Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Jonathon Haidt

Evolutionary Psychology

-Jeff Polet

I’m always interested when writers make some sort of assertion about the biological bases of moral judgments. It is an outgrowth of the field known as “evolutionary biology”—a field of study with which I have a fascination that is both morbid and comical—whose application to politics went mainstream when Jonathan Haidt published his rather odd and compelling The Righteous Mind. 

Recently in Quilette, a website that audaciously but not implausibly claims is the place “where free thought lives,” Stephen Martin Fritz and Denise Morel wrote the following:

Conservatism and liberalism are mistakenly viewed as purely political expressions when, upon reflection, they reveal fundamental, biologically based moral outlooks that we apply to all situations. We are conservative or liberal parents, conservative or liberal employers, conservative or liberal spenders, and even conservative or liberal drinkers.

Stephen Martin Fritz and Denise Morel

I’ll admit, those claims got my attention. In an age where we take so many distinctions to be “social conventions,” is it possible that conservatism and liberalism are hard-wired into us? What does it suggest about the possibilities of moral disagreement if moral judgments are ingrained, and what does this portend for resolving disagreements?

Haidt has argued that we need to be “empathetic,” by which he means that we need to accept that people with whom we disagree are also moral actors. Fair enough, as far as that goes. But I don’t see how that helps us with two serious moral problems that have historically been addressed through dialogue and dialectic: first, how do we comparatively rank moral judgments; and, second, how do moral judgments change? In other words, how do we explain how our moral judgments change? After all, liberals and conservatives both articulate strict moral judgments now that they wouldn’t have considered a mere twenty years ago. In other words, the labels can hardly be regarded as fixed categories.

The authors continue:

Our two patterns of human social outlook evolved as a survival mechanism that allows us to negotiate our social environment. And the great social dilemma that has plagued all human groups since time immemorial is whether there is enough of any particular resource for every member of the group, or there isn’t.

Stephen Martin Fritz and Denise Morel

Notice the two moves the authors make, and that is that moral judgments ultimately result from problems of survival and scarcity. Liberals, they claim, have moral purchase during times of abundance while conservatives tend to rule in times of scarcity. But doesn’t that rub against the claim that they are part of our DNA?

How we determine what is right and what is wrong, the authors claim, is a function of how we view our circumstances. If we are safe and resources are plentiful, we tend to express a liberal outlook. If we imagine our condition to be one of danger or scarcity, we express a conservative and more constrained outlook.

Were this true, our politics would be dominated by perceptions of how fragile our state is. I don’t know that history lines up well with this theory, however, nor does it offer a comprehensive enough explanation of moral judgments. 

The authors argue that liberals and conservatives ought to compromise with one another, but they offer no compelling reason as to why we ought to do so. After all, one way to deal with the problem of scarcity is to eliminate the competition. Nature, after all, is “red in tooth and claw,” and if it offers us no moral law but only a struggle for survival, then empathy would be little more than weakness.

The key problem is what philosophers refer to as the naturalist fallacy: you can’t derive ought from is. Put another way, a description of matters is not a prescription for them. Such prescription would have to be derived from a source outside the things (or events) themselves, and evolutionary psychology in its essence gives us no guide for that.

-Discussion Questions:

  1. If political views are not ingrained, where do they come from? What would it take to alter them?
  2. Is it possible to derive how we ought to behave from a description of things?


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