Religion, Psychology & Morality: Most People Aren’t Very Nice

Religion, Psychology & Morality: Most People Aren’t Very Nice February 12, 2020

I’ve come to the conclusion that, after many long years of thinking and experiencing, rather more often than originally suspected, people aren’t very nice.

Let me see if I can qualify this. Most people are quite nice. They are nice enough to those around them: their family and their friends and people like them. We wouldn’t be very successful, as a social species, if we were complete bastards to each other all the time. But outside of our “parochial altruism”, we just aren’t very nice.

I have talked a lot about this with regard to religion in the fact that it’s the higher your religiosity, the lower your universal morality is. Religious people seem to attend towards morally favouring their in-group. But I might venture a little further today. This appears to be what drives an awful lot of people, irrespective of religious background.

This seems to come down to an axiomatic foundation of psychology. I say axiomatic because there is this debate that I have as to whether your psychology is innate to the point of defining everything else about your life and worldview, or whether your life and worldview can define your psychology. Of course, people can change, and there is a definite amount of plasticity in the brain. At the end of the day, people change their belief systems such that evangelical Christians can throw off the mantle of their religious worldview to embrace an antithetical worldview. I do wonder, though, whether such evangelical Christians become evangelical or “militant” atheists.

I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s, though your psychology (or perhaps psyche is a better word) is changeable, it offers a fairly solid foundation as to how you approach rest your life. The work of psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt looks at how psychology defines your political outlook and that liberals and conservatives can beam morally groups into different categories that will define their vote. It can get even more interesting because things like discussed sensitivity are strong predictors of political voting such that the more easily disgusted you are, with strong physiological connections, the more likely you are to vote conservatively. The more open you are to new experiences and the less affected by disgust, the more likely you are to vote for a liberal party (see the work of David Pisarro and others). Haidt maintains that there are five or six moral values whose weighting people give defines their political outlook.

To take this theory, it also has ramifications as to what kind of Christianity you might favour and what kind of parenting you might favour. In other words, someone who strongly favours tradition, purity, the in-group, who might be an easily disgusted person and who is closed to new experiences and so on is thus more likely to be an authoritarian religious evangelical who favours the old Testament type of authoritarian God (Yahweh); all this as opposed to the person who is strongly in favour of fairness, lack of harm, has an openness to new experiences and he was not fazed so much by disgust, who is thus more likely to be a liberal (whether it be Christian or secular) when it comes to parenting and their idea of God, if they believe in one.

So let’s get this back to my experiences of people around me. I’m continually amazed that when I delve a little deeper into the psychology and politics of so many friends and family, who are so lovely to me and the people around them, they appear to be on awful lot less morally attractive than my prima facie appraisal when considering how nice they are outside of this relatively small circle.

I am continually amazed at the opinions of people who are quite often very close to me, but also just most people I talk to on a weekly basis. I think Brexit has opened my eyes to how close-minded so many people are, far more so than I had previously imagined, and how morally parochial they are. It has really brought out, to me, the worst in people. And I see this happening in an identical fashion with Trumpian America, where the politics has polarised the nation into, very simply, those who favour the in-group against those with a far more universal approach to morality. Think immigration, healthcare and any other scenario that evokes individualism vs some kind of collectivism. Across the board, most of these people will be lovely to their family and friends and people like them. Once you start investigating opinions towards people who are further towards the edge of these circles, opinions vastly diverge.

These are people whom I ostensibly really quite like – up to a point. And then things take a radical turn. I have a problem in that I often psychologically project – I assume someone who is prima facie quite like me is therefore just like me, in all facets. But I am very often wrong to the point where I now think that most people just aren’t like me. I am a liberal leftie where, certainly geographically and familially, most people I know just aren’t. I have arrived at my destination by thinking bloody hard about it for a long time, but as I have said before, this is still built upon a liberal foundational psyche.

Again, I look at the US and think that the country is fundamentally split but that this split is based on psychology and will be very difficult to shift. Brexit has run along the same faultlines. I’m sure Nigel Farage is lovely to his family (well, his German wife has now separated from him and his children have ironically claimed their German passports so they can access all the benefits of the EU…), but, past this, he seems to my liberal sensibilities morally repugnant. Call me woke all you like, but I think putting a wall up around who you should, in general, be moral towards tells you something about the true moral character of the person in question. Trump can be as nice as pie to his family (well, his wife evidently thinks little of him), but I judge his moral fibre by his form on universal moral scenarios, not just parochial ones. I’m sure Hitler was lovely to Eva…

Now, for someone like me who is intensely interested in evolution, there is actually a lot of very good evolutionary theory that will defend the more conservative approach. Far more strongly favouring the in-group is far more likely to be in the interests of one’s genes, for example. But we must not fall into the naturalistic fallacy here whereby, just because something has arrived by well-understood evolutionary mechanisms, it does not mean that it is necessarily morally good.

So, my takeaway point of this is that, whilst most people are quite nice, they are not really that nice. And this depresses me. I’ll add-on to this that the psychology that manifests itself with humans who are most likely to be less nice in this sense is also the psychology that is more likely to underwrite religious evangelicalism. It seems like, if you scratch the surface of people’s morality, it is only veneer-thin.

Speaking of which, it is easy for me to morally judge and take the supposed moral high-ground; I recognise I need to do more, morally speaking, more actual moral behaviour, for want of a better term. This is my challenge for the next year. I used to do a lot more than I do now, but family and then my illness (MS) got in the way! Excuses, excuses.

And yes, my liberal bias will ironically mean that I will favour people with a similar liberal bias to me and I can be accused of the very in-group favouritism that I am criticising here. But I think that’s a cheap shot, and doesn’t really go to the heart of the matter. At the end of the day, this was the very morality that Jesus espoused with probably the most important parable in the Bible: The Good Samaritan. This was a story created to celebrate out-group, universal morality in the face of the Pharisees and Sadducees being intent on promoting their own religious and moral conservatism. What would Jesus do, Christian often ask? Refer to The Good Samaritan. Take a leaf out of the Bible.

Now, you won’t hear that from me often, so savour it Christians!


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