The end of moral superiority?


It’s getting harder and harder to be a self-righteous curmudgeon.


For years I’ve congratulated myself on being physically active – getting regular exercise and standing, rather than sitting, at work – and been mildly, privately critical of those who let themselves go entirely.


Mountains of data confirm that our bodies evolved to move and that the sedentary lifestyle so prevalent in, and, increasingly, beyond, the west is sapping our personal health and vitality.  (The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, and Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds, the fitness writer at The New York Times, provides a very good, very accessible survey of the research, if you’re interested.)  The body is a temple, after all.  Treating it like a clothes rack will be the ruin of our healthcare systems, and so our economies.


Turns out there’s a genetic component to liking exercise:  there’s a gene that influences how we respond to fatigue, and one that affects how easy and rewarding exercises feels, and one that influences how the body regulates energy.  Etc.


It’s still quite possible to acquire the taste.  Once you do, you won’t want to stop.  The problem is, starting is harder for people whose genes don’t predispose them to enjoy, or at least better tolerate, the work required to become and remain fit.


I don’t know whether I have any of these “exercise genes,” but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I do.  Regardless, the exercise gene notion has bucked me right off my high horse.


There is, of course, at least a partial genetic component to many forms of addiction, from alcoholism to overeating.  I suppose that makes it hard for one to be too snooty about being moderate.


There’s no single gene for anything, as Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and atheist, rightly reminds us, but genes apparently have a big influence on many of one’s dispositions and behaviors.


Here’s one that completely blows me away:  our genes significantly influence whether we are conservative or liberal!  You heard it:  that idiot, _____________ [Obama or Romney, Maddow or Limbaugh], may view the world the way he or she does at least partially because of his or her genetic makeup.  Same with you, oh you-who-fills-in-blanks.


A handful of important values undergird our social landscape, each of which has an opposite: caring/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.  Conservatives actually are tuned to give each of the positive values their due, whereas liberals tend to pay heed mostly to just two of them (caring and fairness).


(As for me, I’ve long been center-left – a compassionate moderate, if I do say so myself – and so I feel well justified in continuing to feel better than the remaining 94% of us – that’s 47% + 47% – who are hopeless ideologues.)


I learned about the genetic basis of our morals while reading a fabulous new book by my favorite social scientist, Jonathan Haidt, whose academic research on the psychology of morality I’ve tracked for 15+ years.  It’s called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.


Haidt actually is pretty convinced that moral righteousness isn’t going away anytime soon, and he successfully (in my non-expert estimation) shows how it’s essential to our survival to this point in history and our continuing evolution.  He recognizes the need for people of different orientations/perspectives to be able to talk to one another civilly and work together productively, and the ultimate goal of his book is to help us do just that.


I can’t recommend Haidt’s book highly enough.  It’s easily the most important book I’ve read in, well, since I last declared a book “most important” (which I probably do every few years).  You absolutely must read it.  If want one very open-minded, big-hearted, incredibly creative social scientist’s view of what it is to be evolved members of our interdependent physical and social environments, you’ll be well rewarded for reading this short, engaging, insightful book.


And if you don’t read it, there can be no excuse.  You’re clearly an apathetic misanthrope.


There’s surely no genetic profile for that, is there?  🙂