The New Science of Morality: A Secular Argument for Cultural Competition


Last week, I came across an interesting talk by psychologist Jonathan Haidt called “The New Science of Morality” (via Arnold Kling).

Haidt is well known for his research on the evolution of morality through cultural and political lenses (he has authored two books on the subject), and he provides a good introduction to his views in this discussion.

You can watch the video here:

If you’re not in the mood to watch all 28 minutes, Haidt’s basic view on cultural formation is this:

I just briefly want to say, I think it’s also crucial, as long as you’re going to be a nativist and say, “oh, you know, evolution, it’s innate,” you also have to be a constructivist. I’m all in favor of reductionism, as long as it’s paired with emergentism. You’ve got to be able to go down to the low level, but then also up to the level of institutions and cultural traditions and, you know, all kinds of local factors.

Unlike this blog, Haidt believes in biological evolution, and likewise he takes a purely secular approach to discussing cultural evolution. However, his perspective is well worth considering, particularly because his conclusion points to political solution involving cultural competition.

A big part of Haidt’s talk revolves around how humanity should deal with an “ineradicable” confirmation bias.

…[W]hy is reasoning so biased and motivated whenever self-interest or self-presentation are at stake?  Wouldn’t it be adaptive to know the truth in social situations, before you then try to manipulate?

The answer, according to [Hugo] Mercier and [Dan] Sperber, is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments…So, as they put it…”The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

When it comes to matters related to morality, Haidt argues, these tendencies don’t disappear:

…[M]orality is like The Matrix [the movie]. It’s a consensual hallucination. And if we only hang out with people who share our matrix, then we can be quite certain that, together, we will find a lot of evidence to support our matrix, and to condemn members of other matrices.

As an example, Haidt points to a conflict in the history of moral philosophy, which he poses as a tension between the schools of Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant (or, what Haidt calls, “Attack of the Systemizers”):

Because philosophy went this way, into hyper-systemizing, and because moral psychology in the 20th century followed them…I think we ended up violating the two giant warning flags that I talked about …We took WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic] morality to be representative of human morality, and we’ve placed way too much emphasis on reasoning, treating it as though it was capable of independently seeking out moral truth.

So, if Haidt is right (and I think he’s wrong on plenty of points), what is the appropriate conclusion we should make? What is his solution?

We’ve got to be very, very cautious about bias. I believe that morality has to be understood as a largely tribal phenomenon, at least in its origins. By its very nature, morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups.

And as I said before, nearly all of us doing this work [in social psychology] are secular Liberals. And that means that we’re at very high risk of misunderstanding those moralities that are not our own. If we were judges working on a case, we’d pretty much all have to recuse ourselves. But we’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to just be extra careful to seek out critical views, to study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing.

Jonathan Haidt

Haidt: "Morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups."

Haidt is making a fundamental argument about the scientific approach within his field, but for secularists who see the world similarly, I think his argument has positive implications when it comes to building a proper political framework.

As Christians, I don’t think we can go so far as to say that morality is a “largely tribal phenomenon” (at least, not if we’re talking about God’s absolute definition), but that doesn’t mean we are immune to tribal forces. As we all know, wordly norms creep into the Church far more often than they should.

Similar to Haidt’s argument for the sciences, I would like to go further and argue that having explicit cultural competition in (a political sense) is the healthiest option for the Church if we are to remain truly divorced from worldly definitions of morality.

As far as which system is optimal for that kind of competition, I think you already know what I think.

It’s pretty clear which approach Haidt would advocate in the sciences, but I’m curious as to whether he would prefer radical federalism when it comes to cultural competition in the public sphere.

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