Tribal Moral Communities

Tribal Moral Communities

I ran across this address from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

The address is concerned with diversity of political belief among social psychologists, but it is also a fascinating look at how social systems evolve into “tribal moral communities” with their own sets of taboos and rituals:

Morality binds and blinds. This principle can reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into, and it will show us a way out.

The biggest question of all time has sometimes been said to be this: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Why is there a universe at all, and why did it begin so rapidly 14 billion years ago? The question is usually asked of astronomers and other natural scientists, but it is just as puzzling, and just as grand, when addressed to social scientists. Why are there large cooperative societies at all, and why did they emerge so rapidly in the last 10,000 years? How did humans become ultrasocial?

Many animals are social. That’s not hard to explain from an evolutionary point of view. But only a few are ultrasocial. That is, they live together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor, and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. This trick was first discovered over 100 million years ago by the hymenoptera, that is bees, wasps, and ants. But it was discovered completely independently by some cockroaches who became ultrasocial; we now know them as termites. And it was also discovered completely independently by one species of mammal, the naked mole rat. In all of these cases, though, the trick is the same, that is, they are all first degree relatives. They’re all sisters, or sisters and brothers, and they concentrate breeding in a queen. The queen is not the ruler; she’s simply the ovary, and in all of these species it’s one for all, all for one. If they keep the queen alive to reproduce, they reproduce.

There’s just one ultrasocial species on Earth that doesn’t use this trick, and that’s us. We humans qualify as being ultrasocial. We live together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands or millions, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. But how do we do it? What’s our trick? Clearly we don’t suppress breeding and concentrate it in one queen or one breeding couple.

Our trick is very different, Our evolved trick is our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects & principles. This is a photograph of Muslims circling the Ka’ba, at Mecca. People of all faiths are brought together by their shared devotion to sacred objects, people, and principles. This ability is crucial in war. And in politics. We’re just really good at binding ourselves together into teams, mostly when we’re competing with other teams.

The central organizing principle is “sacredness” in that societies agree on the sacred and then build themselves around those principles and practices that are sacred.

Sacredness is a central and subtle concept in sociology and anthropology, but we can get a simple working definition of it from Phil Tetlock [a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania]. Tetlock defines a sacred values as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance.” If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.

It’s important that the sacred is not infinitely significant because it has some empirical, utilitarian value, but because it is inherently sacred and of transcendent value. Thus, we can’t really defend the sacred on rational grounds, but instead we “use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred. Conversely, when reason and evidence conflict with the sacred, members of the community must choose the sacred or at least adapt their understanding of the sacred to accommodate the evidence. Thomas Kuhn has referred to this adaptation as a “paradigm shift.”

You can see sacredness at work most clearly in religion, of course. In Christianity, as in Hinduism and many other religions, there’s a very explicit vertical dimension running from God at the top to the Devil at the bottom. Religious Christians generally see the bible as holy; it’s not a book like any other book; it has to be protected from threats to its holiness. Those threats can be physical, as when somebody spits on or burns a bible. Or those threats can be threats to its veracity and authority, as arose when Darwin’s ideas began to spread. There’s a direct contradiction between Darwin and the book of Genesis, so something’s gotta give. Some Christians started reading Adam and Eve as metaphor. But those who really sacralized the bible were not able to make such a compromise. They went the other way. They became even more literalist, more fundamentalist. The bible goes up, Darwin goes down.

Of course, this makes it harder for them to understand the biological world around them, and they are then forced into a lot of bad biology, such as intelligent design. Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.

And I really mean force field. Sacred values act like a powerful electromagnet, generating moral flux lines. Everyone and everything must fall into place along those lines. Here’s an image of a magnet under a piece of glass, with iron ore shavings spread on top. The shavings all fall into line.

We of course see this in Mormonism in that there is a sort of “force field” of acceptable behavior, but also correct thoughts. And as Dr. Haidt puts it, “Within a moral force field, deviance is deeply disturbing. Apostates and heretics must be banished or executed.” One example is how we treat our church leaders. When a prophet dies, a new prophet is chosen (basically by being the apostle with the longest tenure), and we hear of a “prophetic mantle” falling on the new leader. It is not uncommon to hear the virtues of the old leader transferred to the new one, and even the least charismatic apostle can suddenly demand the attention of everyone. I’m thinking of when Howard W. Hunter assumed the presidency of the LDS church. Before that time, most people I knew thought he was sort of anonymous, a bland, uninspiring speaker. As soon as he became the prophet, he was spoken of in reverent terms as humble, inspirational, and extremely spiritual. (I should say that I always liked President Hunter; I never enjoyed listening to his conference talks, but they were much better when I read them later.)

But the unwritten rule is that you must not ever say anything critical of the prophet. That goes double for Joseph Smith. I mentioned once that my father, in trying to resolve my concerns with Joseph Smith’s “flaws,” had referred to Joseph as a “womanizer” and his moneydigging days as a “con.” He also said that Joseph Fielding Smith could be an “absolute idiot,” and his book on evolution was “pure crap.” One church member told me that my father was an apostate and should resign from the church or be excommunicated.

My aim here isn’t to argue that both Smiths were or were not what my father said, but rather that there’s a social-moral taboo against even entertaining the thought. It doesn’t really matter what the evidence is (JFS’s “Man, His Origin and Destiny” really was that idiotic) because these men have become sacred, moved to the top of the vertical dimension Haidt mentions. And from the top, one is unassailable. Some thoughts really do become literally unthinkable.

