We humans are a unique species – capable of both incredible compassion and unequaled brutality. We are also unique in the degree to which we congregate in social communities. Social Psychologists refer to this propensity to gather as we do, as being ultra social. Unlike other ultra social species (e.g., wasps, ants, bees, termites, and naked mole rats) who band together in kin-based groups for procreation, we humans join together for other more complex reasons. (Haidt, 2008) Those things that bind us, it is argued, are also the things that fuel our brutality.
We are particularly good at joining together when in competition with other groups (Haidt, 2011). Evidence suggests that this has been true since the very beginning of humankind, and it is evidenced today by family loyalty (e.g., I can bad mouth my brother but an outsider cannot), cliques that form in schools (e.g., jocks, heads, nerds), by community organizations (Elks, Masons, Kiwanis, Rotarians), by the spirit surrounding high school, college, and professional sports teams, as well as by Churches (e.g., Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, Fundamentalists, Unitarians), Mosques (e.g., Shia and Sunni), and Synagogues (e.g., Orthodox Jews, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist). We also see this in civic pride (by town, city, region, and state) national pride (patriotism), in the gatherings of individuals by racial affiliation, by sexual orientation, by professional affiliation, ancestral heritage, and political affiliation. We bind together and join with people who share important beliefs, values, allegiances, interests, histories, and/or symbols.
There is substantial evidence to believe that this proclivity to be drawn together, and at the same time, to be divided into camps, is driven by morality. We humans have evolved, it seems, innate moral values that transcend all cultures. I have discussed this in Political Divide, Moral Instinct, Moral Foundations Theory, and Human Nature at the Core of the Political Divide in an effort to understand the vast differences in thinking evidenced within and across our cultures. Even among my family members, all of whom I dearly love, their are vast differences that often leave me perplexed. Jonathon Haidt’s research on Moral Foundations Theory, his talk at TED, and his recent controversial statements about bias in the social sciences inspired this post and have helped me come to grips with the deep divisions throughout society and within my family.
First, I must provide a brief recap of Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt (based on an extensive review of the research across multiple disciplines), the five universal morals include: (1) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (2) fairness/reciprocity (equal rights, justice, and fairness for all); (3) ingroup/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (4) authority/respect (clear lines of authority, uniform expectations, and appropriate deference to the law and authority figures); and (5) purity/sanctity (clear and pure social morals in step with piety, as well as revulsion of disgust/carnality).
You see, across the five universal morals, people differ in the degree to which they value each moral. This is evidenced most clearly in Haidt’s research on the degree to which Liberals and Conservatives deviate on their weighting of the importance of each specific value. See Political Divide for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.
Liberals seem to value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity above the others, devaluing ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. They look out for the little guy and highly value equal rights for all. They also value diversity, are open to experience – tending to enjoy creativity and novelty. They may see harm in overreaching government intrusion (e.g., Patriot Act), danger in blind nationalism, and the injustices in puritanical religions and free market capitalism (particularly for those at the bottom – namely: women, children, and minorities). Think of places like New York City or San Francisco where diversity and creativity abound and are in many ways celebrated. Conservatives tend to look at the social entropy and degradation in such places as evidence of immorality.
Conservatives tend to hold all of the values on an equal level. They do value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity but less so than Liberals. But unlike Liberals, they do highly value ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. As a result they tend to value social order, restraint, and conventions all held together by a strict authority. They value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups (Haidt, 2008). Liberals tend to view such systems as repressive, invasive, and constrictive.
Liberals and Conservatives join together in their respective camps forming what Haidt (2011) refers to as Tribal Moral Communities. Such banding is not unique to those with strong political affiliations – this proclivity transcends society. And what characterizes a Tribal Moral Community is a grouping of people who rally around sacred objects and principles (e.g., the flag, patriotism, freedom, religion) in such a way that their sacralized truths render them blind to the truths held by the outgroup.
Conflict and brutality can arise when the people rally around the certainty that their moral position is correct. Threats to a Moral Tribal Community tend to incite its constituents to become intuitive theologians, employing reason not to find the truth but rather to defend their moral position. They tend to circle the wagons around their belief systems becoming rigid and impervious to input (especially facts that challenge one’s position). (Haidt, 2011)
To make this more concrete lets look at a few examples of Tribal Moral Communities. Of particular note is the conservative stand denying anthropogenic global warming because of the implications it has on their free-market ideology. Belief in an ideology blinds adherents to the evidence.
Lets also consider the conflict between fundamentalist Christians and Scientists who contend that, based on a huge convergence of objective evidence from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, that the universe is over 13.67 billion years old, that the earth is 4.56 billion years old, and that all living organisms are interrelated, having evolved by means of natural selection to their current forms over billions of years. Because the Bible is considered sacred text – scientific evidence that undermines the word of God is often vilified rather than objectively scrutinized.
And then there are the proponents of vaccines and the anti vaccine folks, Socialists and Capitalists, Free-Market and Keynesian Economists, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choice Advocates, the LGBT Community and religious conservatives, the Hutus’ and Tutsis of Rwanda, the Zaghawa and Tama tribes of Chad, the Sunni and Shia of Islam, Al Qaeda and the US, Iran and the US, North Korea and the US, and I could go on and on. At the core of each of these divisions is a moral divide that stirs both binding forces that fuel patriotism and in-group loyalty and blinding forces that have the potential of negating the moral standing of, or even the humanity of those in the out-group.
It is this capacity that has fueled humanity’s most brutal behavior. Picture in your mind, images from Auschwitz,from the lynchings of African Americans in the South, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and from 9/11. All of these were fueled by moral authority.
Of course there are degrees of effect associated with Tribal Moral Communities. Dr. Haidt has gone out on a limb to challenge his own professional community. He has noted that according to Gallop polls over the last ten years, 40% of Americans consider themselves Conservative, 20% Liberal, and 38% Moderates. Yet in the field of Social Psychology, approximately 90% are acknowledged Liberals – with less than 1% acknowledged Conservatives. He contends that this narrow political perspective weakens the field, although he did not suggest that the research to date has been flawed. He suggests rather, that it would likely be bettered if more conservatives were in the field to bring the richness of diversity that it currently lacks. (Haidt, 2011).
There are other important gradients to consider. Here in the United States for example, rarely do Buffalo Bills fans and Miami Dolphin fans brutalize one another. But African Americans, Gays, Jews, American’s of Middle Eastern descent, and even doctors employed at family planning clinics have not been so lucky.
Clearly morality binds, but is also blinds. Every body believes that their moral perspective is the correct moral perspective, and given the brutality we see among us, it is certain that we all cannot be right. Our certainty and righteousness unites us into teams that have the effect of amplifying that certainty and righteousness. This binding also has the propensity to divide us and ultimately blind us to reality. Therefore, for any sacralized issue, if we want the truth we must be willing to step away from ideology and open our minds to the possibility that we may be wrong or at least partially wrong and that the outgroup may be right or at least partially right. That is the first step, if you are truly interested in the truth.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
Haidt, J. (2011). The Bright Future of Post Partisan Social Psychology. Talk given at the annual conference for the Sociaty for Personality and Social Psychology.
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral Instinct. The New York Times. January 13, 2008.