Are conservatives more morally balanced?

Only marginally related to the post, but a great image just the same – from turtblu on Flickr

Readers with prodigious memories may recall a post I wrote a couple of years ago about the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt on the cognitive basis for human morality.  Haidt has developed a model he calls “social intuitionism”.  Here’s my amateur summary from the 2006 post:

Haidt and Bjorklund 1 are decisively in the intuitionist camp, though  basing  their arguments very much on empirical research in cognitive psychology (including their own research).   Their theory certainly seems (at least to this non-expert)  solidly grounded in current cognitive science research.   They claim that human moral behaviour emanates from a set of moral intuitions that are hard-wired into the brain and therefore identifiable across all human cultures, albeit that their precise shape is strongly influenced and moulded by social and cultural factors during a childs development.   They also argue that the initial moral flash of intuition that precedes every individual moral decision may be modified by social factors at the time.   However, that social influence is anything but a process of intellectual reasoning in the vast majority of cases.   The process is  little more than the outworking of our desire to fit our moral decision-making into a consensus of the community or peer group of which we  see ourselves  as part: the morality of the herd.

The vast majority of what passes for moral reasoning is in reality no more than post hoc justification of decisions actually already reached on an intuitive basis, a conclusion that doesnt look promising for idealistic political theories like  Habermass  concepts of communicative rationality and deliberative democracy.   That wont come as  a  huge  surprise to  readers of political blogs, a domain where (like political discourse generally)  bloggers and commenters mostly just  shout past each other (however civilly)  from entrenched, predetermined positions.

According to Haidt and Bjorklund, the brains  intuitive innate moral modules are also  eminently susceptible to triggering and therefore manipulation by the way in which a moral (or political) issue is framed (ref Tversky and Kahneman in economics, Sunstein from a more specifically moral perspective), a proposition that also wont come as a surprise to marketing gurus or political spin doctors.

Haidt and Bjorklund identify 5 specific innate moral modules in the human brain:

  • Harm (a sensitivity to or dislike of signs of pain and suffering in others);
  • Reciprocity (a set of emotional responses related to playing tit-for-tat, such as negative responses to those who fail to repay favors);
  • Hierarchy (a set of concerns about navigating status hierarchies, for example anger towards those who fail to display proper signs of deference and respect);
  • Concerns about purity (related to the emotion of disgust, necessary for explaining why so many moral rules relate to food, sex, menstruation, and the handling of corpses); and
  • Concerns about boundaries between ingroup and outgroup .

Now it seems that the mainstream media has caught onto Haidt’s work.  He has become a pet subject for op-ed pundits.  See, for example, this NY Times article by Nicholas Wade and this one only a few weeks ago by Steven Pinker.  Pinker’s article is especially worth reading, covering a vast range of work in the social sciences in an accessible and entertaining way.  I suppose it isn’t surprising that Pinker should be enamoured of Haidt’s work.  After all, Pinker’s main claim to fame is as a populariser of Noam Chomsky’s theory that a “universal grammar” is hard-wired into human brains, and so a theory like Haidt’s arguing that a basic moral structure is also hard-wired into our brains is very likely to meet with his approval (perhaps he experienced a moral intuition to that effect, and engaged in post hoc reasoning with a bit of confirmation bias thrown in …).

The one aspect of Pinker’s article I found jarring, however, was this passage:

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. Its not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

My first reaction was to wonder whether Pinker’s rather right wing political views might be causing him to misrepresent Haidt’s arguments.  However, some further Googling revealed that these really were Haidt’s conclusions.  In this article from Edge, Haidt explains his argument at some length.  Here is a substantial extract for those who don’t have time to read the whole thing:

My UVA colleagues Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and I have collected data from about 7,000 people so far on a survey designed to measure people’s endorsement of these five foundations 2. In every sample we’ve looked at, in the United States and in other Western countries, we find that people who self-identify as liberals endorse moral values and statements related to the two individualizing foundations primarily, whereas self-described conservatives endorse values and statements related to all five foundations. It seems that the moral domain encompasses more for conservativesit’s not just about Gilligan’s care and Kohlberg’s justice. It’s also about Durkheim’s issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority, and sacredness.

I hope you’ll accept that as a purely descriptive statement. You can still reject the three binding foundations normativelythat is, you can still insist that ingroup, authority, and purity refer to ancient and dangerous psychological systems that underlie fascism, racism, and homophobia, and you can still claim that liberals are right to reject those foundations and build their moral systems using primarily the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations.

