Are you as perplexed as I regarding the acrimony in American Politics?  The rift is peppered with claims of amorality and threats of calamity.  It’s almost as if the opposing parties come from entirely different realities.  Perhaps they do.  I have gained some insight into the liberal-conservative divide thanks to Jonathon Haidt’s work, particularly his Moral Foundations Theory.


Haidt contends that the political divide itself boils down to five universal and transcendent morals held to varying degrees by individuals across all cultures and civilizations.  He demonstrated how these moral values group in predictable ways.  In particular, he has identified two dichotomous groupings that had been previously discussed respectively by John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim.


Haidt describes the first cluster as the Individualizing Foundation, where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals.  Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009).  The second cluster of values is referred to as the Binding Foundation, which weighs more heavily moral issues that increase social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.


Haidt noted that liberals value above all the Individualizing Foundation and hold a relative devaluation of the Binding Foundation.  Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to hold the Binding Foundation as being of equal relative importance as the Individualizing Foundations.  This conceptualization helped me understand why less affluent conservatives support the Republican agenda regardless of the negative economic impact that such support bestows upon them.  They vote based on values that resonate with them.  It also helps explain how people at each extreme can take a stand that they contend is morally superior while their adversaries are viewed as being unprincipled and amoral.  The reality is that each perspective stems from a position of deeply held principles.


I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Rather than looking at this political divide in terms of morality, Pinker frames it in terms of divergent views of human nature. Underlying this political divide is a deeper and more rancorous debate about what defines human nature.  This issue is as old as civilization itself and was, for example, evident in the divergent lifestyles of the conflicted Greek City States of Athens and Sparta.  Pinker contends that the political divide really comes down to how individuals attribute the motives and behaviors of people in general. It is a very basic question of how one views the human race and what drives human behavior.


Pinker takes a stand against the commonly held notion that human nature is a blank slate shaped exclusively through environmental circumstances influenced by economic, political, and social forces.   The notion of a blank slate concedes social determinism, which is a position that is favored by liberals.  Evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience bring to the table substantial evidence that suggests that there are indeed genetic or biological determinants of behavior.  Accepting this reality comes with the dreadful reality that such notions guided the eugenics movement that resulted in the holocaust (and other horrible crimes of humanity).


As it turns out, political attitudes, for example, are largely, although not entirely, determined by heredity.  Pinker quotes a study of political attitudes among identical twins reared apart where the correlation coefficient was .62.  This suggests that genetics accounts for 38% of the determination of political attitude.  Such a notion is sacrilege to those on the left.  It is deeply disturbing for me, as one who leans heavily to the left on political issues, to learn that my inclinations to accept the findings of these increasingly powerful sciences at some level, distances me from other liberal thinkers.  How can this be?


You see, liberals emanate from the sociological tradition that holds the position that society “is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts.  People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism” (Pinker, 2002 p. 284).   On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold the belief that “society is an arrangement negotiated by rational, self-interested individuals.  Society emerges when people agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security from the depredations of others wielding their own autonomy” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).


The modern theory of evolution aligns best with the latter economic contract paradigm, where natural selection results in complex individual adaptations benefiting individuals rather than the species or community.  This theory holds that “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation” and that “reciprocal altruism, in particular, is just the traditional concept of the social contract restated in biological terms” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).  To make this dichotomy more clear it might help to think of the sociological tradition as being consistent with Marxist thinking while the social contract is more consistent with Milton Friedman’s free-market conservatism.


At the core of these paradigms are very different conceptualizations of human nature.  Thomas Sowell has captured this dichotomy in his book A Conflict of Visions where he delineates those visions as being either constrained or unconstrained.  Pinker adapted these labels to be more descriptive and thus refers to them respectively as Tragic (a term Sowell later adopted) and Utopian.  These visions refer to the “perfectibility of man” whereas the Tragic Vision holds that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue” and that as a result “all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.”   This  pessimistic view of human nature, is steeped in biological determinism and the acknowledgment of self interested motives. The liberal or Utopian View contends that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements.”  It is believed that economic deprivation elicits social depravity and that social engineering can eradicate the ills of society.


