Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing
I am a caring and compassionate man with deep concerns about humanity. Of utmost importance to me is the issue of human flourishing, which roughly translated, incorporates wellness, happiness, success, and adaptive functioning not only for the individual, but for society in general. Individual flourishing necessitates societal flourishing and vice versa. One does not rise at the expense of the other. Promoting human flourishing has been my life’s work.
I see around me much acrimony, the source of which often ascends from moral inclinations from diverse cultures. This concerns me, as one ought to suppose that morality should promote human flourishing. Should it not instill virtue and wellness for all? Unfortunately, the moral teachings of the world’s religions pitch one belief against another. And it does not take much effort to see that virtually all ideologically based moral systems actually inhibit human flourishing for many.
At the core of these issues are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters. Deeper still, at the root of many erroneous human inclinations, is a flawed brain that makes us vulnerable to ideology and likely to sustain beliefs without good reason.
Our brains sustain vestigial mechanisms that render us prone to all sorts of cognitive errors and illusions. As a major consequence, we are inclined to hold on to belief systems regardless of substantive evidence to suggest that we just might be wrong. This Cognitive Conservatism is a universal human attribute, and it plays out as we disregard, devalue, discredit, and/or out-write ignore evidence that contradicts previously held beliefs. At the same time, we gladly take in evidence that confirms our beliefs. This is an undeniable truth about the human condition.
Suffice it to say that our brains are belief engines leaving us vulnerable to mysticism and disinclined to accept aggregated evidence. As such, our moral guidance has been historically guided by intuition (how things seem) as opposed to reason (how things actually are). As a result, our intuitions in modern times are often wrong. We tend to be compelled by anecdotes and stories rather than data. We have relied on intuition and apparent correlations to guide us, and only recently has the scientific method entered our consciousness (circa 1400).
Another problematic inclination stems from our tribal tendencies. Because of this we have developed a wide variety of diverse and often incompatible moral doctrines. We have for fear of cultural insensitivity and accusation of bias, been pressured to accept as “moral” such atrocities as genital mutilation, genocide, and the demonization of homosexuality. Although we might not view such acts as moral, the perpetrators certainly do. This Moral Relativism, I believe is a grave error, particularly when you look at the subsequent consequences relative to human flourishing.
In some cultures it is acceptable to engage in honor killing. For example, to torture, mutilate, or kill a female family member who has been a victim of rape is considered honorable. Or consider martyrdom. Suicide bombers fully believe that they are serving their God by killing infidels. They further believe that they and 70 of their closest family and friends will be granted eternal bliss in the afterlife for doing God’s benevolent work. Can we rightfully accept that either of these acts advances human flourishing? Is it truly acceptable to condone either act because it is believed to be morally acceptable by their culture? Is disapproving of these acts culturally insensitive or indicative of bias?
Using the same logic, is it acceptable to limit the expression of romantic love to only those that happen to be from the opposite sex? Does rendering homosexuality illegal or immoral, promote or hinder human flourishing? I suggest that it accomplishes the latter. And are not the origins of the beliefs that render homosexuality wrong, wrought from the same belief mechanisms that encourage martyrdom or honor killings?
If I am driven to use evidence to guide decisions regarding what promotes or diminishes human flourishing, one has to ask the question: “Is science biased?” I recently read articles by morality guru Jonathon Haidt who suggested that indeed this may be the case. He didn’t really argue that the data rendered by Social Psychologists was flawed. He simply argued that the scientists themselves (in the field of social psychology) are heavily skewed to the liberal left. The problem I have with his argument is that scientists use evidence to guide their beliefs, and as such, end up sharing liberal inclinations. Does that render them biased? I believe not. There is a substantial difference between those that base their beliefs on evidence and those that base their beliefs on ideology. It is more true to say that ideologues are biased because their beliefs that are unprovable and generally devoid of any real evidence. This, I believe, is far more dubious.
Speaking of bias, I recently read an article written by a Roman Catholic Priest that derided National Public Radio (NPR) as being biased on par with right wing conservative media outlets. The context of the argument was NPR’s inclination to cover the issue of homosexuality in a way that condoned it. Because the author holds the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and NPR comes off as pro gay marriage (as well as taking other pro “liberal” positions), the author suggests that NPR, as an institution, is biased. I could not disagree more with this notion. NPR may have a liberal slant, but this does not automatically imply that it is biased. I would argue that at NPR there is a stronger inclination to use evidence-based, rather than ideologically-based reason to guide its reporting. Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do? Somehow, because the evidence does not support the moral inclinations of the church, or those of social conservatives, it is biased? I think not!
This accusation of bias is wrong at a profoundly deep level! Even if 90% of scientists are secular liberals, that does not render the facts that they expose as biased. There is only one truth – and if the truth does not fit one’s beliefs, that doesn’t render it less truthful. Moral relativism opens the door to multiple truths and renders evidence meaningless. If we condone such thinking, then who are we to judge those who brought down the World Trade Center towers as “evil doers?”
Likewise, who are we to diminish the quality of life of a small but no less significant portion of our population because they happen to be born gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Within consenting relationships, does gender really matter? Can it be argued that making same sex intimacy illicit, diminishes human flourishing? Yes it can, and it most definitely does!
When ideology crosses a line that diminishes human flourishing it has gone too far. I am reminded of what I wrote in Surprise Chautauqua after listening to Bishop John Shelby Spong.
“Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures. His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story. He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.”
I am incensed when religious doctrine results in human suffering. This is particularly true with regard to the Catholic Church who squandered any hope of offering moral guidance with regard to sexuality when it systematically aided and abetted pedophiles. The Catholic Church should be granted no more moral authority than radical Islam. Their respective track records with regard to promoting human flourishing are abysmal. Only when we have the courage to stop turning a blind eye toward social injustice and stop condoning systematic human degradation (because it is consistent with a religious “moral” teaching) will all of humanity be able to truly thrive.