MORAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION
By Jonathan Haidt
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. You can't use the New Atheists as your guide to these lessons. The new atheists conduct biased reviews of the literature and conclude that there is no good evidence on any benefits except the health benefits of religion.
JONATHAN HAIDT is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he does research on morality and emotion and how they vary across cultures. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Jonathan Haidt's Edge Bio Page