But just go with me for a moment that there is this difference, descriptively, between the moral worlds of secular liberals on the one hand and religious conservatives on the other.  There are, of course, many other groups, such as the religious left and the libertarian right, but I think it’s fair to say that the major players in the new religion wars are secular liberals criticizing religious conservatives. Because the conflict is a moral conflict, we should be able to apply the four principles of the new synthesis in moral psychology.

In what follows I will take it for granted that religion is a part of the natural world that is appropriately studied by the the methods of science. Whether or not God exists (and as an atheist I personally doubt it), religiosity is an enormously important fact about our species. There must be some combination of evolutionary, developmental, neuropsychological, and anthropological theories that can explain why human religious practices take the various forms that they do, many of which are so similar across cultures and eras. I will also take it for granted that religious fundamentalists, and most of those who argue for the existence of God, illustrate the first three principles of moral psychology (intuitive primacy, post-hoc reasoning guided by utility, and a strong sense of belonging to a group bound together by shared moral commitments).

But because the new atheists talk so much about the virtues of science and our shared commitment to reason and evidence, I think it’s appropriate to hold them to a higher standard than their opponents. Do these new atheist books model the scientific mind at its best? Or do they reveal normal human beings acting on the basis of their normal moral psychology?

1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. It’s clear that Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (in Letter To A Christian Nation) have strong feelings about religion in general and religious fundamentalists in particular. Given the hate mail they receive, I don’t blame them. The passions of Dawkins and Harris don’t mean that they are wrong, or that they can’t be trusted. One can certainly do good scholarship on slavery while hating slavery.

But the presence of passions should alert us that the authors, being human, are likely to have great difficulty searching for and then fairly evaluating evidence that opposes their intuitive feelings about religion. We can turn to Dawkins and Harris to make the case for the prosecution, which they do brilliantly, but if we readers are to judge religion we will have to find a defense attorney. Or at least we’ll have to let the accused speak.

2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is where the scientific mind is supposed to depart from the lay mind. The normal person (once animated by emotion) engages in moral reasoning to find ammunition, not truth; the normal person attacks the motives and character of her opponents when it will be advantageous to do so. The scientist, in contrast, respects empirical evidence as the ultimate authority and avoids ad hominem arguments. The metaphor for science is a voyage of discovery, not a war. Yet when I read the new atheist books, I see few new shores. Instead I see battlefields strewn with the corpses of straw men. To name three:

a) The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death.

b) The new atheists assume that believers, particularly fundamentalists, take their sacred texts literally. Yet ethnographies of fundamentalist communities (such as James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh) show that even when people claim to be biblical literalists, they are in fact quite flexible, drawing on the bible selectivelyor ignoring itto justify humane and often quite modern responses to complex social situations.

c) The new atheists all review recent research on religion and conclude that it is an evolutionary byproduct, not an adaptation. They compare religious sentiments to moths flying into candle flames, ants whose brains have been hijacked for a parasite’s benefit, and cold viruses that are universal in human societies. This denial of adaptation is helpful for their argument that religion is bad for people, even when people think otherwise.

I quite agree with these authors’ praise of the work of Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, who have shown how belief in supernatural entities may indeed be an accidental output of cognitive systems that otherwise do a good job of identifying objects and agents. Yet even if belief in gods was initially a byproduct, as long as such beliefs had consequences for behavior then it seems likely that natural selection operated upon phenotypic variation and favored the success of individuals and groups that found ways (genetic or cultural or both) to use these gods to their advantage, for example as commitment devices that enhanced cooperation, trust, and mutual aid.

3) Morality binds and builds. Dawkins is explicit that his goal is to start a movement, to raise consciousness, and to arm atheists with the arguments they’ll need to do battle with believers. The view that “we” are virtuous and our opponents are evil is a crucial step in uniting people behind a cause, and there is plenty of that in the new atheist books. A second crucial step is to identify traitors in our midst and punish or humiliate them. There is some of that too in these booksatheists who defend the utility of religion or who argue for disengagement or détente between science and religion are compared to Chamberlain and his appeasement of Hitler.

To my mind an irony of Dawkins’ position is that he reveals a kind of religious orthodoxy in his absolute rejection of group selection. David Sloan Wilson has supplemented Durkheim’s view of religion (as being primarily about group cohesion) with evolutionary analyses to propose that religion was the conduit that pulled humans through a “major transition” in evolutionary history.

