In the midst of a superheated election, in which truth is hard to come by and personal attacks are commonplace, it's hard to imagine politics having much to do with morality. However, in his new book, "The Righteous Mind," positive psychology pioneer Jonathan Haidt, PhD, argues that even our divisive political system arose from a deep-seated human need to work toward a greater good.
In his search for the roots of morality, he explores our species' evolution from our individualistic primate ancestors to deeply cooperative human beings, and describes how religious and political institutions helped enable that transformation.
The Monitor spoke with Haidt about his research and how we might bring politics — and psychology — back to their moral roots.
How do you define morality?
I define moral systems as interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. This definition allows conservative and religious communities to qualify as moral communities. They are, after all, very good at creating and preserving moral order, and at putting restraints on selfishness. But if you start with a definition of morality that emphasizes specific content — such as compassion and justice — then you usually end up excluding most communities and vindicating your own.
Morally speaking, how does our society differ from others?
Western democratic societies are much more individualistic than most other cultures, and we have a morality to match. Our morality focuses on protecting individuals rather than protecting groups or social order. This has huge implications for Western societies as they welcome immigrants with very different moral ideals, and as they try to salvage welfare states that were built by previous generations that were not quite as individualistic as we are today.
You write that we're 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Can you explain?
I mean it as a metaphor, of course. We're primates, and the great majority of our sociality is clearly traceable to the evolutionary forces that shaped the behavior of other primates. Those forces worked entirely at the level of the individual. Chimpanzees in particular are very good at competing with each other, but not so good at working together as a team. They can be kind, they can show sympathy, but scientists can always explain those traits in terms of how the behavior benefits the individual chimp or its kin. Like chimps, we humans were shaped by individual-level forces.
But I argue that human nature was also shaped by group selection, which began to kick in only in the last half-million years, once we became cultural creatures. It could only get started once we began dividing labor, using language to create symbol systems and eventually living in tribes that were not composed mostly of close kin. Once intergroup competition heated up and group selection kicked in, human nature became subject to some of the same forces that have shaped bees and ants for 150 million years. We have a kind of "groupish overlay," an ability to be good team players on top of our older primate nature.
Does religion stem from the bit of us that's bee?
Exactly. The individuals in a beehive are all kin, so bees have a strong genetic incentive to help each other out. That's not the case for humans. Our trick for binding ourselves together was the novel ability to sacralize things — a large rock, an ancestor and eventually a god. Once people circle around something together, they can trust each other. I follow the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson in saying that religiosity evolved by multi-level selection. We are descended from successful groups, not just successful individuals, and religion was a crucial element of group success for tens of millennia.
What's the relationship between religion and politics?
Politics is partly religion, and the Republican Party has long known this, to their advantage. The Democrats continue to stress what each of their programs will do for you, the voter. This was especially a problem for Al Gore and John Kerry. In their presidential campaigns, they kept talking about the details of Medicare and Social Security, as though people choose the president who will give them the most cash. They don't. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion. I personally think George W. Bush was a very bad president, but he tapped into people's group ideals. Obama also did it in the 2008 campaign. Even in an individualistic society — or perhaps especially in one — the president must reach our inner bee to get people excited.
American politics seems more partisan than ever. Does your research suggest ways to bridge the divide?
Ultimately, we need to change the way we run elections — especially the primaries and the role of money — and we need to change rules in Congress. Members of Congress, for instance, stopped moving their families to Washington in the 1990s, and as a result, there are almost no social ties that cross the aisle. Their spouses, for example, no longer socialize with one another. Those social connections are crucial for allowing people to listen to each other, and to work together when their interests overlap.
But as those ties have frayed, so has the possibility of bipartisan cooperation. I hope that my book will help people understand the other side and then tone down the demonizing. I am hopeful that we can return to spirited disagreement, rather than scorched-earth, good-versus-evil politics. A bit less demonizing might facilitate the kinds of structural reforms we need to get our political institutions working more efficiently.
You've also spoken out on the lack of political diversity in social psychology. Why is that a problem?
Last year, at the conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, I took an informal poll asking how many in the audience identified as politically conservative. Of the thousand or so psychologists attending my talk, three people put their hands up. This is a terrible state of affairs because research on political psychology and politically sensitive topics, particularly race and gender, doesn't get critiqued as thoroughly as it should. There is hardly anyone out there to raise non-liberal, non-politically correct alternate explanations.
Is there a link between morality and happiness?
Yes. Happiness comes from getting the right kind of relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself. That last piece is the key link. Why do nearly all psych majors want to help other people? It's because we are all morally motivated. We want to join moral movements; we want our lives to count for something. You can't understand this yearning to be part of something larger without understanding that we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.