Disgust Usually Outweighs Detached Reasoning

Via Arts & Letters Daily, I came across a very interesting essay in Edge by Jonathan Haidt, entitled Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion. Here are a few excerpts.

In my dissertation and my other early studies, 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.

I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.

These findings suggested that emotion played a bigger role than the cognitive developmentalists had given it. These findings also suggested that there were important cultural differences, and that academic researchers may have inappropriately focused on reasoning about harm and rights because we primarily study people like ourselves—college students, and also children in private schools near our universities, whose morality is not representative of the United States, let alone the world….

Surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).

These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature. Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk.

My conclusion is not that secular liberal societies should be made more religious and conservative in a utilitarian bid to increase happiness, charity, longevity, and social capital. Too many valuable rights would be at risk, too many people would be excluded, and societies are so complex that it’s impossible to do such social engineering and get only what you bargained for. My point is just that every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.

But because of the four principles of moral psychology [outlined earlier in the essay] it is extremely difficult for people, even scientists, to find that wisdom once hostilities erupt. A militant form of atheism that claims the backing of science and encourages “brights” to take up arms may perhaps advance atheism. But it may also backfire, polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process.

In my experience, secular academics are just as likely as anyone else to thoughtlessly dismiss in moralistic disgust not just behaviors, but beliefs they find repugnant, especially those emblematic of their social and moral inferiors.


Filed under education, philosophy, religion, scholarship

6 responses to “Disgust Usually Outweighs Detached Reasoning

  1. Good point. I’m not sure if you are an atheist, but your essay was very balanced.

  2. Except for the final paragraph, I was quoting Haidt. I’m an unbeliever raised among many who believe in heavenly utopias, and now working among many who seem to believe in the possibility of earthly utopia. I remain unconvinced of either possibility.

  3. Bad

    There is a gaping flaw in his argument.

    “Secular” is a group that is defined negatively. Secular people thus have nothing in particular or necessarily in common: they include people all sorts of different values and ideologies and ideas.

    Comparing that sort of group to a positively defined group is always going to be invalid insofar as yuo wish to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of morality of a particular belief. Secular folk do not share the same beliefs and values. Hence, you are comparing, basically, Christian values to a random assortment of other values. If there are secular value systems that are as good or better than Christian values, then they are simply going to be drowned out by the random nature of your choice of groups to compare.

    It’s similar to the issue of those that claim that a certain lifestyle (like eating only raw foods) contributes to them living longer than average. The problem is that the vast majority of people who definitively choose to live any particular special lifestyle are adults. And comparing a group of adults (who have obviously survived past childhood) to the population as a whole (which includes people who died as children) is always going to look statistically better off, utterly regardless of the effect of the lifestyle. It’s just a function of a poorly designed comparison.

  4. Haidt is not comparing secular vs. Christian. He’s comparing secular vs. religious, both of which include “all sorts of different values and ideologies and ideas” if you consider every religion in the world. Furthermore, when the enforcement of secularity in the public sphere becomes national policy, as in China, Turkey, France, and (to a lesser extent) the U.S., then seculars constitute a force more cohesive than that of any one religion. And when secularity becomes a key marker of superior social or cultural classes who routinely dismiss or ridicule any and all religiosity, then religion is the negatively defined category.

  5. Bad

    “Haidt is not comparing secular vs. Christian.”

    Sure he is, at least if he’s using statistics based on US datasets.

    “And when secularity becomes a key marker of superior social or cultural classes who routinely dismiss or ridicule any and all religiosity, then religion is the negatively defined category.”

    You seem to have switched around the usages of negatively defined. By negative, I don’t mean bad, I mean defined by what something is NOT.

    Any statistical comparison that tries to compare a group with a particular ideology to a group of random people whose only thing in common is that they don’t share a particular ideology is going to be misleading, period, even if the ideology is fairly vague and diverse.

  6. I imagine Haidt used the only reliable statistics he could find on this issue. Do you think it’s at all likely that secular members of predominantly Muslim or Buddhist societies give more (per capita) to charities than religious members of those societies?

    And I meant “negatively defined” in both senses: People who are not secular (in other words, people who believe in any religion whatsoever); and people who, by virtue of those beliefs, are negatively regarded by secularists.

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