15 September 2007

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.

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