Dawkins, along with George Williams and most critics of group selection, acknowledge that natural selection works on groups as well as on individuals, and that group selection is possible in principle. But Dawkins relies on Williams’ argument that selection pressures at the individual level are, in practice, always stronger than those at the group level: free riders will always undercut Darwin’s suggestion that morality evolved because virtuous groups outcompeted selfish groups.

Wilson, however, in Darwin’s Cathedral, makes the case that culture in general and religion in particular change the variables in Williams’ analysis. Religions and their associated practices greatly increase the costs of defection (through punishment and ostracism), increase the contributions of individuals to group efforts (through cultural and emotional mechanisms that increase trust), and sharpen the boundaries biological and cultural between groups. Throw in recent discoveries that genetic evolution can work much faster than previously supposed, and the widely respected work of Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd on cultural group selection, and suddenly the old consensus against group selection is outdated.

It’s time to examine the question anew. Yet Dawkins has referred to group selection in interviews as a “heresy,” and in The God Delusion he dismisses it without giving a reason. In chapter 5 he states the standard Williams free rider objection, notes the argument that religion is a way around the Williams objection, concedes that Darwin believed in group selection, and then moves on. Dismissing a credible position without reasons, and calling it a heresy (even if tongue in cheek), are hallmarks of standard moral thinking, not scientific thinking.

4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris gives us a standard liberal definition of morality: “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.” He then goes on to show that the Bible and the Koran, taken literally, are immoral books because they’re not primarily about happiness and suffering, and in many places they advocate harming people.

Reading Harris is like watching professional wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s great fun, with lots of acrobatics, but it must not be mistaken for an actual contest. If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins. So here’s my definition of morality, which gives each side a chance to make its case:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

In my research I have found that there are two common ways that cultures suppress and regulate selfishness, two visions of what society is and how it ought to work. I’ll call them the contractual approach and the beehive approach.

The contractual approach takes the individual as the fundamental unit of value. The fundamental problem of social life is that individuals often hurt each other, and so we create implicit social contracts and explicit laws to foster a fair, free, and safe society in which individuals can pursue their interests and develop themselves and their relationships as they choose.

Morality is about happiness and suffering (as Harris says, and as John Stuart Mill said before him), and so contractualists are endlessly trying to fine-tune laws, reinvent institutions, and extend new rights as circumstances change in order to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. To build a contractual morality, all you need are the two individualizing foundations: harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity. The other three foundations, and any religion that builds on them, run afoul of the prime directive: let people make their own choices, as long as they harm nobody else.

The beehive approach, in contrast, takes the group and its territory as fundamental sources of value. Individual bees are born and die by the thousands, but the hive lives for a long time, and each individual has a role to play in fostering its success.The two fundamental problems of social life are attacks from outside and subversion from within. Either one can lead to the death of the hive, so all must pull together, do their duty, and be willing to make sacrifices for the group. Bees don’t have to learn how to behave in this way but human children do, and this is why cultural conservatives are so heavily focused on what happens in schools, families, and the media.

Conservatives generally have a more pessimistic view of human nature than do liberals. They are more likely to believe that if you stand back and give kids space to grow as they please, they’ll grow into shallow, self-centered, undisciplined pleasure seekers. Cultural conservatives work hard to cultivate moral virtues based on the three binding foundations: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity, as well as on the universally employed foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. The beehive ideal is not a world of maximum freedom, it is a world of order and tradition in which people are united by a shared moral code that is effectively enforced, which enables people to trust each other to play their interdependent roles. It is a world of very high social capital and low anomie.

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, as a secular liberal I agree that 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 shown 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.

Don’t dismiss religion on the basis of a superficial reading of the Bible and the newspaper. Might religious communities offer us insights into human flourishing? Can they teach us lessons that would improve wellbeing even in a primarily contractualist society.


  1. Haidt’s then co-author[]
  2. i.e. the five “moral modules” I explained earlier – KP[]

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Patrick not the Patrick above
Patrick not the Patrick above
16 years ago

Good God Ken, I’ll comment on that when I finish reading it…hopefully before Easter!

Thanks, though, for an interesting post.

16 years ago

Dunno. Sounds like self-contradictory piffle to me.

In every sample weve looked at, in the United States and in other Western countries, we find that people who self-identify as liberals endorse moral values and statements related to the two individualizing foundations primarily, whereas self-described conservatives endorse values and statements related to all five foundations. It seems that the moral domain encompasses more for conservatives…

Claim 1: There’s an objective difference between the thoughts and actions of “liberals” and “conservatives”.

