Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and  his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.

Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”

The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?

Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.

Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.

But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.

This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.

So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.

Book Review: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind_I finished this book about a week ago and would have liked to have a more thorough review. Time doesn’t permit, so instead, I want to share a few brief thoughts. I suspect several of the themes of this book will work their way into my regular thinking on a few topics.

1) Haidt is a brilliant psychologist. He does a great job of explaining the way people think. I found myself fully convinced by his first two points which were that (a) our moral intuitions drive our moral reasoning most of the time and (b) that our moral intuitions are based on six moral “taste buds”.

2) Related: Everyone should familiarize themselves with Moral Foundation Theory and how/why it divides conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. This by itself is worth the price of the book.

3) My deepest critique of the book is not of Haidt as a moral psychologist, but Haidt as a philosopher. He offers an account of the origin of morality and religion that is purely evolutionary. For Haidt, both arose out of natural group selection because they helped groups outperform other groups. He is, therefore, relatively friendly towards religion. It’s helpful, for Haidt, it (along with morality) is an illusion.

4) This leaves Haidt’s “oughts” hollow. He ultimately argues for a sort of utilitarianism that is less individualistic, but does not (cannot) explain how he got to that conclusion. He makes many moral judgments throughout the book, but doesn’t have any of the tools to back them up. He just assumes that they will be self-evident to the reader.

5) The end result is that a lot of the descriptive parts of the book are very helpful for understanding individuals, politics, and culture. And a lot of his main points coincide very well with a biblical point of view. For instance, the Bible also teaches that we have “innate” moral intuitions. The Bible also bases its moral laws on various moral foundations (harm/care, fairness, proportionality, liberty, sanctity, etc.). The Bible also teaches that those intuitions can be trained through culture, law, parents, etc. The Bible also teaches that we operate as both individuals and as groups, etc. And these principles can be helpful in how we relate with people in different groups, even how believers share the gospel, etc. And yet, chunks of the book will nevertheless be frustrating.

6) One final thought: Haidt’s description of moral intuition as taste buds is apt. The problem is that for Haidt these don’t correspond to objective reality. I think they do. I think that these taste buds are more than just helpful tools to allow us to work together as groups to accomplish amazing things. I think they correspond to an objective moral reality. Good really is good. Evil really is evil. And the fact that we have the sense to see that, is evidence of that reality, and evidence of an ultimate law giver to his given us moral minds to see it.