Tocqueville and Haidt: Religion and The Guiding Compass of Mores In Democratic Societies

When analyzing American politics, it is astounding to discover that both Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19thcentury and Jonathan Haidt in the 21stcentury shared parallel perspectives about the utility of religious belief in society as a force for cohesion and group cooperation to achieve advantageous ends.  As Haidt argues, “If the gods evolve culturally to condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, they can be used to promote cooperation and trust within the group.  You don’t need a social scientist to tell you that people behave less ethically when they think nobody can see them.”  This is a direct negation of economic interpretations of the human condition and society that sees “cost/benefit” as the strongest determining force of behavior.  In essence, with no guiding or adapting compass to behavior, man is essentially led to live life on the premise of a wealth accumulation paradigm (Note: I use wealth generically) that scientists see as innate to human nature.  Haidt shuts down this assumption by analyzing that arguing something to be innate for scientists is a risky premise to argue from.  Drawing from research of neuro-scientist Gary Marcus, Haidt agrees with Marcus that “‘Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed and immutable.’”

Therefore, self-interest (or cost/benefit) as a foundation cannot be the sole driver of human behavior across space and time.  Our “first draft”, as Haidt would argue, may equip us with a dominant self-interested nature, but as we naturally develop affinities for groups, moral foundations and guiding principles that work against pure self-interest outside of our individualistic mode of thinking (e.g. charitable giving, altruism), pure self-interest then cannotbe considered the main pretext for how civil societies (such as are found in the United States) are developed and sustained.

This provides the pretext for how Haidt and Tocqueville viewed the necessity of moral foundations to guide society.  For Tocqueville specifically, religion as a moral foundation was absolutely essential to his perspective of the functionality of society.  If the secular understanding of homo economicusis accepted as a universal principle, there is nothing preventing society from devolving into anarchy rather than working to build cohesion to strengthen societal structure.  As Tocqueville argues, “It is therefore of immense importance to men to have fixed ideas about God, their souls, and their duties toward their Creator and their fellows, for doubt about these first principles would leave all their actions to chance and condemn them, more or less, to anarchy and impotence.”

Jonathan Haidt puts this Tocquevillian assumption to the test by highlighting a study conducted by Robert Putnam and David Campbell to show the distinguishing characteristics between religious and nonreligious persons.  According to Haidt’s summary of the study, “Common sense would tell you that the more time and money people give to their religious groups, the less they have left over for everything else.  But common sense turns out to be wrong.  Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.”

It is religious principles such as those that encourage these acts of altruism that Tocqueville saw as necessary to oblige mankind to care for their fellow human beings, especially within free societies.  In fact, Tocqueville reasons that “There have never been free societies without mores…This independence is even greater in those Protestant countries…which have kept or gained the right of self-government.  In such cases both political habits and religious beliefs infuse a spirit of liberty into the family.”

This is not to say that religion should be established in the theocratic sense to have individuals within a society put aside their self-interested desires by force, but both Haidt and Tocqueville agree that religion, when practiced, holds great sway over limiting passions stemming from self-interest.  For Tocqueville, in democracies, where conditions were placed on a trend toward equality, religion works as a check against the instinct to think only of oneself.  Tocqueville saw self-interest in this sense as a dangerous aspect of the growing equality of conditions within democratic nations, specifically within the United States. Tocqueville argued that “Every religion places the object of man’s desire outside and beyond worldly goods and naturally lifts the soul into regions far above the realm of the senses.  Every religion also imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind, to be performed in common with the rest of mankind, and so draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself.”

Both Haidt and Tocqueville didn’t believe that the element of self-interest doesn’t play a role in the way humanity interacts with one another, but believed that it doesn’t need to be viewed as an unalterable trait incapable of being checked by other traits that provide balance to it.  Religion and moral foundations assist in providing that balance to the self-interested portion of our nature.  “Successful religions work on both levels of our nature (we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee) to suppress selfishness or at least to channel it in ways that often pay dividends for the group…sometimes we really do transcend self-interest and devote ourselves to helping others, or our groups.”

This is why it is dangerous to envision a society where no concept of God exists.  The secularization of society potentially can only breed a virtually self-interested populace, guided by no foundational principles that would encourage individuals to consider others’ interests and generate cooperative societies.  Haidt even refers to these godless societies as “…the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have a few).” Tocqueville, in particular, warned against the spread of materialistic worldviews within democratic societies, positing that such views only serve to heighten the desire for selfish physical pleasures over their duties to society. If a free society cannot exist without mores stemming from religious belief, it would be imperative that members of society do well to guard against materialism’s hegemonic spread, lest the affinity for cooperation within society diminishes to democracy’s detriment.  As Tocqueville warns, “ In all nations materialism is a dangerous malady of the human spirit, but one must be particularly on guard against it among a democratic people…Democracy favors the taste for physical pleasures….Materialism, in turn, spurs them on to such delights with mad impetuosity…when any religion has taken deep root in a democracy, be very careful not to shake it, but rather guard it as the most precious heritage from aristocratic times.”

The guard against materialism’s spread, however, does not come from the reach of government, but from the inhabitants of society themselves of their own independent volitions.  Tocqueville gave a harbinger for what was to come if society in democracies, including the United States, ever gave way to the spread of materialism, which not only works to excite inviolable passions that could turn man’s attentions inward, but could also break apart societal order itself.  Religion as a communal set of values brings society together, allows mankind to transcend self-interest, and strengthen the ties of the community.  Haidt, analyzing the same issue 177 years later, argued that “Religions are moral exoskeletons.  If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships and institutions that work primarily on the elephant (passions) to influence your behavior.  But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely on some inward moral compass, read by the rider.  That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie.”

Normlessness in a society breeds anarchic tendencies, which is a surprisingly parallel concern both Tocqueville and Haidt shared within their analyses of societal psychology and human behavior.  Religion in society is a fundamental indicator of its strength due to its potential to increase levels of cooperation amongst its inhabitants. However, if we accept that humanity is simply homo economicuswith no guiding moral principles to encourage altruistic behavior, democracy then becomes endowed with a “survival of the fittest” mentality, with every inhabitant willing to do anything in order to satisfy arbitrary physical pleasures that do nothing for the health of society.  In America, the sweeping trend towards secularist worldviews puts societal cohesion in grave danger.  We would do well to heed Tocqueville and Haidt’s warnings and restore a level of respect for the utilities of religious belief in society, lest we risk coming apart at the seams altogether.


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