Dawkins is explicit that his goal is to start a movement, to raise consciousness, and to arm atheists with the arguments theyll need to do battle with believers. The view that we are virtuous and our opponents are evil is a crucial step in uniting people behind a cause, and there is plenty of that in the new atheist books. A second crucial step is to identify traitors in our midst and punish or humiliate them. There is some of that too in these booksatheists who defend the utility of religion or who argue for disengagement or d

Ingolf Eide
16 years ago

Lovely post, Ken. Great topic and nicely presented.

I’ve read a little of Haidt’s work before and find it intriguing and, so far at least, quite convincing. Perhaps relatively dispassionate analysis of this kind can help in taking a more nuanced view of the issues that arise whenever the topic of belief vs non-belief is raised.

16 years ago

“surveys have long shown 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”

I’d like to see that backed up. I’ve read the opposite, especially wrt health and long-life, and also likelihood to end up in jail.

I don’t even know how you’d accurately measure “more generous to charity”, seeing as I can well believe that religious people are more likely to overstate (consciously or otherwise) how much they donate to charity than the non-religious.

16 years ago

Happiness I didn’t question. But “happiness” can come from taking drugs, which might not be all that different to the sort of “happiness” you get from religious belief.

16 years ago

Just throwing this into the ring…

Sociologists have long drawn a connection between happiness and the sense of community inherent to most religious practice. Lisa Pearce, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, said religion can indeed contribute to happiness, but she cautioned that the converse also can hold true.

“It’s easier for kids who are happy and have things going well in their life to find the time and energy to participate in religion,” said Pearce, co-principal investigator for the National Study of Youth and Religion. “It could be kids who have bad experiences in church end up leaving and being unhappy with religion.”

16 years ago
16 years ago

I’ve read some more, and I retract my earlier “I dunno”. I will assert instead that Haidt is full of shit.

On the July 25, 2005 episode of The Daily Show, liberal host Jon Stewart tried in vain to convince conservative U. S. Senator Rick Santorum that banning gay marriage was an injustice. Quickly realizing the futility of this effort, Stewart remarked, It is so funny; you know whats so interesting about this is ultimately you end up getting to this point, this crazy stopping point
where literally we cant get any further. I dont think youre a bad dude, I dont think Im a bad dude, but I literally cant convince you. The stopping point Stewart felt was the invisible wall separating liberal and conservative moralities. Santorums anti-gay-marriage views were based on concerns for traditional family structures, Biblical authority, and moral disgust for
homosexual acts (which he had previously likened to incest and bestiality). To Stewart these concerns made about as much sense as the fear of theta waves; it was impossible to see why a decent, moral person (or at least not a bad dude) would want to violate the rights of a group of people who werent hurting anyone.

Haidt argues that Santorum is in fact acting morally, by respecting Biblical authority, and that furthermore, “conservatives” were acting morally by marching in lockstep with Santorum, who for them is an authority figure.

Haidt (thoughout the paper, not in this specific excerpt) argues that it’s moral to respect authority. But he fails to make any distinction that I can see between legitimate authority and illegetimate authority.

Using Haidt’s analysis, it’s moral to believe anything that anyone in a position of authority tells you. It’s immoral to disbelieve. So if Santorum had said that niggers should be hung, or that the Irish should eat their own children, it would be immoral to call bullshit.

Haidt’s work is just transparent crap that’s designed to make Republican assholes feel better about themselves.

16 years ago

Ken Says:

Haidt actually makes the distinctions youre asserting, SJ, and partly in the extract I reproduced.

Well, yes, I saw that, and that was what prompted the initial “I dunno”.

He’s saying in effect “I’m not a fascist, [blows dogwhistle] but gosh, those fascists sure were right…”

There is certainly plenty of room for disagreement with Haidts arguments, but if you simply dismiss them as crap, I suggest that youre actually saying more about yourself than about his ideas.

I can see by reading back what I’ve written above that I’d given two major rebuttals to Haidt before dissmissing it as “crap”.

He’s waffling and enabling, Ken, nothing more. There’s no substance to his argument, especially in your last quote of the guy.