Sowell and Pinker suggest that these very visions of human nature shape the belief mechanisms or morals that result in divergent social policies.  For example, people who hold the Tragic Vision are more likely to support a strong military because of an inherent human selfishness and the inclination to compete for resources.  They are more likely to value religion, tough criminal sentences, strong policing, and judicial restraint because people need to be constrained in order to maintain an orderly and cohesive society.  Likewise, because of this pessimistic view of human nature, people inclined to hold such a view are likely to be censorious, meritocratic, pragmatic, and pro business.


People holding the Utopian View are likely to be idealistic, egalitarian, pacifistic, secularist, and more likely to tolerate homosexuality, to be in favor of the rehabilitation of criminals, judicial activism, generous social welfare programs, and affirmative action.  They are also more likely to be environmentalists. Pinker’s contention is that all these values, more or less, are heritable and that as a result, people are likely to hold them as self defining.  Subsequently, these beliefs are typically not amenable or susceptible to change because they are often held without a rationally based understanding of them.  Such deeply held (intuitive) and heritable attitudes quickly spark emotional responses when challenged and people do not move away from such notions even when reason compels them to do so.


So it seems, at the core of the contentious political divide there are discrepant realities pertaining to the very essence of what it is to be a human being.  And that essence is evolving regardless of the ideologies that shape the political climate.  Perhaps we can escape the gridlock by acknowledging the disconnect between ideology and reality and embrace a truer essence of humanity.  That reality, it seems, is a blend of the Tragic and Utopian Visions where human behavior is guided by both social and biological determinants.  Reality, as it turns out, is often queerer than one can suppose.


Breaking the chains of ideology necessarily involves abandoning and overpowering intuition, which is itself, a formidable task. But social morays have evolved over time as we have gained deeper insight into humankind. Lets hope for continued evolution!




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?


Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.


Moral Foundations Theory

24 September 2010


Last week in my article entitled Political Divide, I introduced Jonathon Haidt’s work and the theoretical framework that attempts to explain the current pervasive and seemingly intractable political acrimony within the United States. Haidt and his colleagues offer the Moral Foundations Theory, the implications of which, suggest that this divide is a result of a moral relativism of sorts – whereas one’s moral composition essentially drives one’s political affiliation. Despite the perspective from each of the polar extremes, individuals in the opposite group are not in fact amoral, instead, Haidt et al., (2009) claim that they have different valuations of five universal morals. According to Haidt, the five universal morals include: (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty – (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (“mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates” Haidt, 2008); and (e) purity/sanctity (“related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble” Haidt, 2008).


From a political perspective, liberals tend to value care and fairness at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and hold a lower valuation of ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity – while conservatives value all at a uniform lower level. Haidt’s research consistently and empirically suggests that these moral inclinations are strongly linked to the aforementioned political tendencies (2009). I thought it would be helpful this week, to look more thoroughly at the five universal morals in relation to some political hot button issues. I am interested in getting a better understanding of what morals drive the support and/or condemnation of these issues?

At the core of the divide are two foundational issues. The moral values of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are referred to by Haidt, et al. (2009) as Individualizing Foundations where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals. Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009). The second, Binding Foundation, weighs more heavily moral issues such as ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The implied outcome of focus on these variables is increased social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-retraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.


Let’s look at some of the issues and lay them out relative to these foundational issues.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Those inclined to value Individualizing Foundations would be inclined to see the policy, as it stands, as ridiculous because it presumes an inherent difference in capability based one’s sexuality. The moral valuation of equality and fairness as well as distaste for discrimination drives the belief that one should not be devalued or discriminated against based on whether one is heterosexual or homosexual. Whereas one inclined to have more relative valuation of authority, purity, and ingroup loyalty, may have more concern about what religion has to say about homosexuality, sensitivity to maintaining the orderliness and comfort of an “all” heterosexual force, strong revulsion of those who engage in sexuality that is different than their own, and respect for the authority of the status quo.


Gay Marriage
Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, the community, and God” is the argument made by those with stronger relative Binding Foundations. One may argue that the Bible asserts this sacred relationship as being one only between a man and a woman. Purity, sanctity, ingroup loyalty, and authority all drive this belief. But again, one with Individualizing Foundational thinking might devalue the importance of the above moral inclinations in preference of the values of fairness and equality. One might argue that love is love, and any two individuals who love one another, should have the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities of any other two humans, regardless of the gender of the individuals involved.


