December 6, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Thanksgiving weekend took us to Palm Desert, California for an escape from the real world. Away from the headlines that we usually sight, I had leisure to catch up on scholarly journals, including the latest Daedalus (of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). The whole issue is on "nature and nurture" debates (Fall 2004), and the "Intuitive Ethics" piece by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph struck me as a relevant frame for many religion-and-culture controversies. I am not equipped to evaluate all the social, psychological, human developmental, and evolutionary aspects, but have some intuitions about their "Intuitive Ethics."
There are two primary approaches: the "empiricist" and the "nativist." The empiricist posits that moral knowledge, moral beliefs, moral action, etc. are learned in childhood. Nothing is built into the human mind with respect to moral faculties or moral anythings. The nativist approach holds that knowledge about fairness, harm, and respect for authority has been built into the human mind by evolution. The authors also work through the idea that "morality is both innate and learned." They employ this "modified nativist" view, not to split the difference -- they say, in "wishy-washy" manner -- but to explore "a heretofore ignored link" between "intuitions and virtues," which, by and large, are social constructions.
Human beings, they posit or observe, come equipped with "intuitive ethics," "innate preparedness" to approve or disapprove patterns of human events. The main four are those surrounding "suffering, hierarchy, reciprocity, and purity," which undergird our moral systems. Then they consider five systems that deal with cultural variables and presumed human universals. They hasten next to link all this to "virtue theory," at which point the analysis becomes relevant to Sightings. "Virtues are social skills," born of discipline based on intuition. The following paragraph shouts "relevance" and demands further inquiry:
"In our own research we have found that American Muslims and American political conservatives value virtues of kindness, respect for authority, fairness and spiritual purity. American liberals, however, rely more heavily on virtues rooted in the suffering module (liberals have a much keener ability to detect victimization) and the reciprocity module (virtues of equality, rights, and fairness). For liberals, the conservative virtues of hierarchy and order seem too closely related to oppression, and the conservative virtues of purity seem to have too often been used to exclude or morally taint whole groups (e.g., blacks, homosexuals, sexually active women.) Conservatives counter with critiques."
The two authors are not wishy-washy splitters of the difference, but are, indeed, scholars genuinely concerned to understand why individuals and groups tend to make the moral choices they do. "It is our hope that a fuller understanding of the links between virtues and intuitions will lead to greater tolerance and respect -- between liberals and conservatives, between people of different nations, and, perhaps in the far distant future, between [as they have defined them, above] nativists and empiricists."
All this is very tentative, but such understandings, empirically-based or grounded in intuition, can contribute in a time of sore and deep divisions.
References and Further Reading:
The authors recommend George Latoff, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don't (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.