Ingolf Eide
16 years ago

SJ, I think you may be misunderstanding Haidt’s use of the word “moral” in this context. As far as I can see, his intent is not to indicate approval for any particular stance, he’s simply discussing (“descriptively”, as he puts it) the categories of “morality” that are important to various groups. For example, in the article you cite (the right link is here, by the way), on the very next page after your quote he goes on to say:

We social scientists know that the institution of marriage has changed substantially over the centuries. We also know that homosexuality is not a choice or a disease, and we know that gay people are just as good as straight people at parenting and citizenship. We can therefore predict that in
countries where gay people do get the right to marry, the new institution of marriage will be better and stronger than the old one. But it will be a change, and if social justice researchers really want to bring that change about, then they will have to understand the moral motivations that are at present working against them.

It’s also worth noting that he classifies himself as a “secular liberal” and believes “contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations . . . “.

As for your first comment, isn’t that precisely one of the points that Haidt (and by extension Ken) is making? Namely that by displaying some of the characteristics of their declared opponents, the new atheists are falling short of the liberal ideals they profess to support. I would imagine that’s why it’s fairly common to see them labelled as fundamentalists, even by those who by rights one would expect to be their natural allies.

16 years ago

Ingolf Says:

As for your first comment, isnt that precisely one of the points that Haidt (and by extension Ken) is making? Namely that by displaying some of the characteristics of their declared opponents, the new atheists are falling short of the liberal ideals they profess to support. I would imagine thats why its fairly common to see them labelled as fundamentalists, even by those who by rights one would expect to be their natural allies.

This is ridiculous, surely? Haidt’s claim is that he has identified an objective difference between liberals and conservatives. He then asserts that liberals aren’t conforming to the difference he’s identified.

Look, you might see some merit in what Haidt says, but to me, it’s just inconsistent nonsense.

16 years ago

(Thanks, Ingolf, for fixing up the link.)

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
16 years ago

For all practical purposes “liberals” and “conservatives” are the same beast.

I hope this helps.

16 years ago

Fascinating post, Ken.

Haidt’s points are carefully made, and worth considering. I especially like his distinction between how religiously conservative group membership may have definite benefits for the ingroup on the one hand while having concurrent detriments for deviants and competing groups on the other hand, so how can we determine their absolute positives and negatives for humanity?

Certainly one of the social problems for many atheists is how to find an ingroup which provides the same sense of identity and communality as a religious grouping.

16 years ago

I found it fascinating, and I can see the confusion/distinction over the term ‘moral’.

As an avowed ‘liberal’, I reject hierarchy, purity and tribalism as any sort of sensible, humanitarian grounds for morality. As he and others have pointed out, that way justifies many of the sins of our forefathers.

Didn’t someone (Piaget?) suggest that these sorts of concerns (hierarchy particularly) were a developmental stage, and you could characterise someone stuck at that level (typically the morals of a pre-teen) as not as morally developed?

16 years ago

Thanks Ken. BTW I’m planning on shamelessly ripping you off (with attribution) for another website/community blog, MetaFilter.

Ingolf Eide
16 years ago

SJ, Haidt seemed to me to be implicitly questioning whether the “new atheists” should properly be termed liberals in the general sense he was using that term. My impression was that he sees in them a concern with ideological purity, a preoccupation with “us” vs “them” and, at times, a reliance upon a possibly ill-founded orthodoxy that is more akin to the behaviour of their opponents.

Tysen Woodlock
16 years ago

I think that some might take offence to the term “morally balanced” because it implies something superior about conservatives. Given Haidt is arguing that these are inborn tendencies that are neither objectively right nor objectively wrong (merely evolutionarily productive) no one should be taking offence at his theory. We often resist our inborn urges because we believe it is wrong in a given situation to do so, so liberals can still argue that, for example, resisting the urge to respect authority is wrong from an evolutionary perspective but right from an ethical perspective.

I think that’s already been said though.

16 years ago

Grist for the mill from the WaPo:

Basically, Republicans have in spades all the things that combine to make us happy. Church attendance is particularly crucial. People who attend religious services regularly are more likely to report being “very happy” than those who don’t — 43 percent vs. 26 percent (a happiness boost, by the way, that cuts across all the major religious denominations). In addition, Republicans are more likely to be married than Democrats, and married people are happier than singles.

When I tell my liberal friends about Republican happiness, they usually reply angrily — angry not being a happy trait. “They’re just not paying attention,” one friend snapped. “Ignorance is bliss,” said another. Or perhaps it’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, putting it more eloquently and less angrily: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please — you can never have both.”

