During my most recent tour around the interwebs, I found an interesting idea that Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been working on. The idea is a new way of looking at the foundations of morality than the old economic idea of humans being rationally self-motivated or the traditional moralities that suggest morality is just a way to treat others (with emphasis on caring for others, on fairness or on rights). Instead, Haidt proposes that there are actually five foundations of morality, and while generally, the liberal and/or secular focus on two of these — care/harm and fairness/reciprocity — conservative and/or religious thinkers may value three other aspects as moral too — ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. He’s written and linked a bit of his research on various parts of his page, and I’ve just begun combing through and trying to put my say on things at my blog.
The five-foundational theory seems to make sense to me, and the idea that certain groups of people emphasizing certain of the foundations over others seems to make more sense (after all, just reading through entries on the Bloggernacle can get you to sense that what believers continue to see in the church is something you might never have considered to be a moral end.) Religions, particular those like the LDS church, become understandably more enchanting when you take into consideration how they can uphold the purity/sanctity motivation with things like the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity (which might seem inexplicably restrictive or downright abhorent if one’s view of morality only puts a premium on fairness). It’s easier to understand how religion in general persists when one ceases trying to fully rationalize it away and recognizes that some people want authority and to pay respect to that authority, for the sake of loyalty to an ingroup. As I discovered in my first article at Mormon Matters, it seems that one thing I had discounted but which many other commenters brought up was that the importance of something as central as a mission has a lot more to do with loyalty to the promptings of the Spirit or of church leaders than I had suspected.
Of course, even if I can see these things academically, I can’t say I see these things personally. I know that every time I find something that in my gut rings well about the church or about religion, it is from a position of care/harm or fairness/reciprocity. Rather than looking at the benefits of the Word of Wisdom in purity terms (my body is a temple) or loyalty terms (The Prophet said so), I see it in a sense of providing care for people (protection or defense from addiction). When aspects of religion fail (or at least, fail in my eyes), it is because they fail in the two dimensions I see. Proposition 8 is so infamous for many, I suspect, because it wantonly fails fairness/reciprocity…but for the millions who support traditional marriage (who cannot be ignored or rationalized away), it’s clear from some of their arguments, for example, that they, at least in part, are concerned about some kind of purity or sanctity. And, whether they are justified or not, they feel they are protecting the ingroup of society, which they feel could be weakened if a tradition like the family were destabilized.
It seems clear we as liberal, cultural, ex, post, disaffected, atheist, agnostic, sketical Mormons…cannot afford to brush off the actions of conservative members or the faithful of any religion as being simply illogical and irrational. Although by our moral standards we may view some of their actions or beliefs as disagreeable or downright immoral, we cannot ignore that by other moral foundations, people genuinely do support these actions and beliefs. If we do, we marginalize ourselves further and will not be able to see popular support or acceptance. Somehow, we must come to an understanding and appreciation of the moral foundations that others use and adapt them to our strategies to come up with a package that appeals to more people.