Sunday 19 February 2012

There’s More To Morality Than Being Nice

chief rabbi

I was interested in the Chief Rabbi’s review of Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind. [Haidt is an American psychologist] Dr Sacks says this

It is fascinating to see how recent research in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and game theory is making us think again about the great questions once dealt with by the prophets and philosophers. Haidt reminds us that morality isn’t simple at all. How bright were the hopes of the rationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries that the good life could be reduced to a simple formula. Treat persons as ends, not means, said Kant. Act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, said Bentham. Forbid only the things that harm others, argued John Stuart Mill. These beautiful oversimplifications remind me of the snatch of dialogue from Woody Allen. “I’ve learned to speed-read. I read the whole of War and Peace in one hour.” “What’s it about?” “Russia!”

There’s more to Tolstoy’s masterpiece than one word, and there’s more to the moral life than one principle. There are many, they conflict, and the difficulty lies in knowing what to do when they conflict. Each captures part of the moral life but not the whole of it.

The real interest in Haidt’s book is that he shows compellingly that the moral life is not reducible to what “liberals” (his word) say it is, namely fairness and the avoidance of harm. Undoubtedly these are the universals. There is hardly a culture in the world that does not recognise the so-called Golden Rule… children learn to say “That’s not fair.” There are, however, other components of the moral life… One [is] loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Another,… respect for authority and its opposite, subversion. A third is needed to ring-fence the values we consider non-negotiable... certain things, like innocent human life, are sacred, sacrosanct, not to be treated lightly or defiled.

Haidt argues that “conservatives” (again, his word) tend to capture people’s moral sense better than their opponents because they give space and attention to these other elements of morality. They are also core values in most religions, which is what makes them so powerful in creating and sustaining groups.

Try sustaining a national identity, or even a marriage, without loyalty. Try socialising the young into habits of responsibility and restraint, without respect for figures of authority. Try maintaining the Western sense of human dignity without a sense of the sacred. You will soon find that it can’t be done.

No wonder identity, marriage, self-restraint and the sanctity of life are in disarray today. We have tried constructing the moral life on two simple principles, fairness and the avoidance of harm, when life is just not that simple. If Haidt is right, psychology is about to rediscover what religious faith, thank Heaven, never forgot: loyalty, respect and sanctity, the values that inspire humans to live lives of moral beauty.

Much to think about here!

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