Are there ‘bad’ kinds of moralizing? If so, does understanding morality as the product of evolutionary processes (of the biological and cultural kind) reveal why ‘bad’ moralizing has so persistently existed and allow us to sort out the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’?

Steven Pinker argued last December at The Economist’s ‘World in 2013 Festival’ that ‘bad’ moralizing has been the source of most human violence. (See the first 7.5 minutes or so of the video below.) His talk, contrasted with some insights from Jonathan Haidt’s work on “moral foundations” provides a good kickoff example for discussions of some of the issues in, and potential rewards of, understanding morality as products of evolutionary processes.

“You might think that . . . The world needs more morality. If we can find out what makes people moral we can get people to do more of it. In fact, I would say that the main conclusion of a lot of this research is that that is exactly the opposite of what we should do." --Steven Pinker

Be assured this is only Steven Pinker’s ‘hook’ opener. He goes on to explain that he actually favors MORE morality of the sort that increases what he describes as the “rational thought” based ultimate goal of morality: flourishing and reducing harm.

Pinker wants LESS moralizing of the sort that motivates punishment of behaviors that merely disrespect moral ‘authority’ or violate moral ‘purity’. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker argues that this sort of ‘moralizing’ has motivated most of the violence in human history, and continues to do so. Understanding why people persistently do this sort of moralizing offers the opportunity to argue against it and the violence it motivates.

But why are people intuitively motivated to punish people who merely disregard moral authority or violate moral purity? If no one is really harmed, why are some people so upset and even motivated to murder by behaviors such as homosexuality, a ‘purity’ violation in some cultures, or blasphemy, a ‘disrespect of authority’ violation?

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Jonathan Haidt

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s empirical work on moralizing offers important clues about our peculiar moral intuitions. He argues that people around the world unconsciously refer to six universal “moral foundations” in making day to day moral judgments based on usually near-instant moral intuitions. In terms of their moral/immoral aspects, the first three of these foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression. Judgments based on Haidt’s first three foundations of moralizing tend to reliably increase flourishing and reduce harm, so they should win Pinker’s approval.

Haidt’s second three universal moral foundations are loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Here, loyalty, authority, and sanctity are as defined by a moral in-group, a group of people who merit special moral concern. The moral upside of these foundations is that they can increase the benefits of living in that in-group. For example, by favoring the in-group and standardizing its morality, these moral foundations can provide a powerful means of increasing flourishing within a family, a group of friends, a tribe, or a religion. The moral downside is that out-groups (or dissenters within the in-group) who have other loyalties, respect other authorities, and hold other ideas sacred can then be demonized as immoral and, justified by their immorality, persecuted and even exploited for the benefit of the in-group.

Loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations correspond to the “authority” and “purity” bases of moralizing that Pinker identifies as the source of most human violence and much of its suffering.

But Haidt is not so quick as Pinker to reject these last three foundations as always bad. Haidt points out in his book The Righteous Mind that social liberals place more importance on the first three foundations, but social conservatives place near equal importance on all six. Further, liberals would do well to understand the social power of all six, and the diverse moral perspectives that different distributions of ‘foundation’ emphasis can produce in human beings.

So who is right, Pinker or Haidt? I would argue that each is right, in his own way. Pinker is right that we should trust our rationality to guide our ultimate goals for moral codes. After all, it is uncontroversial that science can tell us only what ‘is’, and can help define the best means to achieve our ultimate goals, but science is necessarily silent about what our ultimate goals ‘ought’ to be. Haidt is right that we ignore the evolutionary origins of half of our moral intuitions at the peril of designing moral codes that are ineffective in achieving whatever our ultimate goals for moral codes are.

By revealing the evolutionary origins of morality (again, both its biological and cultural origins), science may be able to tell us what moral codes and social arrangements are most likely to achieve whatever ultimate goals we choose for moral codes. Perhaps a lot of people, including many moral philosophers, may agree that an ultimate goal for morality something like the commonly proposed “increasing flourishing and reducing harm” will do until something better turns up. Maybe moral philosophers will someday agree on a different ultimate goal, or perhaps just a more refined version of this goal, that people will prefer. Then, I expect understanding morality as a product of evolutionary processes will still be useful, and maybe even critical, to defining moral codes most likely to achieve that ultimate goal.