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Moral psychology and religion

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Old Main, USU


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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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This is an interesting essay by Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, examining the natural (psychological, biological) foundations for morality, and the differences we find among “conservatives,” “liberals,” and the “religious.” He himself is a liberal atheist, but he ends up arguing that religious conservatives have something going on that leads to a broader view of morality, something that liberal atheists should explore and understand.

Overall, I find his general view compelling. In another article, in the NYT, he describes his view of morality as being like a rider on an elephant. The elephant represents a long history of evolved, nonsystematic moral intuitions, and the rider represents our systematic thought about morality. The rider has some control over the beast, but it’s far from complete. So we find ourselves with a mass of moral sentiments and intuitions that often cannot be straightened out into a set of moral principles. Moreover, of course, our sentiments differ from individual to individual. Some of us are drawn more to the sentiment that “each to his own, so long as no harm is being done” while others are drawn to sentiments encouraging order and uniformity. And, Haidt suggests, we need this plurality for a stable society.


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