If this isn’t depressing enough for liberals, it turns out that some of their own pet policies are to blame for their unhappiness. Once in power, Democrats tend to focus on issues that, according to the science of happiness, have little effect on our contentment — income equality, for instance, and racial diversity. Neither is linked to greater happiness. Countries with large disparities between rich and poor are no less happy than more egalitarian ones, studies have found. And the happiest countries in the world tend to be homogenous ones, such as Denmark and Iceland, not the ethnic melting pots that liberals celebrate.

(Ironically, the author, Eric Weiner, goes on to conclude that almost every President for 40 years has been a ‘happy’ President, who spoke to ‘happiness’, and implicitly posits an Obama victory.)

But I like philo‘s take, picking up from the Emerson quote above:

Ill propose another explanation: I think its likely that happy people are more likely to be Republicans, while unhappy people are more likely to be Democrats, for unhappiness gives one an incentive to seek change, and happiness an incentive to resist it. But the causal link goes in the other direction as well, for Republicans stress freedom and individual responsibility, which lead people to feel in control and take action that changes their lives for the better, while Democrats assign blame to institutions, which makes people feel powerless and discourages them from undertaking ameliorative courses of action.

Personally, if I was a depressed lefty searching for post-hoc justifications for my depression, I would suggest that conservatives are happier because they don’t care about all the injustice surrounding them.

But as I am not, I’ll admit that I quite like Haidt’s theory. My first consideration of it came when reading Wittgenstein in uni, and specifically when he points out that to express a belief in heaven is not to make a literal statement. Rather it is to describe a way of seeing (and thus judging) the world. Later, he commented that whilst not sure if he could share it, he admired religious belief.

Later, myself, wondering if I still believed in God or not and how to reconcile the angry militant atheist of my teenage years with the evident (to me) many goods of religion in human society, I could never really work out if religion was

1) just an evolutionary crutch that we were outgrowing, or
2) an essential part of human nature that we were foolishly replacing with stupitidies like environmentalism, or
3) one of many ways of organising society which would continue to compete with the new challengers, neither inherently better or worse.

Glad to see I’m not alone in wondering.

16 years ago

If one group has five innate moral modules, and another group has only two, then surely we are being told that there are only two innate moral modules in the human brain. Of course I havent seen the data, but it seems to me that one could just as easily argue that there are only two shared moral values harm and reciprocity.

The conclusion that conservatives have a wider spread of moral values smacks of post facto justification to me.

Im bothered by Haidts claim that surveys have long shown 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 source for this is Arthur C. Brooks, who has built an argument about compassionate conservatism by narrowly defining compassion as charitable giving, and then cherrypicking in the US General Social Survey for data that supports the view that religious conservatives give more than non-religious liberals.

Im reading Haidts book The Happiness Hypothesis at the moment. It came as a bit of a shock to read Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified. (Page 65)

This is precisely what I reckon Brooks does, and perhaps even Haidt himself.

16 years ago

Ken Says:

Haidt deals with Piaget and indeed succinctly contextualises the historical development of moral psychology in this paper, especially from page 4 onwards. Well worth a read.

Hmm. Read the piece, and if anthing, it lowers my opinion of Haidt

In just a few hundred years, Europe was transformed from medieval Catholic
feudalism to modern secular democracy. Was this change all for the good? That dependson the story you use to understand it. The sociologist Christian Smith (2003) argues that humans are moral, believing, narrating animals. We need to live in a moral order that iscreated by shared stories and that gives us beliefs about who we are, what we ought to do,and what is sacred. Smith extracts these stories, particularly the implicit meta-narrativesof various communities, including academic communities. He finds several such metanarratives at work in academic circles. One of the most influential he calls the Liberal Progress narrative:
Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies
and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and
oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their
deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism… But the
noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled
mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually
succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare
societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize
the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done
to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. (p.82)

If this is your meta-narrative then the change from feudalism to modernity is the greatest moral advance in Western history. But Smith notes that sociologists used to have an alternate narrative, one based on German and English romanticism, which was a reaction to the rationalism and skepticism of the enlightenment. The Community Lost narrative says that:

Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face to face communities
where we knew and took care of each other life was securely woven in
homespun fabrics of organic, integrated culture, faith, and tradition…. But
then a dreadful thing happened: Folk community was overrun by the
barbarisms of modern industry, urbanization, rationality, science,
fragmentation, anonymity Faith began to erode, social trust dissipate,
folk customs vanish. All that remains today are tattered vestiges of a
world we have lost. The task of those who see clearly now is to
memorialize and celebrate folk community, mourn its ruin, and resist and
denounce the depravities of modern, scientific rationalism that would kill
the Human Spirit.

