Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Haidt: The Righteous Mind

I have been reading Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind". There is much for a religious traditionalist like myself to like and dislike, but I thought I'd begin with a quote. It is Haidt describing a moral theory developed by Richard Shweder.
The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other's projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies. You find it in the writings of utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer (who value justice only to the extent that they increase human welfare), and you find it in the writings of deontologists like Kant and Kohlberg  (who prize justice and rights even in cases where doing so may reduce overall welfare).

OK, so that is the dominant ethics of autonomy to be found in the modern West. Shweden's theory goes beyond this and recognises two other ethics.
But as soon as you step outside of Western secular society, you hear people talking  in two additional moral languages. The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism. In such societies, the Western insistence that people should design their own lives and pursue their own goals seems selfish and dangerous - a sure way to weaken the social fabric and destroy the institutions and collective entities upon which everything depends.

The ethic of divinity is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. People are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly. The body is a temple not a playground. Even if it does no harm and violates nobody's rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass (me: a moral scenario Haidt had raised earlier to examine the issue of disgust/purity), he still shouldn't do it because it degrades him, dishonors his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degredation. In such societies, the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity's baser instincts.

4 comments:

  1. But as soon as you step outside of Western secular society, you hear people talking in two additional moral languages. The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes and nations.

    That's pretty much feudalism, except that nations weren't very important and they saw themselves as belonging to an even greater entity, Christendom. Feudalism has had a bad press. It actually had a lot going for it. We need to stop preening ourselves on how superior our society is to medieval society.

    We are the only society to develop an ethic of autonomy. Maybe there's a reason other societies have avoided this experiment.

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  2. So: autonomy, community and divinity. I think we have in the West a precarious and tenuous admixture of the three. Only the first brings immediate rewards and does not require much thought or higher culture.

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    1. The first has been dominant in the Western political class to the point that Western liberals often cannot comprehend the other two.

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  3. This from Cicero in the 1st century B.C. (De Oficiis 1.53-54):
    There are several levels of human society. Starting from that which is universal, the next is that of a common race, nation or language (which is what most of all holds men together). Further down comes membership of the same city; for citizens have many things in common - their town square, temples, covered walkways, roads, laws and constitution, law-courts and elections, customs and associations and the dealings and agreements that bind many people to many others. An even closer bond is that between relations: for it sets them apart from that limitless society of the human race into one that is narrow and closely-defined. Since it is a natural feature of all living beings that they have the desire to propagate, the first association is that of marriage itself; the next is that with one's children; then the household unit within which everything is shared; that is the element from which a city is made, so to speak the seed-bed of the state. Next comes the relationship between brothers, between cousins on the father's side and cousins on the mother's side; since the relatives cannot be contained in one household, they leave to found other households, just like colonies. Next, come relationships arising from marriage, which bring even more relatives. This extension and spreading of relationships is the basis of communities; for common blood forces men to help and care for one another.

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