As I read the preface of Jonathan Haidt’s book, and the concern in the US about “political relations and the collapse of cooperation across party lines” (p. xvii), my immediate thought was: I wonder if he’s going to acknowledge that people live in different universes? With different views of what a human is, what meaning is and what the universe is? After a few chapters I realized: yes, he does acknowledge it. In fact that is the point of his book, and what a refreshing book it is. He has provided a basis for so many of my intuitions about morality, and the current state of moral discourse—or rather, moral loggerheads—in the educated Western world.
In doing so, Haidt has—although I’m sure he didn’t set out to do this—provided one of the strongest scientific arguments for the truth of the Bible that I have come across. The description of humans and human decision-making set out here is astonishingly in line with what the Bible says about who we are, and how we function as created, fallen beings.
In other words, we have moral intuitions, and they can be very strong; we are created to be moral. Moreover our moral decisions are largely driven by these intuitions, even if we fondly think that they are reasoned. Also, we can use that morality to bind us together and create astonishingly strong societies, but we can also use it to create division and hate.
There are several theological themes here. One is natural law, traditionally grounded in passages such as Romans 2, and perhaps the Noahic covenant. We would expect humans to have a natural faculty for morality, based on this teaching. We would also expect it to go beyond what Haidt calls the moral foundations of care/harm and fairness; and indeed the way in which Haidt describes the six moral foundations which he hypothesized and has found good evidence for, I found truly enlightening. Here is a description of the biblical human. A being created to know right and wrong; a being created to have a sense of the moral order in the universe; a being created for relationship; and a being created to worship, to have a sense of God. This is the creature described in Genesis 2; Augustine’s man, whose rest is only found in God; Calvin’s man with the divine seed in his heart.
Haidt goes even further than this; he describes the moral being who acts on impulse first, and reasons second; whose moral intuitions can be shaped and “filled in” differently, and who is extremely susceptible to peer pressure. These things are all aspects of good creation, but can be bent to extremely powerful, evil ends; and we will then create moral justifications for them. This is fallen man, who uses his good gifts to avoid God, to set up a universe separate from him. Who wants to know good and evil as God does, and follow his own way of doing so. Who is capable of having a severely deficient moral world and yet calling it good.
Haidt even quotes the Bible at several points, not in much depth or context, but then he is not trying to explicate the Bible. As a liberal atheist, he denies the possibility of inspired Scripture. Here (obviously) I do not agree with him, even as his experimental results seem to support the scriptural view so well. Haidt’s conclusion, following Shweder’s, is that there is “no homogenous ‘backcloth’ to our world” (p. 109). Scripture disagrees; there is such a backcloth, in the creation that is ordered, does forbid harm, and reflects the divine Creator who is always fair, always proportionate, always compassionate. Of course, coming to a conclusion simply from the study of humans will not demonstrate the reality of this backcloth; only that humans are universally, and astonishingly, somehow tuned to it. We know from Scripture that it is real, and also that as fallen beings, we humans will not always see that backcloth clearly; we will distort it, and will emphasize some parts to the detriment of others. Of course, coming to a conclusion simply from the study of humans will not demonstrate the reality of this backcloth; only that humans are universally, and astonishingly, somehow tuned to it. Only Jesus had a perfectly balanced moral sense, properly and sinlessly tuned to the real objective order of the universe. We will all get it wrong in some way, and then work very hard at finding good reasons for the unbalanced morality that our hearts love. And will skew our created need for relationship to treat those who do not agree with us, as evil.
This issue—whether there is objective truth to our moral intuitions—is not one that Haidt discusses except to dismiss it. He is quite clear that not only does he not believe in such a thing, but it is not interesting to him (at least not in this book); people and their moral decisions are. Yet it remains, for me, a major elephant-in-the-book, to make a rather lame pun on Haidt’s favorite image. Why do we have this moral sense? Not “by what mechanism might it have evolved”—which could well be true, but remains a story of physical history, not of metaphysics. That story does not disprove, or explain away, moral reality. Do we believe in God and morality because we evolved that way? Or did we evolve that way because God and his moral order are real?
Kant accepted that sentiments explained why people behave in a moral manner, Haidt tells us, but “he was disturbed by the subjectivity that such an account implied for ethics” (p. 139). I would remain similarly disturbed. What we have, if the discussion ends at the human capacity for moral instinct, is an account of moral feelings but with no real justification for acting on them. We are left with the intuitionist account of morality, that to say “that is wrong” actually, and only, means “I don’t like that.” The thing, whatever it is, is not actually wrong. It’s just something that my moral instinct reacts to, possibly out of all proportion.
Take, for instance, the principal of human rights. Rights are things that are given. Countries give lots of them. As an Australian citizen I have the right to live there, without having to get special permission through a visa (even if at the moment I would have to quarantine). Under the law of Britain, as a taxpayer I have the right to consult a doctor for free. But are there universal, human rights? Rights that all humans have, just because they are human, given by—well, nature? The universe? Reason itself? As soon as I ask the question, difficulties are evident. Just what capacity does a random universe have to give pieces of inert matter such arbitrary things as, say, a right to equality? Of course if you believe in a Creator God,That may well be what happens in the new creation: we will not use our distorted moral sense to create division. a lawgiver and ruler, the theoretical issue becomes solvable. Without God, however, I must conclude that my strong sense that humans have rights, that they have dignity that must not be violated, that it is wrong to harm and right to have compassion for them, is simply a feeling that gave an evolutionary advantage to my ancestors. The random piece of human tissue in front of me does not actually have rights. If I kill it, as long as I get away with it, it doesn’t matter. In that world, the psychopath is, terrifyingly, the rational one.
Yet we can be glad that there is a real moral universe, and that we are created to reflect it; that God thus restrains the amount of harm we could inflict upon each other. Were we not fallen, I take it that both our minds and emotions would be perfectly aligned with the moral principles in nature. Morality would be both obvious and reasonable, and feel compelling, to all. That may well be what happens in the new creation: we will not use our distorted moral sense to create division.
In the meantime, I hope that many people read Haidt and follow his advice of having a greater understanding of their fellow humans. It has certainly helped me. I think it contains the basis of very good pastoral advice to Christians, in all sorts of ways. Christians should think about their moral intuitions more, and be aware of what comes from Scripture and what is “merely” their culture. We should all think about how we address outsiders, and how we might be heard. (I wish we could also ban social media. Algorithms that reflect our preferred views back to us all the time can’t be helping.)
I also hope that the WEIRD people—what a fantastic acronym—in this very morally conflicted society we currently have in the West can understand, at least, that other moral universes using different moral foundations are just as “valid,” even from a secular, evolutionary sense, as the liberal atheist one. Haidt’s description of his own thinking in this regard is humbling. I hope his book creates more understanding. Both the Bible, and Haidt’s science, suggest that it is possible—but probably unlikely. Let us all pray for help.