Views of the WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic)

Over at Christianity Today, Rob Moll reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt:

While many books implicitly affirm general evangelical views of morality, social relationships, and how healthy societies should be constructed, Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, explicitly compares liberal and conservative views of morality. Conservatives, he says, have a moral outlook that more fully accords with human nature.

Haidt splits his book into three parts. The first is an explanation of human moral tendencies. The big idea here is that our moral instincts come before our rationalization of them. Morality is based on “automatic processes” that guide our gut reactions to behaviors. Morality is innate, as Haidt says, “organized in advance of experience.”

Part two discusses the palate of human moral instincts. Here, Haidt begins to address the differences between conservative and liberal morality. Westerners, mostly liberal ones, have studied morality by examining the views of Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) individuals. Yet the moral tastes of these research subjects are extremely limited.

Through his research outside of WEIRD cultures, Haidt came up with a moral matrix that generally fits societies around the world. This matrix includes six core values: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. This matrix exists in all cultures—except the WEIRD ones.

Haidt chronicles how he learned to appreciate this broader moral palate while conducting interviews in a town in India. After three months, Haidt writes, “I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasized self-control, resistance to temptation, cultivation of one’s higher, nobler self, and negation of the self’s desires.” While these virtues sometimes conflicted with Haidt’s own emphasis on personal autonomy, he recognized that they served other moral goods and that it was Haidt who was deficient.

This explained why Haidt had previously discovered that liberals were unable to condemn morally repugnant behavior. Westerners, except social conservatives, exclusively valued Care as a moral category. As a result, they were unable to label behavior such as incest, cannibalism, or sex with a corpse as immoral. While these things might elicit disgust, unless they caused harm to a person, liberal interview subjects failed to find any grounds on which to condemn them. (It is easy to see that once activists are able to overcome the “ick factor” of a taboo—a stigma once attached to homosexual behavior—Western cultural values have no further ground to oppose it.)

Most cultures, on the other hand, including those sustained by American conservatives, have the full range of moral tastes. They value care for people and oppose oppressive behavior that limits individual liberty, just as liberals do. But they also value authority that gives a society structure. They invest ideas, images, and religion with sanctity. They prize loyalty to one’s country and family, and they hold these values equally and in tension with each other. When asked why incest is wrong, they answer, “Because it is.” When pressed, they answer, “Because it violates the dignity of the human body.”

In part three, Haidt explains why conservatives are right to equally value the whole palate of moral values. Humans are social creatures, and for societies to run effectively and harmoniously, all these moral categories need to be present. Religion, it turns out, is essential to group cooperation. For example, while most of the many communes that began in the nineteenth century failed, the religious ones had a much higher success rate after 20 years (39 percent) than the secular ones (6 percent).


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