If Smith is right that this meta-narrative has dropped out of the academic imagination, then it probably seems less true to you than does the Liberal Progress narrative. But we can get a better sense of why many people understood the arrival of modernity as a loss by viewing the transformation through the eyes of the early sociologists. In 19th Century Europe, dramatic increases in wealth, material comfort, and political freedom were complemented by the rising importance of the welfare of the individual in social and political theory. Several of the founders of sociology wrote about the dangers inherent in these changes. Tocqueville, Tonnies, Marx, and Weber all warned, in different ways, of the alienating effects of the loss of social connection and animating purpose as peoples lives became ever more governed by an industrial economy and a bureaucratic legal and political system.

This is an extraordinary rendition of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment times.

These are not two different versions of what went on in the past 1000 years in western society. How can one even begin?

In just a few hundred years, Europe was transformed from medieval Catholic(!!)! feudalism to modern secular democracy.

This is ahistorical bullshit. Surely everyone can recognise this. This has been a battle going on for at least a thousand years. Magna Carta anyone? Protestant reformation? English reformation?

Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face to face communities where we knew and took care of each other

Which historian tells this fairy story? No reputable ones that I know of. It was dog-eat-dog. No ifs, no buts.

Haidt thoroughly discredits himself on the first page.

Dualism appears to be the human default (Bloom, 2004), and the belief that one has a soul taking temporary residence in ones body is widespread. On this view of the self, the body is a kind of temple that must be maintained in a way that is commensurate with its divine origins and sacred functions. This is why so many passages in the Old Testament, the Koran, and the Hindu Scriptures concern rules of purity and emphasize virtues such as cleanliness, temperance, and piety.

Yes, Leviticus is full of cleanliness stuff that is associated with what we’d now associate with public health issues, the kind of stuff that’s written into our current statutes. A lot of it (although forgivable given the state of knowledge at the time) was rubbish, though, which is why we don’t currently have statutes forbidding the comsumption of pork. It was a reasonable observation at the time eating pork makes you sick, so don’t eat the stuff. They didn’t have any theories about bacteria and cooking times available to them.

The Mosaic Law (i.e. the ten commandments) is also reflected in our current statutes, particulary the various state crimes acts. Thou shalt not kill? Check. Thou shalt not steal? Check.

The Mosaic Laws basically work without the necessity of a god to enforce them.

The Christian commandments:

1. Love God
2. Love the neighbour

also work fine without the the god bit.

The recognition of these facts was the essence of the enlightment. There will be rearguard actions going on for centuries.

The thing that Haidt seems to avoid is that everything he says has all been said before, usually in far less obscure terms, and that the previous analysis rejects the necessity or desirability of a “god” element.

Look, Ken, for you the things that Haidt says might come as a personal revelation. That happens sometimes. But at the moment, it looks like you’re shoving a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” in my face, and saying “look at this – it’s the best thing that’s ever been written”.

16 years ago

I should also have said that Haidt doesn’t really deal with Piaget at all. He mentions Piaget, and skips over the necessary conclusion that the conservative warriors are people trapped in Piaget’s juvenile stage.

James Farrell
James Farrell
16 years ago

I wonder if anyone else followed the link in the Wade article to Haidt’s online morality test.

It’s annoying in too many ways to mention. The main thing is that it’s transparently constructed to confirm the aothors’ dodgy hypothesis allegedly linking moral priorities to political attitudes.

For what it’s worth, I apparently fall in between the average liberal and the average conservative when it comes to harm, fairness, and loyalty. But I more concerned with authority than either of them (who wouldn’t be, if you have two stubbornly disobedient children?), and less concerned with ‘purity and sanctity’ than either of them. The last of these is easy to explain, as I ticked zero for all the questions that ask whether something is wrong because it’s disgusting — that is, I took disgusting to mean physically, viscerally disgusting, rather than as a metaphor for moral outrage. But that’s exactly what they expect ‘liberals’ to do.

16 years ago

I did the test too, and for Harm, Fairness and Purity came out as “very liberal” (my “Purity” weighting was 0.3, vs 1.6 average for self-described liberals and 2.9 for self-described conservatives), and for Loyalty and Authority came out as moderate, leaning liberal. I would be interested to see how Authority weighting changes between parents and non-parents. Before becoming a parent I’m fairly sure I would have given less weighting to Authority.

“Purity” to me doesn’t seem like a justifiable basis for moral judgement at all.
But the fact that our brain tends to use it for that purpose doesn’t particularly surprise me from an evolutionary point of view.