Stem Cell Research
This issue may boil down to the difference between fundamental religious beliefs driven by strong relative valuation of purity and sanctity. It also reflects one’s inclinations to believe whether one has a soul or not and when, in fact, the soul is unified with the body. The issue of the soul is a complicated one with intense importance to some and little to no relevance for others. Those who foresee the potential benefits to those who are harmed by grave diseases value stem cell research because of this potential and may be among those that are less concerned about sanctity.


This highly personal issue again, in many cases, boils down to the sanctity of life. Those inclined to support a woman’s right to choose, likely value individual rights and foresee the potential harm that unwanted pregnancies may bring to a woman. They also place the important responsibility of one’s body solely in the hands of the woman. Rape or incest, as well as danger to the mother, in particular, are seen as being important situations where a woman should have the right to choose. Yet many equate abortion with murder, and for many this could not be further from the truth. There are clear and distinct differences here and both sides claim that morality is on their side.


Health Care Reform
One may argue that health care is, or should be, a fundamental human right: and that all people, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, race, sex, or ability should have access to medical services. Others, it seems, hold that it should be a privilege of success. The former represents morality that is based in thinking that highly values equality and fairness. The latter notion, however, is based in vigilance for freeloaders – an aspect of the Binding Foundation.


The Bush Tax Cuts
Those with an Individualizing Foundations mindset generally value a progressive tax structure due to the perceived fairness of it. They believe that those who hold the most wealth should bare a greater share of the burden of caring for the less fortunate among us. They also may argue that the wealthy accumulate their capital as a result of the work performed for them by those who are the less well off. The well to do also benefit from the infrastructure laid down by governments. Regressive taxes it is believed, disproportionately burden the poor with a greater share of the tax load. Diminished government spending also disproportionately affects the poor with regard to education, health care, nutrition, and housing. This cost savings to the wealthy leads to greater income divergence and as a result, subsequent increases in murder, theft, assault, school drop outs, substance abuse, spousal abuse, unwed mothers, and so on. This fundamentally challenges the notion of fairness and reciprocity. On the other hand, those with a Binding Foundational mindset recoil at the notion of freeloaders who cheat the system and are enabled by their government. They may see entitlements as fundamentally flawed handouts that encourage social decline as manifested by AFDC that encourages single parent families. There is an underlying belief that those with wealth are solely responsible for their position in life and that it is unfair for them to have to care for the lazy freeloaders among us. Part of this may stem for the increased valuation of authority and to a certain degree, ingroup loyalty. Some may believe that the wealthy have succeeded because of their internal attributes and work ethic. While the poor, may be likewise responsible for their positions in life because of their own character flaws. Purity may play a role in this.


Issue by issue, the Moral Foundations Theory can be used in such a fashion to account for such moral divergence. Be the issue, immigration, privatization of social security, corporate bailouts, you name it, this model helps explain it. I’m sure there are weaknesses with this model and I hope you are inclined to share your impressions. But for me, I am more inclined to look and listen more deeply knowing that opposing positions are not essentially rooted in baseless principles. How do you think?




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?

 | Posted by | Categories: Morality, Politics, Psychology, Religion | Tagged: , |

Political Divide

17 September 2010

The state of affairs in the United States when it comes to politics seems intractable.  I used to believe that a person’s political position could be easily placed on a traditional left – right continuum.  However, if you watch the political pundits on TV, this no longer seems possible.  Apparently there are two distinct mindsets with little or no room for overlap.  The most vociferous of those on the conservative right often hold those on the left in contempt for being socialist, immoral, elitist, unpatriotic, pro baby killing, pro-entitlement, anti-gun, pro-tax, and pro-big government.  Likewise, many liberals just can’t understand the narrow-minded, selfish, corporatist, nationalist, bigoted, anti-populist platform of the right.  The folks on the right just don’t seem to understand why people on the left would see any value in “entitlements,” or support gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, Keynesian economic policies, embryonic stem cell research, or value the environment over business interests.  And the Friedman Free Market  economic policies that promote business and capital accumulation in the hands of a few just baffle many of those on the left.  The differences are vast and the emotional divide is scary deep.


When it comes to social situations, politics can be a deadly third rail.  Often, people are deeply entrenched in their ideology, and cannot find a healthy place to begin discussing diverse perspectives. The issues take on a significance much like religion.  Either you get it or you don’t.  And if you don’t, well you are an outsider.


