Moral Cement

by Jonathan Halvorson

It’s a rusty but sturdy old truism to say that morality binds societies together. As shared outlooks for moral praise and blame dissolve, a society enjoys more the mixed blessings of contention from fragmented sub-groups with divergent political goals and manners of living. The “culture wars” in America and other nations provide easy examples of the dynamic in action.

A flotilla of social sciences have by now devoted literally millions of hours to understanding how these social disagreements arise, explaining how they persist, and providing models of how the differences in belief about what is good can drive differences in beliefs about facts. Shared morality doesn’t just get tied up with a shared outlook on what is good, but a shared outlook on what is.

And so the culture wars and other disagreements about morality (broadly construed) drive wars about the truth of global warming, whether homosexual households are harmful to children, whether deficit spending during a recession spurs economic growth, whether higher taxes on the wealthy hinder economic growth, whether social programs help the poor they are meant to serve, whether torture is a useful method for gathering intelligence, the health effects of pollutants, and on and on.

Your reaction is probably along the lines of: Yes, and what a shame. The facts are what they are whether or not we want to believe them. Truth is cold. We shouldn’t let our beliefs about good and bad influence in any deep way our beliefs about objective facts of the world, especially facts about the causes of things. But, in that same spirit of objectivity, the evidence is also clear: people hate cognitive dissonance and succumb to all kinds of irrational belief generation mechanisms to remove recalcitrant facts from their line of vision. When push comes to shove, it’s the facts that get revised to fit the normative commitments more often than we would like to admit.

Read more »