Jonathan Haidt on the "Five Foundations" of Morality
September 11, 2007 5:06 PM   Subscribe

"From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures [Edge.org]... there were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality [embedded video], beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition...); authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying...), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.

"...It might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good, modern, creative and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism, fascism, and patriarchy. And, on balance, I agree that liberal contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations (although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity problems).

"I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists pause: surveys have long showed that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right." [$1000 prize for those who can expand or refine the five foundations, scroll down to #2. Previously]
posted by McLir (19 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I adhere to a morality based on freedom/liberty, which I acknowledge to be absolutely irrational. Maybe liberty should play some role here? I don't know.
posted by nasreddin at 5:11 PM on September 11, 2007


One problem with his argument is that really, morality is not about "social doing." It's about individual doing. Morality, to mean anything, should be able to shape individual ethics, individual behavior. But I won't be prevented from killing an old lady with an axe simply because the well-ordered functioning of society demands I don't: I may have an antagonistic relationship to society at large, or I may see myself as unique or exempt, or I may want to convert society to my own way of running things.

Hence this definition still doesn't manage to turn an is into an ought.
posted by nasreddin at 5:21 PM on September 11, 2007


I think the reason that religious people are happier is because of group participation in a common system of meaning.

That's really what religion is all about, and why...there is no escape. If you don't have a religion, you'll go out and make one up.
posted by wuwei at 5:23 PM on September 11, 2007


Where does reciprocal altruism fit in all of this?
posted by Falconetti at 5:38 PM on September 11, 2007


Nevermind, posted too soon, he discusses it in his article.
posted by Falconetti at 5:39 PM on September 11, 2007


And all of these theories are untestable. Awesome!
posted by delmoi at 6:04 PM on September 11, 2007


This link shows some of the experimentation used.
posted by McLir at 6:13 PM on September 11, 2007


Jonathan Haidt interview in The Believer.

It's a useful insight that liberals and conservatives aren't even talking about the same thing when they talk about "morality".
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:30 PM on September 11, 2007


religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people

Happier, because they are taught in church that Jesus makes you happy, and therefore they dutifully report their happiness on survey instruments that ask things like, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?" Healthier, because they are often prohibited from using things like alcohol and tobacco. Charitable, because church donations are charitable contributions in and of themselves. Mormons, for instance must give 10% of their income to their church to have access to Mormon temples. No wonder Utah ranks so high in charitable giving. Saying that religious people give more to charity in the US than secular people is not far from saying that religious people give more to religion in the US.

In short, most of what we "know" about the positive effects of religion on well-being is probably based on spurious correlation. But it makes headlines, and it is flooding into mainstream academic venues because religious types with big money are attempting to science, particularly social science.
posted by Crotalus at 6:56 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Also, while it is almost certainly the case that humans have an innate need to distinguish between "us and them" and "right and wrong," who constitutes the "us" and what is considered "right" is almost completely socially constructed.
posted by Crotalus at 6:59 PM on September 11, 2007


I've always relied on my saintliness for my moral authority.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:04 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


surveys have long showed that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.
The charities they support, however, are far more frequently focused on helping others as a means to perpetuate their beliefs. This, in fact, is one of the biggest conflicts between secular and 'faith-based' charities. If a religious person genuinely desires to help others for the sake of helping others (or even for the sake of privately pleasing God), there's nothing to prevent them from participating in 'secular' pursuits.

The strong push to emphasize 'faith based' charities in this country, however, betrays the fundamental difference of purpose that often poisons the act of religious charity.
posted by verb at 7:50 PM on September 11, 2007


Which is to say, much 'charity' on the part of religious individuals really belongs to the 'taking care of one's own tribe and converting outsiders' category. This is a fine basis for things as long as we're willing to accept monoculture.
posted by verb at 7:52 PM on September 11, 2007


Haidt does point out: "Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities" [my emphasis].
posted by McLir at 7:53 PM on September 11, 2007


Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors.

Very sly. And very different from saying something like, as religiosity (however measured) increases, giving to secular charity increases. 90+ percent of Americans profess to believe in God. That puts me, for instance, in the "religious believer" camp.
posted by Crotalus at 8:02 PM on September 11, 2007


Also . . . if there are cohort effects showing that each successive generation contains fewer "religious believers" than the one before (a secularization effect), then one would expect that religiosity would be correlated with greater levels of charitable giving because younger generations have less disposable income. Again, I think most of these effects are spurious. I've read lots of the primary literature in this area in my field, and I find much of it to be rather sloppy. I'm not a psychologist so I haven't seen the primary sources Haidt is relying on . . . but I have my suspicions.
posted by Crotalus at 8:09 PM on September 11, 2007


I'm not sure what exactly he's saying that's new here. That people passionately devoted to something tend to have trouble taking an objective view on the topic? That the "New Atheists", as Haidt calls Dawkins and his fellow "Brights", display some of the same dogmatic and group impulses that they rail against in the religious? Has this guy spent any time reading any online forum discussion on religion? He could have derived that conclusion in 10 minutes.

What else? People often make emotion-based decisions that they justify post-hoc, but that it's possible (though difficult) to override our initial gut intuitions? Isn't that just a universally known part of growing up, that you need to learn to control and analyze your actions and behaviors and think about your views and actions, and that people often think they're more reasonable and rational than they really are?

I mean, I liked the article and all, but he's not saying anything novel. And he seems to be misunderstanding the arguments the atheists are making. For instance, he lists 3 "strawmen" used by atheists: that religion is a set of beliefs about the world instead of ritual and community, that believers take their holy texts literally when in reality studies show most believers (even fundamentalists) are pretty flexible about their texts and really use them to justify their behaviors, and that atheists flatly deny any adaptive benefits religion might confer. But while his statements are true, they miss the point: that it's exactly these post-hoc mystical justifications layered over the underlying reality he identifies that is the problem to be solved.

Religious people simply seeking to keep their traditions and rituals and community alive wouldn't bother anyone. It's the justification of their set of rituals as the truth about the world that causes harm. If religious people presented their religious texts as really helpful guides to life filled with good suggestions that you could take as you wanted, they'd be no more troublesome than your average self-help enthusiast. But it's exactly the professed literalism, and the enforcement of it despite the fact that the professors themselves don't follow it, that causes conflict. The last one is the one where he has the best point. It seems to me to be extremely biased to say that religious behavior has no culturally adaptive benefit or that it never helped anything, and perhaps the more militant atheists need to acknowledge that.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:13 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


i've always relied on my saltiness for my moral authority.
posted by CitizenD at 11:29 PM on September 11, 2007


"It's about individual doing. Morality, to mean anything, should be able to shape individual ethics, individual behavior. But I won't be prevented from killing an old lady with an axe simply because the well-ordered functioning of society demands I don't: I may have an antagonistic relationship to society at large, or I may see myself as unique or exempt, or I may want to convert society to my own way of running things."

You are so WESTERN!
posted by klangklangston at 10:23 AM on September 12, 2007


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