The Happiness Hypothesis, part 2: morality

Being a moral psychologist, Haidt has included plenty on the subject of morality in his book. He is a self-professed liberal atheist but his sympathy towards religion and conservatism, evident in his TED talk, comes across in the book as well. This makes it challenging reading for just about everyone!

He reviews the scientific debate around the origins of our altruism – our willingness to do (sometimes extreme) selfless kind acts towards others, even strangers. Darwin thought that such co-operation would make one group stronger than a less co-operative group and natural selection would then occur at the group level. However, computer simulations indicated that – unless all members of the group share all the same genes, like a hive of bees, which is not the case for humans – it may be more beneficial to the propagation of any individual’s genes if the individual behaves selfishly, as the effect of group selection may be small compared to selection at the individual level. As far as I understand it, there must have been some other pressure(s) driving our behaviour towards altruism, allowing some groups to reap the benefits of this, and thus allowing the group selection to take place so that this behaviour became encoded in our genes.

These additional pressures may include reciprocity, fairness, and a tendency to punish free-loaders, but also may include the cultivation of certain mental or emotional states that promote altruism. David Sloan Wilson’s recent work proposes that the co-evolution of genes and culture led to the evolution of morality as we know it today and that religion may have been the vehicle for this.

Apparently studies have shown that transcendent experiences, the kind of feelings induced by religious rites or any kind of repetitive activity such as military marching, motivate altruism. They cause the sense of self to melt away as if becoming part of something bigger, and bring a euphoria, which can prompt the kind of dedication to the group that is demanded in a religious community or army. These feelings bind a group together. Based on this, I guess it is no coincidence that the strongest sense of community tends to be felt in religious circles and that humanism has a hard time matching this. (Although I have a feeling that music and other creative activities will have a similar effect on groups that pursue them.)

Of course, what binds a group together will have the side effect of uniting the group against outsiders or other groups, and this starts to clash with other aspects of our moral sense, such as fairness and avoidance of harm. Haidt sees this clash in the culture war between liberals and conservatives, and sees both as having valuable ideas that are perhaps necessary for society.

The most interesting “conservative” value that he endorsed, for me, was the understanding of an individual’s moral development as being embedded in a wider culture/community; the idea that being good takes practice (development of “character”). Dry moral reasoning is no good on its own; there needs to be some emotional content for it to translate into action. I don’t actually see this as being conservative or religious; if anything, my experience of religion is that it emphasises dry learning of moral “rules” with threat of eternal punishment thrown in, rather than reliance on empathy and natural compassion, but it’s certainly interesting to hear that independent reasoning is not how this is cultivated.

To finish with a quote from the book:

“Human nature is a complex mix of preparations for extreme selfishness and extreme altruism. Which side of our nature we express depends on culture and context.”

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This entry was posted in Humanism, is religion good or bad for you?, morality, science, social justice, spiritual. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Happiness Hypothesis, part 2: morality

  1. Jasmine says:

    What I see from your description is the behavior of a family – and religion as an attempt to grow that family to as big a size as possible. But the religious family fails, because it is not authentic. We cannot feel for our religious brothers the way we feel towards our blood brothers, and so it will not work (which goes back to what you were saying about genes being a significant factor).

    We also have friends, which is (for me anyway) an extension of the family – but ONLY after a period of time, or demonstration of loyalty and values: and even then, the friend will never receive the dedication and automatic generosity of a blood relative.

    I think there is a size issue as well – after a certain number of people: there are not longer enough resources and emotions to go around: and so you need a set of rules by which to define who is worthy and who is not worth – and I think this is where morality comes into play – you favour the ones that are most likely to reciprocate and treat you well and you call that act of reciprocation & good treatment “morality” – but really, as you say, its just a programmed behaviour that has been consistently rewarded your whole life.

    And all behaviour (good and bad) must be rewarding to the one who behaves it – otherwise they would change right? Even murderers find loyal lovers, and even thieves have friends.

    • Sarah says:

      Yep, exactly – religion tries to make a community behave like a family, because we are always more altruistic towards family, and this benefitted the groups who adopted such religious rituals and behaviours. I think it’s a really good point about there being a size limit to it. Human communities are much bigger than they were when religion first developed, so maybe it just doesn’t work so well in a world where people live in cities and travel to other countries to live. (Also interesting is Robin Dunbar’s book “The Science of Love and Betrayal”; Dunbar is the one who figured out the number of stable friendships the average person can maintain, and in this book he talks about the hierarchies of closeness we have with people in our lives, what the limits of it are, where romantic relationships fit in, and other fascinating stuff :))

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