I just finished reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathon Haidt, a social psychologist formerly at UVA and now at NYU. I highly recommend it. It touches on a boatload of topics that we have talked about here, including that perennial issue of the source and nature of morality. It is written by a self-proclaimed very liberal academic, but he does a pretty good job of setting that aside and except in a couple of places it happily does not approach things within the confines of liberal premises. In fact much of it is aimed at explaining why premises differ so much from person to person.
I’ve discovered (after already purchasing and reading it) that it is actually out there on the internet for free, here.
To entice you to read it, I’ll leave you with one of the concluding passages, which hopefully shows that my recommendation doesn’t derive simply out of confirmation bias.
If you take home one souvenir from this part of the tour, may I suggest that it be a suspicion of moral monists. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation. Human societies are complex; their needs and challenges are variable. Our minds contain a toolbox of psychological systems, including the six moral foundations, which can be used to meet those challenges and construct effective moral communities. You don’t need to use all six, and there may be certain organizations or subcultures that can thrive with just one. But anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity and what to make of it. He firmly rejected moral relativism:
I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false.
He endorsed pluralism instead, and justified it in this way:
I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments.… There is not an infinity of [values]: the number of human values, of values which I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite—let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 27, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference this makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.”
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