University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt blows my mind with his theory of dark morality – which is a social-science parallel to dark energy and dark matter. When it comes to morals, everyone agrees that we should whenever possible avoid harming people and provide care for the needy. The same goes for issues of fairness and reciprocity (“Do unto others…”) Haidt calls these “visible morals,” analogous to the 4 percent of the universe that we can see.
But those represent just the tip of the iceberg: Most of the mechanics of morality have to do with three “dark morals”: in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and issues of purity and sanctity. This is what accounts for qualities such as patriotism, conformism and taboos about food and sex. (Haidt drew a laugh when he noted that conservatives tend to focus on sex, while “liberals are getting increasingly concerned with food.”)
Haidt’s online research, conducted through YourMorals.org, indicates that liberals put a high value on morality having to do with harm and care, fairness and reciprocity – but not on the dark morals. The more conservative you are, the likelier you are to value all five moral dimensions roughly equally, as shown in the graph accompanying this blog posting from Ethan Zuckerman.
Haidt says conservatives might be on the smarter track, at least if you size up things the way Charles Darwin did more than a century ago. In Chapter 5 of “The Descent of Man,” Darwin delves deeply into the role of morality in natural selection:
“… When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other.”
“The kind of morality Darwin is talking about here is dark morality,” Haidt said.
As a Buddhist I try not to cling to a particular political viewpoint, recognizing that both liberalism and conservatism (the traditional, not the modern nutty kind) have strengths and weaknesses. An awareness of Haidt’s research would a good corrective to the arrogance that some liberals feel towards conservatism. Of course it would help if more modern conservatives stopped embracing ignorance and dogma and became better acquainted with the history of their own tradition…