Monday, September 24, 2007

Moral Psychology, Columbia U and Ahmadinejad

The recent controversy surrounding Ahmadinejad's visit to New York and the audience granted to him at Columbia highlights the moral dilemmas and conflicting values inherent in liberal Western values. While most of the media and politicians refer mainly to the limitations of the right to freedom of speech, in reality the differences of opinion on this matter reflect a deep- seated argument about morality that goes to the core of our values. By the time this essay appears I assume that much will have been said about the Iranian president's visit; therefore in this essay I will focus on the broader controversy regarding the source of our morality, using the visit as an example for analysis.

In the past few years several books have been published espousing atheism. Books by Richard Dawson, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are among the most popular recent entries into the fray. The books have generated much controversy and public reaction. Although the specifics of their styles and focus are different, the thrust of these books boils down to three main points: 1. Science, and not religion, has proven itself useful in finding answers to questions about our physican world. 2. Religion accounts for much, of not most of the evil in the world. 3. The multitude of incompatible and conflicting religious beliefs, combined with the internal inconsistencies in each, demonstrate their falsehood. All of the authors come to the same conclusion: The world would be a better place without religion. While I don't want to foray into this endless debate, I want to focus on the specific claim regarding morality: that a godless, liberal, western and rational society represents the best morality available.

Dawkins and his ilk propose that rational, fair-minded thinking is capable of producing ethics on par with those of religious communities. But what kind of ethics? While one could easily agree on the most basic tenets of humanity, such as not killing, stealing, and the provision of justice, it is beyond this point the moral systems of the religious and atheist diverge. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginian, wrote an excellent essay entitled "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion". (available online at ) Haidt speaks of 5 components of our moral sensibilities, which are functions of both our intellect and emotional makeup. (1) harm/care; (2) fairness/reciprocity; (3) ingroup/loyalty; (4) authority/respect; and (5) purity/sanctity (the sense that certain things are noble or repulsive). According to Haidt, the first 2 components make up the "contractual" model of morality, which holds the individual as the highest unit of value.

Accordingly, in this liberal world view, the ultimate ethic is to avoid harm and suffering to the individual and increase happiness. In contrast, in the religious, conservative world view, components 3,4 and 5 take no less an important role. Haidt calls this the "beehive" model, in that while the individual has rights, these are no less important than his responsibilities to the cohesivenes of the group. These responsibilities are reinforced by respect towards authority, loyalty towards one's group (whatever it may be), and a common sense of what is worthwhile and what is not. These are psychological mechanisms that help suppress the human tendency towards selfishness, and reinforce generosity, self-sacrifice and loyalty. One can assume that the "liberal" atheist outlook contains these ethical concepts as well, but they are emphasized to a much lesser degree. Furthermore, without the "myth" of religion, or national or ethnic narrative, these components of morality are much harder to maintain.

Let us now return to our case of Mr. Ahmadinejad. The liberal, secular ethic would emphasize the ultimate "fairness" of protecting the free speech of even a hostile non-citizen. Furthermore, this freedom is necessary in order to protect the individual from the potential "harm/suffering" of suppression of expression. In contrast, the "religious" view, while acknowledging the need to not harm people, nonetheless underlines the need to protect the "unit" of society, in terms of security and cohesiveness. Furthermore, it acknowledges and validates the human sense of "revulsion" that we have towards our declared enemy, thus not granting him the same treatment given to our own group.

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