Sunday Sermon: Does morality come from in or outside?
One of the long-standing claims of pro-religionists is that without religion, there is no morality. It’s a startling claim, for a couple of reasons. The first is that they’re essentially saying that you must lie to people about a god watching in order to get them to behave, which already puts the moral system on the shaky ground of being immoral in and of itself. It’s a claim that strikes atheists and liberal religious types as unlikely, because we experience morality as coming primarily from the inside. You don’t strike other people when angry, even when you could get away with it, because hitting is wrong and disturbs you.
But maybe they’re telling the truth. Maybe many conservative types would have a hard time being moral without a series of endless rules to teach them not to be dangerous and evil. With all the discussion over torture lately, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that conservatives who defend the torture regime are assuming that it was right because the Republicans had power, i.e. they had might, which of course makes right. There’s a fundamental break in how liberals and conservatives see the world in this case. Sara Robinson traces it back, in many cases, to upbringing. She contrasts liberal upbringing, which is about cultivating a person’s personality and sense of self, versus conservative parenting, which is about establishing authority and rules to limit a child and shape them into another authoritarian adult. Now, obviously most households have some mix of the two, so what she’s saying here needs to be understood as archetypes, not absolutes. (And not all liberals, no matter how they were raised, trust the cops. Only the middle class white people who’ve never had to tangle with them—everyone else wisely sees them as authoritarian creeps that are best avoided, just like you avoid dating guys who are interested in getting in physical confrontations with other men.) What I found really interesting was that she describes the authoritarian upbringing as stifling the internal moral compass, so it can be replaced with an authoritarian worldview:
First, as a kid in this kind of household, you learn that your thoughts and feelings are untrustworthy — and furthermore, that people in authority are not the least bit interested in your internal life, only in your external behavior. Stop crying. Don’t give me any excuses. I don’t want to hear any more from you. Just do what I tell you — now. Or else. The message is that you can trust the rules, tradition, The Good Book, the boss, the preacher, or Daddy to tell you what’s right; but you should never ever trust your own instincts or thought processes. This pretty effectively inhibits the development of your own internal authority.
No wonder they think you need religion for morality! But, as is usual in these culture war battles, liberals have science on our side. In a sense, beating authority into a kid is hard because you have to squash their nascent sense of morality that increasingly appears to be rooted in biology. Radio Lab did a fascinating episode tracking the research into where morality comes from, and it’s a combination of an innate human desire to latch onto cultural taboos and a sense of empathy, which is something they can even pinpoint developmentally. The notion that atheists wouldn’t have a sense of morality is completely ridiculous if you look at the research, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they found that atheists and liberal religious types actually have a stronger sense of morality, because they aren’t distracted by a bunch of religious teachings that put, for example, patriarchal authority over your empathy for gay couples wishing to marry or abused women wishing to escape bad marriages.
Last time I wrote about the fascinating way that the human mind constructs morality, I mentioned that, for better or worse, the sense of moral judgment is linked to the sense of disgust, which surprised a number of commenters, who objected. As weird as that sounds initially, though, it is what it is, and there’s a lot of research trying to suss out how the connection works and what it means. With that in mind, I thought I’d bring your attention to this study that is awesome just for the comic factors. (Hat tip.)
What the researchers did was have someone stand behind a desk that was rigged with fart stink, from mild to strong. So already this is awesome. And then the person at the desk asked passing students questions about morality, things like:
Matthew is playing with his new kitten late one night. He is wearing only his boxer shorts, and the kitten sometimes walks over his genitals. Eventually, this arouses him, and he begins to rub his bare genitals along the kitten’s body. The kitten purrs, and seems to enjoy the contact. How wrong is it for Matthew to be rubbing himself against the kitten?
There’s also questions about stealing, lying, incest, and violating people’s boundaries. What they found was interesting—-the stronger the fart stench, the more wrong the students found things like stealing or masturbating with kittens. There’s charts!
They also invoked disgust in other ways, by having students imagine gross offices, disgusting movies, or disgusting memories, and found that moral judgments stiffened when people were disgusted. They also flipped the scenario and tested students by getting half to wash their hands before answering the questions, with the excuse that the professor who owned it was a neatnik. They found that students who had just washed their hands were less judgmental.
What they’ve done is established more evidence for the relationship between morality and disgust. Disgust causes more moral judgment, and people who feel particularly clean have a lot more give in their moral judgments. I’m mildly surprised that anyone wouldn’t balk, regardless of the circumstances, at the idea of masturbating with a kitten. But maybe I should take a shower and get back to you on that.
The good news is this: The scientific evidence that roots moral judgment in our sense of disgust, and moral goodness in our sense of empathy means that religious conservatives are absolutely wrong about whether we need religion for morality. So no need to lie to people about the existence of a god to get them to comply.