It may take awhile, since I have family members who refuse to read the NYTimes, but once a version of a new theory on our moral choices being linked to evolution circulates, it’s sure to drive my already polarized liberal and conservative relatives farther apart.
That’s a shame, since a main point by U-Virginia’s moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of “The Happiness Hypothesis”) seems to be that we need each other if we’re to be a thriving family.
Everyone, he argues, operates on two sets of moral guidelines: the kind we developed before language to avoid ugly things that would cause us harm, and a second set that allows us to apply reason to those reflexive reactions (for example, we react with strong disgust to a grisly murder, but then apply reason by trying to understand what happened and what the motivation was, yet sometimes we’re left baffled by a killer’s actions.)
It’s our disgust reactions that got Haidt’s attention. He thinks we’ve translated reflexive reactions like that into our ideas of what’s sacred, how to define justice, give people rights and enforce laws. Out of those values come religion, and religion binds groups together, which ensures their survival.
For those as intrigued as I was, there are ways to explore more. Haidt and his colleagues operate a website, where you can offer yourself up for psych surveys that may tell you something about your moral responses, but certainly help them with data collection. I tried the “Big 5 Personality Inventory“, which measures things like how open I am to new experiences (very!) and how extroverted I am (not so much-but I’ll blog nonetheless!).
Other surveys explore questions like “What would you do for a million dollars?” and “Do you forgive easily and often?”.
In my family, we probably don’t need a survey to help each of us see what side of the political fence we sit on, but according to Haidt, it’s a good thing we’re varied. Liberals, he maintains, tend to foster more creativity and sap resources, while conservatives safeguard stores and keep us decent.
What a dilemma! How do I go to my uncle suggesting it’s ok if we’re wired to disagree, but perhaps God didn’t make me bad and him good, we just evolved differently?!