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.

One thought on “Moral taste buds

  1. Victor Pilmoor

    VP’s reflection on Haidts book – for the sake of interest.

    June 25, 2012

    While visiting a church in the Westman Islands in Iceland last week we were told that
    local custom invites the congregation to stand while Scripture is being read.
    This reminded me of a story of a lapsed Jew who decided to become observant.
    During each visit to a synagogue, orthodox and reformed members began to shout
    at each other when the Torah was read so he decided to solicit an explanation
    from the Rabbi.

    When the Torah is read should the congregation stand?,
    “No” said the Rabbi, “this is not the tradition”

    When the Torah is read should the congregation sit?
    “No” said the Rabbi “this is not the tradition”

    When the Torah is read will we always argue?
    “Yes” said the Rabbi “this is the tradition”!

    The point of which attaches to Jonathan Haidt’s : The Righteous Mind – Why Good
    People are divided by Politics and Religion, a book I discovered while travelling this month.

    Why do the righteous argue?

    Though Haidt does not credit scripture as the source of morality, he observes that “we are born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.” He notes that in most instances moral norms are formed in response to visceral aversion
    and fear rather than rational learning.

    Haidt further researches the difference between left and right wing politics/religion
    and observes that for those on the left, care for the hurting, and fairness
    prevail as their dominant social values. On the right, respect for authority
    and order are given more attention.

    In a separate trend of thought he observes that extremists tend to presume that,
    ‘behaviour is contingent on belief’ and tend to espouse their belief and impose
    their behaviour personally. They know what is right for them and believe that
    others should share their world view. He attributes this ethic to a minority of
    world society he defines as WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and
    Developed. Majority cultures by contrast, exhibit far stronger communal bonds.
    He suggests that we cannot understand a bee hive by just studying a bee! We
    need to understand the interplay between Belief, Behaviour and Belonging. He
    holds that morality only makes societal sense when we acknowledge and embrace
    the hiving instinct.

    In conclusion, he likens elements of public rectitude to the six taste buds on our
    tongues, he argues for public discourse to be based on pillars from the left
    and right and further includes liberty and sanctity as centralising qualities.

    While he argues for a time developed source, he acknowledges that morality learned in
    the great religions, gives such societies an advantage. Faith communities build
    social capital by creating a basis for trust. For God has shown us… what is
    good; and what does the Lord require: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk
    humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

    Indeed Haidt’s six qualities are adequately encompassed in the job description
    prescribed by Isaiah for covenant people. Sadly, while some of us latch on to
    one or two value streams at the expense of the others, our bickering will
    persist. Thank you for binding the cornucopia of moral flavour that finds its
    blend in Christ Jesus the host of our eternal banquet, to which we are invited
    as faithful stewards

    Yours, with sugar and spice and all things nice,

    Comparing: The Righteous Mind and Isaiah 61 – The spirit of the Lord is upon you -

    Care – Harm
    To preach good tidings to the poor – To heal the
    broken hearted.

    Liberty – Oppression
    To proclaim liberty to captives and the opening of
    prison to those who are bound.

    Fairness – Cheating
    To proclaim the acceptable year of our Lord, the day
    of vengeance of our God.

    Loyalty – Betrayal
    To give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for
    mourning, the garment of praise for heaviness; that they may be called trees
    of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified

    Sanctity – Degradation
    They shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall repair
    the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations. Strangers shall feed
    your flocks…

    Authority – Subversion
    You will be priests of God, servants of the
    Lord…Instead of your shame you will have double honour. Instead of confusion
    they shall rejoice in their portion… Everlasting joy shall be theirs.

    For, I the Lord – Love Justice; Hate Robbery for
    burnt offering, I will direct their work in truth and make them an
    everlasting covenant.

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