Haidt Hype

In an article entitled Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, Jonathan Haidt demonstrates a misunderstanding of New Atheism and, in my opinion, of what should determine moral behavior.

Haidt’s description of moral psychology blurs the distinction between personal emotionality and moral philosophy. Haidt dismisses rational moral systems as too slow, in comparison to gut reactions, to determine behaviour: “Reasoning by its very nature is slow, playing out in seconds.”

Haidt appears to be conveniently ignoring the fact that seconds rank as fast enough to override emotional responses so that our behaviour can be governed by our cognition rather than by every passing emotion. Most people regard this ability as associated with socialization, emotional maturity, and self-control.

Haidt’s description of studies performed for his dissertation demonstrate self-fulfilling experimental bias: “I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.” Needless to say, Haidt found what he was looking for: “I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied.”

We Westerners are accustomed to viewing dogs as beloved pets and would react with disgust to this story—after all, the story was designed to disgust. Substitute “pig” or “lamb” for “dog” and the semi-cannibalistic element of the moral story diminishes considerably. In Asia, dogs are considered a food group, so I’d predict that Vietnamese Americans might not have reacted with disgust to this practical, harm-no-animal, meal. In essence, emotive reactions are culturally governed and even though emotion might kick in more quickly than cognitive assessment of this story, the cognition— that dogs are family members—was established by custom before the aversive reaction could occur.

Haidt classifies the criteria for assessing morality: the classically recognized parameters of harm/care and fairness/justice, plus Haidt’s s proposed additional parameter of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.

The inclusion of these additional parameters, which seem to govern conservative moralizing attitudes, lead Haidt to the mistaken conclusion that morality is equated with religion. Yes, the Abrahamic religious systems include moralistic rules, and, yes, the Abrahamic religions have flourished by emphasizing community, but this does not mean that religion is the only route to moral behaviour or community involvement.

Conservative insistence on giving primacy to the moral codes of ancient Israel too often runs counter to harm/care and fairness/justice to truly represent moral attitudes. Too often, conservatives clearly act solely under the dictates of emotional reactivity or inculcated absolutes without any regard for potential harm or injustice. Even Haidt would probably not argue that killing others in the name of fundamentalist religious dogma hardly qualifies as moral behavior. Loyalty, respect, and sanctity are not necessarily good guides to moral behavior because those who claim to have moral authority may be manipulating believers to serve the claimants personal economic or political ends.

Haidt focuses on the group survival advantage of religious belief to criticize Dawkins’ New Atheist position. I have not yet read Dawkins, but PZ Myers states that Dawkins did not summarily dismiss group selection, as Haidt would have us believe. I shall have to read Dawkins and judge for myself. Regardless of what Dawkins actually said, it strikes me that in large, post-agricultural societies religion probably best served rulers and priests rather than the society’s individuals. Some South American religious superstitions, which involved ever increasing human sacrifice during times of stress, could hardly be said to have ensured group survival.

Elsewhere : PZ Myers Hmmm...I found the moral philosophy of chimps more convincing :

Video : Haidt's presentation at Enlightenment 2.0, where he explains his research into moral thinking and makes a good argument as to why liberals need to borrow the conservative lesson regarding in-group solidarity to defeat the enemy,


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