This divide has driven much of my curiosity regarding how people think.  I know, respect, and love people on both sides of this divide.  I’ve been looking for a way to bridge the gap or at least come to terms with why such divergence exists.  I wrote a blog post earlier this year called Moral Instinct and in it I referenced Jonathon Haidt’s work.  Dr. Haidt is a Professor of Social Psychology in the  Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.  He studies morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures.


In 2008 he published an intriguing paper called What Makes People Vote Republican?  More recently Haidt published Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).  This paper explicitly deals with, from an empirical perspective, the essence of my question.  Haidt starts his paper with:

“Political campaigns spend vast sums appealing to the self-interests of voters, yet rational self-interest often shows a weak and unstable relationship to voting behavior (Kinder, 1998; Miller, 1999; Sears & Funk, 1991). Voters are also influenced by a wide variety of social and emotional forces (Marcus, 2002; Westen, 2007). Some of these forces are trivial or peripheral factors whose influence we lament, such as a candidate’s appearance (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). In recent years increasing attention has been paid to the role of another class of non-self-interested concerns: morality. Voters who seem to vote against their material self-interest are sometimes said to be voting instead for their values, or for their vision of a good society (Lakoff, 2004; Westen, 2007). However, the idea of what makes for a good society is not universally shared. The “culture war” that has long marked American politics (Hunter, 1991) is a clash of visions about such fundamental moral issues as the authority of parents, the sanctity of life and marriage, and the proper response to social inequalities.”


Haidt’s contention is that this culture war boils down to an issue of differing moral schema. Some might argue that it is purely an issue of degree of morality – both sides can legitimately claim a moral high ground (at least from their vantage points). As it turns out, morality is nuanced and necessitates a more complex understanding than what has traditionally been understood to be a singular concept quantified by a matter of degree. So it is not as though Republicans are more moral than Democrats (or vice versa), it is that Republican values differ in emphasis relative to Democratic values.


To make this more concrete, I need to expand upon the discussion of morality.  A common conceptualization of morality from the late 20th Century was put forth by the Berkley psychologist Elliot Turiel who said that morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other” (Haidt, 2008).  This definition might resonate with some – particularly those with liberal tendencies, but it misses several core issues that are important to a substantial subset of the population.  Haidt (2008) notes that morality is more than the golden rule,  it has to do with “….binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” These latter issues constitute the divide in the culture war, driving the conservative platform on issues relevant to God, Gays, guns, and immigration (Haidt, 2008).   The people on the right tend to hold a moral imperative to foster a unified and morally ordered society.


Each side of the debate holds deep convictions regarding what makes up a good society.  Liberals seem to hold morals consistent with a “contractual society” championed by John Stuart Mill, whereas a “…Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good” (Haidt 2008).


Conservatives tend to hold values more in line with sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who valued social order, restraint,  and conventions all held together by a strict authority.   “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups” (Haidt, 2008).


Haidt has been conducting research into what have been identified as five universal morals (similar in concept to those laid out by Mill and Durkheim) including: (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty – (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (“mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates” Haidt, 2008); and (e) purity/sanctity (“related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble” Haidt, 2008).  Millians and liberals tend to value care and fairness at a higher level than their conservative counterparts and hold a lower valuation of ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sancity – while conservatives value all at a uniform level.  See Figure 1 below for the distribution of values by political affiliation as reported in Graham, Haidt, and Nosek’s (2009) paper.

Haidt (2008) notes:

“In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.”


I found that my moral value scores lined up perfectly with my political affiliation.   You can see for yourself where your values fall relative to your political affiliation by taking the Moral Foundations Questionnaire at If you look at the data you’ll see that strongly conservative folks are not more moral than strongly liberal folks, it is just that they weigh the universal morals differently.  It is these tendencies that leave individuals in both groups questioning the morals of the other group.  On all moral domains there is divergence.  If you look at the issues individually through the lenses of those with divergent perspectives it is not difficult to see how liberals could judge conservatives as amoral and vice versa.   When looking at this social divergence from the framework that Haidt puts forth, the divide becomes less enigmatic.


Go to Haidt’s website and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and see how your results fit with your political affiliation and then let me know how you feel about your score and the subsequent implications.  Next week I’ll delve a bit deeper into Haidt’s paper entitled Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).