16 years ago

Strangely, in one of the other tests there (, which asks what you would do for various amounts of money, I ranked Authority lowest of all, by a long shot.

But that’s because the questions were about showing special “respect” for authority, rather than accepting the need to listen to it.

I suppose I don’t believe people in authority need special treatment – just that their directives generally need to be followed (providing that don’t completely violate my own ethical standards).

Dave Bath
16 years ago

Actually, functional magnetic resonance imagine correlates “liberals” (as opposed to “conservatives” with greater activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus, a structure involved in resolution of conflicting ideas and emotions Some heavy details here.

Thus, it is possible to argue that with a more efficient mechanism to process logical and emotional conflict, so important to achieving moral balance, “liberals” have a head start on “conservatives”.

There are also studies suggesting that learning to avoid past errors is easier for liberals compared to conservatives in studies that required rapid decision making.

An overview (rather than just bits and pieces of abstracts) is available
here, and includes

A review of that research published in 2003 found that conservatives tend to be more rigid and closed-minded, less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to new experiences. Some of the traits associated with conservatives in that review were decidedly unflattering, including fear, aggression and tolerance of inequality. That evoked outrage from conservative pundits.

Scientists instructed them to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in their anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers obtained the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when they saw W.

Mind you, conservatives will point to ACC activity (higher in liberals) when creating or processing lies: here (if you can get it) with an abstract here.

James Farrell
James Farrell
16 years ago

I thoroughly agree with that last comment. Few things annoy me more than when, in a debate about bioethics or sex preference, some religious reactionary invokes the ‘yuck factor’ as something we ‘ignore at our peril’. Obviously disgust does have an evolutionary purpose, but how a particular becomes an object of disgust is obviously very culturally specific. The link between ‘purity’ and religion is even more tenuous. What could be more disgusting to you and me than eating human brains? Yet this has been part of religious rituals in various stone-age cultures. Millions of Hindus ‘purify’ themselves daily in water that you and I would find disgusting just to smell. And yet someone raised in either of those cultures would be viscerally disturbed by the notion of two men copulating.

16 years ago

There’s no consistency to it either – surely everyone agrees that eating faeces is disgusting and “impure”, but who would claim that it was immoral, or that the government should be passing laws banning it? (That actually could be justified, given it’s a public health risk. But nobody does it, so there’s no need. Though obviously there are laws against selling food that contains faeces).

16 years ago

There’s a reason for that particular inconsistency, NPOV.

Humans have a hard-wired aversion to eating human feces. The smell generally induces nausea. This aversion may not be present in all humans, and it may be possible to overcome it in some circumstances, but it’s generally true that humans will not willingly eat human feces.

Other mammalian species exhibit the same behaviour.

But humans, like dogs, will willingly consume the excrement from other species.

Other species use different mechanisms for dealing with food purity.

Why don’t scavenging animals get food poisoning?

Answer: They do and some of them die as a result. However, species that rely on scavenging for much of their food have evolved counter-measures. They tend to be resistant to the toxins and microbes contained in their food. However, some do avoid things that are likely to be harmful or of little nutritional value. For example, most animals will not eat fresh manure that comes from their own species, although some relish the manure of other species. In fact, disgusting though it sounds, domestic dogs will often eat faeces from pet cats.

Other animals, such as rats, taste unfamiliar food cautiously and avoid it if it makes them ill. Dogs, hyenas and the like, eat whatever looks tempting, but at the least hint of untoward symptoms, vomit it up at once. Coyotes do this so smartly that poisoning them is an advanced art. Not only do they avoid anything suspicious, but the only poisons that will work on them are those that are so dangerous that the merest taste is fatal, such as fluoroacetates. Trappers of pest coyotes have largely resorted to “getters”, which shoot cyanide directly into the victim’s mouth to kill them immediately. Vomiting does no good after that…

Humans have a particular advantage here, in that we don’t have to rely on only those things that have been built in to, say, our sense of smell. We’re also able to make field observations, tell other people about them, and pass that information on from generation to generation. In lots of instances, those field observations have been subsequently proven false, and we no longer follow the recommendations (e.g. the pork thing.)

16 years ago

Ack. Post #33 reads “NPOV said:” It should say “SJ said:”

Dunno how that happened. I stuffed up somewhere. To be clear, NPOV is not the author of post #33, I (SJ) am.

16 years ago

And my link to the New Scientist didn’t work either. Can we get a decent “preview” function running here?