There is more to morality than being nice people

February 18, 2012
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 18th February 2012

Let me commend to your attention Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has written engagingly about happiness, and has now turned to one of its foundations, the moral life. It is fascinating to see how recent research in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and Game Theory is making us think again about the great questions once dealt with by the prophets and philosophers.

One of Haidt’s contributions – together with others in the burgeoning literatures about the mind, decision-making and the logic of co-operation – is to remind us that morality isn’t simple at all. How bright were the hopes of the rationalists in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries that the good life could be reduced to a simple formula. Treat persons as ends, not means, said Kant. Act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, said Bentham. Forbid only the things that harm others, argued John Stuart Mill.

Confronted by these beautiful oversimplifications I always thought of the snatch of dialogue from Woody Allen. “I’ve learned to speed-read. I read the whole of War and Peace in one hour.” “What’s it about?” “Russia!” There’s more to Tolstoy’s masterpiece than one word, and there’s more to the moral life than one principle. There are many, they conflict, and the difficulty lies in knowing what to do when they conflict. Each captures part of the moral life but not the whole of it.

Contemporary neuroscience suggests that Plato and Kant were wrong to over-intellectualise the moral life, and David Hume was right. Reason has its place in ethics, but what moves us to act is emotion. Often we act on the basis of instinct before the conscious mind has become aware of our choices. The prefrontal cortex, the deliberating part of the brain, is like a diminutive rider perched on top of a very large elephant that, when provoked, has a mind of its own.

Evolutionary biology continues to confirm one of Charles Darwin’s most interesting admissions, that the survival of any species depends as much on co-operation as competition. We pass on our genes as individuals, but we survive only as groups, which depend on habits of reciprocal altruism and, at times, self-sacrifice. Selfish genes produce selfless people. In fact even our genes aren’t really selfish at all. Our bodies and our health depend on their being team players.

The real interest in Haidt’s book is that he shows compellingly that the moral life is not reducible to what “liberals” (his word) say it is, namely fairness and the avoidance of harm. Undoubtedly these are the universals. There is hardly a culture in the world that does not recognise the so-called Golden Rule, “Act to others as you would wish them to act to you,” or negatively, “Don’t harm others because you would not wish them to harm you.” And even very young children, long before they have learned any other moral lesson, say something like, “That’s not fair.”

There are however other components of the moral life, and they play out very differently in different cultures. One, essential to the existence of groups, is loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Another, vital to the maintenance of institutions, is respect for authority and its opposite, subversion. A third is needed to ring-fence the values we consider non-negotiable. This is the idea that certain things, like innocent human life, are sacred, sacrosanct, not to be treated lightly or defiled.

Haidt argues that “conservatives” (again, his word) tend to capture people’s moral sense better than their opponents because they give space and attention to these other elements of morality. They are also core values in most religions, which is what makes them so powerful in creating and sustaining groups.

Try sustaining a national identity, or for that matter a marriage, without loyalty. Try socialising the young into habits of responsibility and restraint, without respect for figures of authority. Try maintaining the Western sense of human dignity without a sense of the sacred. You will find very soon that it can’t be done.

No wonder identity, marriage, self-restraint and the sanctity of life are in disarray today. We have tried constructing the moral life on two simple principles, fairness and the avoidance of harm, when life is just not that simple. If Haidt is right, psychology is about to rediscover what religious faith, thank Heaven, never forgot: loyalty, respect and sanctity, the values that inspire humans to live lives of moral beauty.