But other social structures have been organized into “moral force fields,” as well. Haidt argues that social psychology as a field has become such a tribal moral society, with its own sacred spaces and thoughts that define what is acceptable to say and do and study within the field. He gives as an example the study of racial dynamics in the United States, which by the 1960s had made criticism of the “culture of poverty” so taboo that it could not be factored into policies and research:

Morality binds and blinds, and so, open-minded inquiry into the problems of the Black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along. Sacralizing distorts thinking. Sacred values bind teams together, and then blind them to the truth. That’s fine if you are a religious community. I follow Emile Durkheim in believing that the social function of religion is group binding. But this is not fine for scientists, who ought to value truth above group cohesion.

There’s a term you’ve probably heard in the last 5 years: the “reality based community”. It was a term used contemptuously by Karl Rove at the height of Republican power, when it looked as though the invasion of Iraq had been a smashing success, and Republicans could make their own reality. When the term was brought to light in 2004, liberals then embraced it, because liberals believe that they have science on their side, while conservatives are blinded by religion and ignorance.

But if it’s true that morality binds and blinds, then no partisan community is based in reality. If a group circles around sacred values, they’ll evolve into a tribal moral community. They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value. You can see this on the right with global warming denialism. They’re protecting their sacralized free markets. But when sacred values are threatened, the moral force field turns on, and beliefs fall into line. We become intuitive theologians.

This observation, then, applies to communities beyond religion. It certainly applies to the ex-Mormon community insofar as there is any cohesive group of people who have shared similar experiences in leaving Mormonism. If you’re on the team, you cannot, for example, speak well of the other team. This is as common on the Recovery from Mormonism web site as it is at the Maxwell Institute (though the latter rarely uses profanity beyond “butthead”). I hear ex-Mormons speak of themselves as being grounded in “reality” and “facts,” whereas believing Mormons are presumably lost in the clouds of fantasy and wishful thinking. And I hear Mormons refer to ex-Mormons as “following Satan,” “prideful,” “liars,” and so on; the presumption seems to be that Mormons occupy the higher, righteous position in the vertical dimension.

Dr. Haidt says that when we allow ourselves to organize into these moral force fields, we put ourselves into a rut that discourages discourse, learning, and progress. He describes how Stephen Jay Gould’s hostility to sociobiology (“because it opened up a space for differences among human groups” and thus violated the taboos of liberal politics) led to the widely held view among psychologists and anthropologists that human genetic evolution had been “trivial” over the last 50,000 years, though this assumption “was never based on any evidence.” Recent research has shown that human evolution has been, in fact, quite rapid, but we would not know that if we hadn’t gotten past the rut the moral force field put us into.

The only way out is to shut off the magnet that maintains the force field: “The most important benefit we’ll get from shutting off the magnet will be better science and freer thinking. We’ll escape from some ruts we are currently stuck in.”

So, how do we shut off the magnet? Dr. Haidt makes three recommendations I think are quite appropriate in how we as Mormons and ex-Mormons deal with each other:

1. “First, be careful about “locker room” talk. Be careful when there are students around about creating a hostile climate.” I think it goes without saying that in talking with others, we should not make disparaging remarks or treat them as “us vs. them.” It’s hard, and I certainly have fallen into that trap regularly and often (to quote David Brent: “Hypocrite alert!”), but I continue to try to improve.

2. “Second, expose yourself to other perspectives. I have a project along with Ravi Iyer and Matt Motyl, at, where we bring together materials to help people understand the other side. I also suggest that you read a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. And consider subscribing to National Review. I read about 8 magazines every month. Seven of them lean left. I get more new ideas from reading National Review than from any of the others.” I really love this. Often, we read the other team’s writings looking for things to disagree with and use as ammunition in the next battle. But Dr. Haidt is right that, if we read broadly with an intent to understand other perspectives, we’ll spend less time on the battle and more on learning from each other.

3. “Third, advocate for moral diversity, in admissions and hiring.” Obviously, I’m not doing any hiring, but I think this can apply in simply making an effort to interact personally with people who may not share our beliefs. I have good friends with whom I completely disagree about religion, but I enjoy their company, I respect their opinions, and I learn from them. I think they feel the same about me.

I honestly believe that we will not get out of the rut of recrimination, hurt feelings, and anger, unless we try very hard to turn off our moral force fields. I’m not advocating that we give up our beliefs or compromise our moral values, but rather that we recognize that we can only benefit from the exchange of ideas, even passionate ones.


4 Responses to Tribal Moral Communities

  1. “we can only benefit from the exchange of ideas, even passionate ones.” Great line from your thoughtful post.

    If only it wasn’t so darned hard to listen to those with whom I disagree!

    • “If only it wasn’t so darned hard to listen to those with whom I disagree!”

      So true. Although I have also found that it is much easier to listen to those with home I disagree if I know that the other is willing to listen to me in return without dismissing or rejecting me.

  2. Dan Nuffer says:

    I like all three suggestions. I think that one important thing is to try and avoid false dichotomies in my thinking. I recently read Language in Thought and Action (I wish I had read it years ago!), and one of the things I really felt I learned from the book was to avoid falling into a mental error of assuming that reality represents the black/white of language.

  3. Interesting post.

    Science, in practice, is not the answer either. In theory, science involves constantly testing and questioning everything. However, scientists also fall prey to the same problems of thinking within their box or paradigm until the weight of the contradictions finally tip the scales and force a need to find a new hypothesis consistent with the evidence. If I’m not mistaken, Thomas Kuhn referred to such paradigm shifts in science.

    You might find this article interesting about the problems in medical science:

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