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?


I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.


Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.


Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.


Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.


Historically, morality has not been considered a topic of discussion within the domain of science. Instead, this issue has almost exclusively been within the purview of religion. Increasingly, however, concepts such as moral instinct have gained legitimacy as discussed by scientists such as Steven Pinker and Jonathon Haidt, who argue that there are neurological factors associated with morality and that natural selection has played a fundamental role in shaping universal instinctual moral truths. The evidence for this position is compelling. The question remains: “Can science offer moral guidance?” In other words, should science play a role in helping us discern what is right or wrong? Or does science have to relinquish issues of morality to other social systems based solely on historical precedence?


First of all, the definition of morality has to be accepted. defines morality as “conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of morality reads as follows “descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior; or normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” These definitions are devoid of the de facto notion that this concept is values based. Sam Harris argues, and I believe most people would agree, that human values pertain to circumstances that have the positive affect of enhancing the well being of conscious beings. As such, it does not seem like a reach to suggest that science can play a role in setting the parameters of morality.


Quite simply, it can be suggested that there are certain conditions under which humans are more likely to prosper and other conditions under which they are more likely to falter. For instance it is known that children raised in a loving environment where life’s basic needs are provided for, are more likely to grow into happy and productive adults than those raised in hostile and deprived environments. We may intuitively know this, but it is science that provides the evidence for such claims.  The profession of psychology devotes considerable resources to this pursuit. As a psychologist myself I employ evidenced based practices as I endeavor to facilitate the betterment of my clients’ lives. Why is it then, that we dismiss the influences of science when we discuss morals? At a recent TED Conference Sam Harris posed this very question.


I suggest, as did Harris, that science is very capable of pointing us, as a society, in the right direction when it comes to morals and values. Russell Blackford wrote in his post on Harris’ speech that “…science can give us information about what individual conduct, moral systems, laws, and so on are likely to lead to such plausible goals for ….. individual and collective human flourishing, social survival, and reduction of suffering. Any source of information about what will lead to goals such as these has some moral authority.


Harris argues that it boils down to understanding the conditions that lead to human flourishing – and accepting that these conditions are fundamental facts that should serve as the basis of universal morals. He further contends that there are distinctly problematic values within our current human systems that run counter to human flourishing. For example he discusses the costs of the extremist cultural expectation for women of Islam to wear burkas (and the brutal costs of non-compliance). He contrasts this with the unrealistically perfect portrayal of the female body in modern western cultures. Neither of these circumstances promotes healthy thriving circumstances for young women.


He also argues that religion should not be given a pass when it comes to the values they promote just because of their religious status. The natural deference given to religion in our “pluralistic” society in fact, promotes many clearly harmful practices (including the prohibition of birth control, the denial of civil liberties for homosexual couples, sanctioned murder of victims of rape to preserve the honor of the family, male foreskin and in some cultures clitoral circumcision, and the application of prayer in lieu of modern medical services particularly for ill children).  Values rendered in distant Bronze Age cultures and sustained based on ideology are far from being in touch with those values that are likely to promote healthy human development today.


Individuals suffer, indeed society as a whole suffers when these or similar prohibitions and/or expectations thrive.  Science, it seems to me is far more capable of really looking at the human and societal costs of such “values.”  Harris suggests that “Morality is certainly a domain where knowledge and expertise applies.” We need to “bring into our dialogue the issues of these truths of right and wrong.”  By accepting that values are drawn based on quality of life issues pertaining to the greater good of all, and by accepting that there are certain truths pertaining to life experiences that either enhance or impinge upon the well being of the human conscious, then isn’t the domain of science to draw out these truths?




Blackford, Russell. 2010. Sam Harris on Science and Morality. Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.


Harris, Sam. 2010. Science can answer moral questions. TED Conference.

 | Posted by | Categories: Evolution, Morality, Science | Tagged: , |

Nature is harsh. This reality is evidenced with potential discomfort to those who care to open their eyes to what goes on around us. Most living creatures struggle to survive, facing either limited resources or predation on a continual basis. In most developed nations many humans escape this reality, but not too long ago even we had to struggle survive.


