Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Survival of the Stodgiest?

An article appeared in the New Times yesterday that talks about the source of morality being in our genes. (Link to article here)

The article presents the findings of psychologist Dr. Jonathon Haidt who says we are genetically programmed for morality. He identifies five basic components of morality that he believes are common to most cultures, two that favor the rights of the individual--do unto others and fairness--and three that favor the rights and needs of society-- loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

The controversial part of the article deals with how Dr. Haidt assigns political relevance to these two opposing interests. He says that liberals tend to emphasize the rights of individuals and to completely ignore those that affect society, while conservatives value all five areas, but give more importance to the rights of the group. He even goes so far as to say that liberals just don't get these conservative values of loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

"“It is at least possible,” he said, “that conservatives and traditional societies have some moral or sociological insights that secular liberals do not understand.”

Now I must take issue with that.

Liberals and progressives are very much concerned with the needs of the group. They tend to support social programs and laws that are more equitable and that give assistance to people who need it. Conservatives are concerned with traditional values that supposedly favor the group, but only as long as these values also support their need to maintain the status quo, i.e. their own wealth and position.

The problem comes in the way Dr. Haidt defines the "group." His assumptions work only if society is defined as its most socially and economically elite members. His conclusions virtually disregard the needs of the group members who are not as well-heeled or well connected.

His conclusion means that traditional conservative values that promote cohesion are by definition always better for the group and I don't think that's true at all. He completely ignores the fact that the interests and needs of groups are constantly changing. In the long run, supporting values that are different from the status quo might actually contribute to the health of the society.

Conservative values deplore homosexuality, but how does ostracizing and denouncing this segment of the population contribute to the society's overall well-being? Perhaps at one time it was an evolutionary imperative to encourage people to reproduce, but in these days of overpopulation, casting out a segment of the population because of its sexuality is harmful. Demonizing a segment of the population and encouraging bigotry generally has a negative effect on the morality of a society.

When America was first founded, slavery was good for it economically. Keeping fellow humans in bondage allowed the country to prosper at a time when free labor was in short supply. Therefore, every conservative entity rose to its defense. The clergy found passages in the Bible that proved that slavery was morally righteous and the scientific community rushed to show how slavery demonstrated "survival of the fittest." It wasn't until slavery became a drag on the economy that these same conservative entities saw the error of their ways and slavery was finally discarded once and for all.

Today, the New York Times ran an article about the genital cutting of little girls in Egypt, a practice which Dr. Haidt would no doubt define as an action designed to preserve the purity of the society. Is it really beneficial to this society to allow the mutilation of half of its citizens? Or would it be more beneficial to this group (not to mention its individual little girls) to discard its medieval value system, join the rest of the world community and adopt a more compassionate and liberal value system?

I don't believe the tension Dr. Haidt has recognized is really between traditional values that favor the group and progressive values that favor the individual. The tension he's recognized is between the elite of a society trying to maintain the status quo and the need of societies to discard traditional values that have become outdated and no longer viable. New or progressive values that favor the individual are not always better for a society, but neither are conservative ones.

Democratic societies at least, fare better when there is give and take between old and new ideas, between liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. Only when we achieve some sort of balance between all these opposing forces can both individuals and societies thrive.

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