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Reconciling Politics, Religion, and Morality

Question: Do we need God to tell us how to be moral? And which type of politics is the most moral?


Answer: There's a psychological theory on how human morality operates and how it applies to politics: Moral foundations theory addresses those subjects.


The book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is a best-seller published in 2012, written by world-renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt says that we have intuitive understandings of moral right and wrong. Basically these are intuitive understandings imprinted as part of the genetic architecture of our brain. The Wikipedia article on the book explains:

[Haidt] makes the case in the book for morality having multiple foundations (more than just harm and fairness), and said in an interview that morality "is at least six things, and probably a lot more than that" [...]  In his book, he compares the six aspects that people use to establish morality and take into consideration when making judgment to six taste receptors in the mouth. These aspects of morality are defined as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. He goes on to establish that Republicans and Democrats tend to focus on different morality receptors and this leads to worse political tactics and decision making.


Again, Haidt says that these moral foundations are at the bottom of what drives morality (not God), and these moral foundations are engraved into our unconscious as "instincts." Haidt says that in the process of mixing and matching these six moral foundations we derive our codes of what's good and bad. And ultimately these codes of good and bad are going to diverge based on cultural and even political differences.


How does that apply to politics & religion?


Each different type of political or religious ideology tends to embrace only one or two of these "moral foundations." For example, socialism tends to spring mostly from the "care" and "liberty" foundations. Whereas religious belief systems tend to focus on the "sanctity" and "authority" foundations. And so on.


Because each different types of political or religious ideology tends to embrace only one or two of these "moral foundations," that results in a lot of disagreement about which type of politics or religion is better and what constitutes a moral way to act.


Furthermore, any single religion or political ideology can go awry when it enjoys too much power. Any political or religious ideology tends to turn into tyranny and abuse when it operates in a vacuum without any common-sense correctives. Examples: the Catholic church gave rise to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and condoning pedophile priests; Socialism gave rise to authoritarian communist regimes, repression, and prison camps for political opponents; Conservatism gives rise to rampant capitalism, prioritizing profit over the rights of consumers, and ignoring the needs of the poor; and so on.


Also, different people are motivated by different "moral foundations." If a religious person is forced to live under a socialist regime, he may feel forced to comply with morals that he doesn't recognize and may feel that his own personal moral foundations are being ignored or abused.

So what's the solution?


The solution is to use multiple sources of morality to double-check each other, rather than relying on one single source of morality (religious or political). Also, that way people don't feel like they are being forced to live according to a "moral foundation" that they disagree with.


To put it another way: Morality comes down to mixing and matching those "moral foundations" that Haidt defined. Any single political or religious ideology tends to rely on just one or two "moral foundations," which means that it is eventually going to be taken to extremes and result in tyranny when applied in isolation. So it is necessary to apply multiple political and religious ideologies simultaneously and use them to cross-check each other. 


The best way to do that is to set up a system of political and religious pluralism, where socialists, religious organizations, conservatives, etc. coexist and share power and show respect for each other and have to work out compromises and can monitor each other for abuses. In other words, political pluralism and moral pluralism are the best antidotes to political extremism and moral extremism.

Wikipedia defines pluralism as follows: "Pluralism as a political philosophy is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a political body, which is seen to permit the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions, and lifestyles. [...] Pluralism thus tries to encourage members of society to accommodate their differences by avoiding extremism (adhering solely to one value, or at the very least refusing to recognize others as legitimate) and engaging in good faith dialogue. Pluralists also seek the construction or reform of social institutions in order to reflect and balance competing principles."


The main points, as I see it: It's important to put the various political parties and religions in a position where they are opposed and diverse and in competition with each other, but at the same time they are also coexisting and in a position to criticize each other and keep each other honest.


To sum up: If you institute a system of political pluralism, then you have a system that acknowledges that different people favor different "moral foundations," and it allows some mode of expression (political or religious) for all the different types of "moral foundations." 


If you want to read more about moral foundations, read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. If you want to read more about political pluralism, then click on this link:

In addition, I have made some attempts to map Haidt's moral foundations to separate function levels. You can click on the following links:

N level: Care versus Autonomy

S level: [under construction]


~Posted December 27, 2023

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