liberals as being at a disadvantage because they give more relevance to the foundations of care/harm, Liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating than conservatives who actually include, and give similar emphasis to the other foundations (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation). He argues that therefore conservative understand human morality better than liberals and politically they communicate better with others.

But I see conservatives as playing an undermining role in the development, evolution, of human morality because they are actually less concerned with the values based on care/harm liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating than on those values which are in fact secondary, do not have an objective basis, which are based on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.   And I suggest that if we look back over our own lifetimes we can see that in fact political conservative have generally not lead movements for moral progress. They have worked to undermine moral progress by appealing to those secondary, less basic, foundations.

Atheists who promote religion?

It turns out that Haidt is another one of these atheists who actually see a positive role for religion and therefore are hostile to the so-called “New Atheists’ and others critical of the role of relgion in today’s society. They wish these “strident,” and “militant” atheists would STFU – because they feel such criticism undermines the very foundation of social cohesiveness and human morality.

Haidt uses (opportunistically and unthinkingly I think) a model of group selection to justify a determining role for religion in preserving society. Let the evolutionary biologists take him to task over that one. But it enables him to advance the slogan “Morality binds and blinds,” to substitute religion for morality as a force which provides our social glue and leadership.

He expresses it this way:

“Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are meshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarilty on the elephant to influence your behaviour. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. …… When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide . …”

And he warns atheists:

“Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).”

Again, let those who are concerned about the populations explosion, limited resources and ecological damage to our environment deal with that last sentence. But, personally I think his approach is cowardly and unrealistic (as well as unjustifiable righteous).

Cowardly because it expresses fear about the changes in human morality and moral understanding already underway. And unrealistic because it appeals to old institutions and beliefs to solve new problems in new situations. Yes, this does mean that more people will be appealing to their own inner moral compass – but when has development of a sense of moral autonomy been a bad thing.  And yes there will be, already are, new institutions and new communities. That is inevitable in a modern society with modern forms of communication and creation of communities. And modern understandings where appeal to supernatural guidance is far less effective.

Yes that does mean the old religious moral exoskeletons may disappear. But I don’t think moral exoskeletons in general will. In fact I think we are creating new ones all the time. And perhaps the much hated “New Atheists” are encouraging formation of these new exoskeletons by their activity.

Human society and human morality is not static. They will inevitably evolve. And our investigations of morality this should recognise this evolution.

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7 responses to “Human morality is evolving

  1. I just finished The Moral Landscape and want to read other authors on the subject. Harris is very critical of Haidt, and based on your excellent review, I might be too, so now I feel I must read him firsthand. And I think the slow turnover of resources in some countries is deliberately aimed at stabilizing their economies, as in the case of Norway, no? And low birth rates aren’t necessarily a bad thing where overpopulation seriously threatens the lives of billions of people. I look forward to reading it.

    Best,
    N

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  2. Erravangu, If you haven’t already I suggest possibly reading Haidt’s previous book “The Happiness Hypothesis.” He has basically repeated it in the first part of this later book but there is the advantage of the fact they he did not get into as much political comments or so strongly seek to justify religion. Nor to attack atheism in the way he does now.

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  3. Erravangu is clearly best ignored.

    The moral framework that she describes juxtaposed on the 20th century post-war landscape in the context of the feminist paradigm transcribed to 21th Century metaphysical landscape has limited bandwidth for the current mindset

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