Morality and Politics

I realized several years ago that one of the primary points of frustration for me occurs when dealing with people who are irrational.  I also learned that it’s futile to attempt to address an irrational idea using rationality.  If people don’t understand the power and value of logic and reason, it’s not a problem that I can solve.  At least in the United States, the political and social climate has clearly empowered the irrational members of the country.  Those are the people who openly choose not to elect a “smart” President and that feel that it’s OK to impeach a President for lying about his private life while letting an alleged war criminal run the nation, no questions asked.  It often seems that the inmates are running the asylum.

So where do these ideas come from?  The topic of morality is one that is often thrown about in the media.  It doesn’t matter if people are criticizing Britney Spears’ latest escapades or if it’s an issue of imprisoning and torturing hundreds of innocent people.  There are many who suggest that morality comes from religion, but all research points the in the opposite direction.  In fact, most thinking adults would be aghast if they only read books like the Bible (especially the Old Testament) or the Koran. 

The New York Times posted an article earlier this year that attempts to explain the basis of morality.  Steven Pinker writes in The Moral Instinct about the basis of these ideas.  For example, how can people respect the ignorance an suffering peddled by Mother Theresa while overlooking actual humanitarians?  The article is very long, but I found it to be thought-provoking.  Pinker often cites studies and thought experiments which are both entertaining and information.  Here’s an excerpt:

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

Of course, there’s a strong current in modern thought that seems to imply that we should “think” with our guts rather than with our brains.  If something feels bad, we should avoid it.  And, if we can somehow rationalize it (e.g., to attack a country with no evidence or reason), then it’s OK.  Towards the conclusion of the article is another example:

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.

If only we would invest more time and effort in actually learning about human nature rather than trying to defend absurd, illogical, and irrational conclusions, the world would be a far better place.  I’m not holding my breath for a positive change, but it would be a pleasant change from our current culture of ignorance.

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1 Comment

  1. Dollface said,

    August 5, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Wow, this is a really thoughtful post. I am intrigued by the excerpts from “The Moral Instinct”. I’m tired of people associating a strong moral code with religion. I believe people without religious faith are capable of integrity and morality. Maybe I’m biased, because I grew up with two atheist parents & feel that they raised me to be empathetic, conscientious, and morally upstanding.

    I agree with your opening statements about irrational people. I used to argue with those kind of people, thinking logic would make them see my way. Now I understand that some people are close-minded and I cannot change that.


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