Let me urge you to watch or to read the transcript from psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent presentation at the Edge.org conference. Haidt, a prominent social psychologist and researcher (see his website here) spoke on “The New Science of Morality,” in which he discussed what neuroscientists and others are learning about how humans reason morally. It’s pretty amazing, and I can only hit the highlights here. Haidt begins by speaking of two “red flags” that anybody researching or thinking about moral psychology should pay attention to.
Haidt speaks of a recent paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that points out that Westerners think very differently about reality — that is, in terms of thinking patterns — than people in the rest of the world. For example, people outside of the industrialized West are far more likely to see patterns and relationships than we are (for that matter, people who live in industrialized societies anywhere see the world differently than people who live in rural areas, or villages, do). Americans think differently from other Westerners, and highly educated Americans think differently from other Americans. Understand, it’s not a matter of having different opinions. The way members of these groups think is different, and significant in terms of moral psychology. Haidt:
All four comparisons point in the same direction, and lead them to the same conclusion, which I’ve put here on your handout. I’ll just read it. “Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies.” The acronym there being WEIRD. “Our findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Overall, these empirical patterns suggest that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”
As I read through the article, in terms of summarizing the content, in what way are WEIRD people different, my summary is this: The WEIRDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships, and the more you use an analytical thinking style, focusing on categories and laws, rather than a holistic style, focusing on patterns and contexts.
Now, let me state clearly that these empirical facts about “WEIRD-ness”, they don’t in any way imply that our morality is wrong, only that it is unusual. Moral psychology is a descriptive enterprise, not a normative one. We have WEIRD chemistry. The chemistry produced by Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies is our chemistry, and it’s a very good chemistry. And we have every reason to believe it’s correct.
The problem with this, says Haidt, is it leads Americans in general and American scientists in particular to make unwarranted assumptions about what is normative in moral psychology. Sure, you might think that the WEIRD morality, which places extraordinary emphasis on reason as a guide to morality, is the best, and that everybody else, especially religious people and traditional societies, is wrong, or deficient, because they don’t use reason. But is reason really a reliable guide here?