I remember the reality of this struggle burning into my memory cells as a child while watching nature shows like The Underwater Odyssey of Commander Cousteau and Wild Kingdom. I vividly recall the horror and intrigue I experienced watching cheetahs and lions chasing down and killing antelope or gazelles. To this day I experience a visceral response when I witness this predation carried to its conclusion with the blood soaked carnivore licking it’s chops. Harsh indeed!


The moral implications of nature’s harshness has stirred our intellect for quite some time. It certainly weighed heavily on Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. A pressing question in natural theology asked how a benevolent and loving God could create such a system with pervasive suffering. Stephen Jay Gould, in perhaps his most famous essay, titled Nonmoral Nature addressed this very issue.


Gould (1982) provides a historical review of this controversy dating back to the mid nineteenth century. One particular scholar from that era, William Buckland, gained comfort from the notion that predation is moral because carnivores increase “the aggregate of animal enjoyment” and “diminish that of pain” because:

Death after all, is swift and relatively painless, victims are spared the ravages of decrepitude and senility, and populations do not outrun their food supply to the greater sorrow of all.”

Buckland concluded that predation on a grand scale is moral. But to some, the real challenge to the morality of nature lies outside run of the mill predation. The reproduction cycle of the ichneumon fly epitomizes this challenge.


The ichneumon fly is is actually a wasp belonging to the ichneumonoidea superfamily. This diverse group of insects lay their eggs on or in other insects setting into motion a synchronized chain of events that defies any sense of morality. The endoparasitic ichneumon wasps insert their eggs into the body of their host (e.g., caterpillars, aphids, or spiders). The larvae upon hatching carefully ingest their host’s internal organs – first devouring the non-essential tissues saving the vital organs for last so as to prolong the life of their meal. The ectoparasitic ichneumons sting and paralyze the host before laying eggs on the exterior of the host’s body. The paralysis is permanent but the host remains alive. Once the eggs hatch the larvae penetrate the host’s body and again selectively devour the incapacitated but fully alive host little by little, sustaining the live fresh meal as long as possible.


This process is, to say the least, horrifying to contemplate. We humans do not cope well with the notion of parasites on or in our body. Think of the circus that ensues when a child comes home from school with head lice. Think of the horror and shame associated with pubic lice. How about scabies or tape worms? People don’t even like to hear that approximately 10% of our body mass is that of our essential parasitic partners (bacteria). One does not have to use much imagination to shudder with the notion of being slowly devoured from within. ‘Alien’ – need I say more.


The ichneumon reproduction contrivance became the supreme challenge to the morality of the designer. Gould wrote of the 19th Century theologians who attempted to resolve this dilemma by anthropomorphizing the mother’s love for its progeny and by downplaying the implications of the plight of the host. They also suggested that this approach may be adaptive for humans as the predation has the effect of minimizing crop loss due to the ravenous appetites of living caterpillars. Finally, they argued that animals are not moral agents, and that they thus must feel little, if any pain. They suggested that lower life forms and even “primitive people suffer less than advanced and cultured folk. It was also believed during this Victorian era that consciousness was only within the realm of man. Needless to say, these arguments fail to resolve the dilemma if one contends that there is a “lurking goodness behind everything.” Darwin wrote in a 1856 note to Joseph Hooker:

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!”

Gould wrote that in the face of this conundrum intellectuals had two options:

  1. Retain the notion “that nature holds moral messages” and that morality involves knowing the ways of nature and doing the opposite. Be not a savage – be not an animal.
  2. Accept that nature is nonmoral, that it is what it is, that morality plays no role in the struggle for existence.

Darwin himself leaned toward the second option although he struggled with letting go of the notion that the laws of nature might denote some higher purpose.  In his essay, Gould (1982) suggested that:

Since ichneumons are a detail, and since natural selection is a law regulating details, the answer to the ancient dilema of why such cruelty (in our terms) exists in nature can only be that there isn’t any answer – and that framing the question “in our terms” is thoroughly inappropriate in a natural world neither made for us nor ruled by us. It just plain happens.”

It is a strategy that works for ichneumons and that natural selection has programmed into their behavioral repertoire. Caterpillars are not suffering to teach us something; they have simply been outmaneuvered, for now, in the evolutionary game.”


I too, am inclined toward the notion that nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral. Should I be wrong about this, I am inclined to be reluctant to meet its designer.




Gould, S. J. 1982. ‘Nonmoral Nature.’ Natural History. 91. pg.19-26.

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