Daily Archives: March 21, 2014

Moral taste buds


A few weeks ago I was asked to review a book for a publication of the Kinship organization. It was: The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, written by the American social-psychologist Dr Jonathan Haidt. I did not know anything of this man, nor of the books he had written, but after some googling I understand that this particular book has caused considerable discussion. I have read the book with much interest and yesterday dispatched the review that I had written.

Haidt explains how all human beings are equipped with a number of moral ‘taste buds.’ That is to say: we react to a range of different moral ‘tastes.’ The problem is, however, that not all of these taste buds are equally well developed in all of us. The fascinating point, Haidt maintains, is that people who tend to be on the right side of the political spectrum seem to have a wider range of moral taste buds than those who are more towards the left. ‘Liberals’ tend to react especially to stimuli that have to do with individuality, care and fairness, while ‘conservatives’ (read: Republicans) are also very sensitive to stimuli of loyalty, unity, authority and sanctified tradition.

Professor Haidt argues that all of this is a matter of evolution. Through long periods of time certain moral taste buds further developed in particular groups of people than in other groups. In other words: whether you are politically to the left or to the right is mainly determined by evolutionary processes rather than by political interests or your environment. This line of argumentation does not appeal very much to me and the approach of the author sounds rather speculative. Those who, like me, want to begin with the premise of an Almighty Creator God will not easily feel attracted by Haidt’s theories. However, Haidt’s idea that—regardless of how this state affairs came about—the controversy between left and right is to a large extent fueled by things that operate on a much deeper level, seems to be quite credible. When those on ‘the left’ want to convince ‘the right’ of its standpoints (and vice-versa), they will need to pay due attention to the moral values for which the other party is (often subconsciously) most receptive.

Perhaps this aspect of Haidt’s argument may also be relevant in the sphere of faith and church. In the church we also find that the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ fight each other with rational arguments, without much success of actually convincing the opponent. This is clearly the case in the ongoing controversies about the ordination of female pastors and the debate about homosexuality. Haidt’s book would suggest that we might have to pay much more attention to the underlying presupposition that are most prominent in moral make-up of the left and the right. ‘Progressives’, ‘liberals,’ or those to the left (of whatever label we want to attach) value, in particular, such values as individuality, care for others and fairness, while the ‘orthodox’, ‘the conservatives’, or those to the right appreciate these same things but also highly value unity in the group to which one belongs, the safeguarding of authority, and respect for sanctified traditions.  When we want people to change their mind, a bombardment with Bible texts and rational arguments to eliminate the other party is, in fact, less effective than reacting to the underlying moral sentiments of the opponents.

For that reason we could, unfortunately, not expect too many concrete result from the conference on homosexuality in Cape Town where last week some 350 Adventist leaders from all over the world participated.