Debate Magazine

Moral Psychology: Shades of Gray

By Cris

In Misfires of Moral Psychology, a post prompted by Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I commented:

Haidt’s mistake is a common one: observe modern or relatively recent cultural formations and then uncritically project them back into the ancestral or evolutionary past. This mistake has other consequences, which are evident in what Haidt calls “innate” or evolutionary moral foundations:  “care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.” These “innate” concerns sound suspiciously modern; I suspect at least a few are products of post-Neolithic and Western societies.

Does anyone really think that the Patrick Henry binary of liberty/oppression is a universal moral concern? Or that for the past 50,000 years, humans everywhere have been so pressed by this binary that it amounts to an evolved moral disposition? During this same span of time, has everyone also evolved a Foucauldian sounding moral sense regarding authority/subversion?

Simply asking these kinds of historical and cross-cultural questions would reveal that Haidt isn’t trafficking in evolved moral universals. This kind of naive evolutionary psychology often mistakes the current and local for the ancient and global.

In his recent review of Haidt’s book, John Gray understands this and more. I encourage you to read the whole but for those who don’t have time, these choice excerpts shouldn’t be missed:

Haidt’s account of the emergence of morality is disputed by other evolutionary psychologists, who argue that group selection is a part of Darwin’s inheritance that should be discarded. The debate has been heated and at times rancorous, an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism. As is often the case, a larger issue has gone largely unexplored. In evolutionary theories of this kind, what exactly is it that is being explained? Though they think their theories are universally applicable, evolutionary theorists commonly take their local conception of morality for granted. Books such as Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, one of the more impressive of recent applications of Darwinism to ethics, assume that acting morally is a matter of following rules or principles having mainly to do with justice and the prevention of harm. This may seem self-evident to secular social scientists in American universities, but it hardly squares with how most human beings (or most Americans, for that matter) understand morality.

Haidt makes some sharp criticisms of naïve rationalism—the idea, found among the “new atheists” and others like them, that human life may someday be governed by science. But his claims for the usefulness of evolutionary psychology are hardly less naïve and rationalistic. Much of his book is an attempt to apply the findings of evolutionary psychology to the political gridlock that currently exists in the United States. The incongruity of the exercise should not go unnoticed. Whatever the causes of division in Washington, they have nothing to do with evolution. The phenomenon is much too recent for any evolutionary explanation to be remotely plausible. It is also too distinctively American to be explicable in the universal terms of evolutionary theory.

VAINLY INVOKING the universal laws of science to account for the accidents of history, Haidt has fallen into a classic confusion of categories. His analysis of American divisions, he tells us, is an application of “Moral Foundations Theory,” which identifies “the universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices.” But there is more than a hint of absurdity in Haidt’s pronouncements, and it is not because he is necessarily mistaken in his analysis of American politics. He may be right that American political divisions are currently correlated with attitudes to morality in the ways that he specifies. The absurdity comes from neglecting the historical contingencies that have produced the correlations he describes.

In the end, however, Haidt’s attempt to apply evolutionary psychology is yet one more example of the failures of scientism. There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all. Dissidents against the Soviet state were no more bound to be liberals than were the people who toppled Mubarak. Are the Salafists who are outflanking the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on the right or the left of politics? Were the market reformers who dismantled the Maoist economy (but not the state apparatus that enforced it) liberals or conservatives? Such questions are senseless, indeed ludicrous. They involve fitting polities and societies whose histories and present circumstances are profoundly different from ours and each other’s onto a map that was designed to chart the conflicts of a small number of closely related countries.

This is pretty harsh but it needed to be said. If evolutionary psychologists would seriously test their proposals historically and cross-culturally, these sorts of mistakes would be far less common.


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