Try opening both eyes

Tom Clark discusses David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Haidt and the Beyond Belief 2 conference.

Both Wilson and Jonathan Haidt argued at the conference that a predisposition for religion likely played an adaptive role (perhaps via between-group selection) in allowing humans to achieve our current level of ultra-sociality, in which more or less stable societies of unrelated individuals have replaced nomadic tribes. This is an empirical claim under investigation. It’s therefore striking that both accept the normative claim that religion, or more broadly a departure from evidence-based beliefs, might be a force for good in promoting social cohesion in a way that allegiance to strict empiricism…perhaps cannot.

Let’s look at a little of Jonathan Haidt.

My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and confusion. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen. My hosts gave me a servant of my own and told me to stop thanking him when he served me…I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine…I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. And once I liked them…it was easy to take their perspective and to consider with an open mind the virtues they thought they were enacting. Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent.

One problem with that leaps off the page before we even get to the harder stuff: he says he really liked ‘these people’ but he says it right after telling us that he must have liked only the men because he wouldn’t have had a chance to like the women because he wouldn’t have been allowed to get to know them. I’m almost tempted to accuse him of being shifty – but I think he really is convinced by his own patter. But if so – why did he shift from men to people in that suspicious way? Why did he say ‘people’? Why did he try to throw dust in our eyes? Or was it in his own eyes he was throwing it? In other words, what does he think he’s talking about? He tells us quite plainly that the women were treated as blanks and kept away from him, and then instantly tells us that he ‘liked these people who were hosting’ him – which betrays an embarrassing level of moral obtuseness. It’s rather like dropping in on Auschwitz and being treated hospitably by the SS men there and thus concluding that all was well at Auschwitz. He spent time with the privileged people and so decided that their privilege was okie dokie. That’s not ‘an open mind,’ it’s a refusal to think. It’s a failure to grasp that what he was seeing was not (or not just) ‘a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society’ but a world in which men, not women, are the people who count. What he was seeing was not a matter of all family members making sacrifices for the sake of the family but one of female family members subordinated by male family members. He knew he’d seen that, but he was ‘committed to understanding it on its own terms.’ Yes but that ‘its’ refers to the privileged minority of this sex-segregated hierarchically stratified society so in fact the terms he was committed to understanding it in were very partial incomplete and self-interested terms. It’s strange that he apparently manages to remain unaware of that.

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