Jonathan Haidt’s THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 3

First, an aside that I didn’t mention earlier, in the chapter about how people are more concerned about reputation than actually being virtuous. In the discussion about how you can use ‘reason’ to reach any conclusion (based on whatever you might find out on Google), he contrasts the cognitive mechanisms involving strange beliefs. (Citing work by Tom Gilovich.) When we *want* to believe something, we ask, *Can* I believe it? For this you need only a single piece of pseudo-evidence. Whereas if you’re not inclined to believe something, you ask *Must* I believe it? And then no matter how much supporting evidence you find, if you find a single reason to doubt the claim, you dismiss it. This is the essence of motivated reasoning, and Haidt illustrates it by observing that conspiracy theories operate on the former strategy (*can* I believe it? give me one example) while science operates on the latter (if all the evidence supports an idea, you must believe), and non-scientists are adept at finding some reason to quibble. p85.6:

Whatever you want to believe about the causes of global warming or whether a fetus can feel pain, just Google your belief. You’ll find partisan websites summarizing and sometimes distorting relevant scientific studies. Science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.

Second, I wanted to summarize my reactions to Haidt’s thesis and conclusions in the context of where his book *doesn’t* go. In particular, he observes without much comment that Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (‘WEIRD’) societies focus morality along axes of fairness, harm, and liberty (libertarians especially on that single last axis), whereas much of the rest of the world is equally concerned about the axes of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Why might this be?, is a question Haidt does not ask. He does observe that these elements may have evolved in order to enable group selection. And he observes how, for instance, sanctity is the flip side of disgust, which ultimately responds to elements of the environment that are physically dangerous — dead bodies, animal wastes, and so on, that are more a problem in ‘primitive’ societies than in modern industrial ones. (For example, think of middle-eastern rules about using the left hand for one purpose, the right hand for another. In environments without readily available running water for cleaning.) He also observes that humanity is structured for hierarchy, but has become more egalitarian as group size grew — this is the loyalty and authority axes.

So: isn’t it reasonable to suppose, as I’ve done in my ‘provisional conclusions’ and many western thinkers have done, including those recent books by Harris and Shermer, that as humanity expands to fill the planet, becomes more inter-connected, that some of the more tribal elements of morality might fade, and the overall concerns of utilitarianism — care and fairness — (as Haidt himself suggests) will rise to the fore? That is, for the moment I’m clinging to my provisional conclusion that the moral arc of history is about the expansion of the inclusion of greater and greater elements of humanity, with the attendant diminishment of hostility to foreigners and anyone who is unlike one’s own tribe.

At the same time, current US politics illustrates how stressful times can reduce large groups to base tribal behavior, including, for example, demonization of entire ‘other’ populations. I need to revise my ‘provisional conclusion’ about a ‘reset’ of humanity to include the many potential incidents in history in which ideals (in the US case, our Constitution) threaten to be discarded, in light of current events which trigger the harm/fear sensitivity of conservatives. Trump!

Third, I will grant that Haidt’s book gave me some second thoughts about the stress of social changes, in his terms, the threat to ‘moral capital’, and how this might justify conservative concern over changing social standards (e.g. same-sex marriage) that might undermine social stability. Haidt cites an interesting example — one about how when all jewelry shops (IIRC) in New York City were owned by Jews, they operated under loose restrictions with implicit understanding and trust based on shared cultural values; whereas a set of shops run by diverse owners would require more rules and procedures to ensure that no one would cheat. Well, OK, I see his point, and I can see this effect in the many small towns across America, in which most people know and trust one another because they share common values (and at least similar religions).

At the same time, it’s relevant to observe how quickly some social changes — e.g. the idea of same-sex marriage, unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, even in the US, and now the law of the land — come to pass without violent social revolutions, or much apparent social stress, outside of the extreme conservative social bubble, who (harm/fear!) are stressed out about everything. I think Haidt’s idea of ‘moral capital’ is an inevitable victim of increased social diversity and globalization; it’s an artifact of tribalism, being diminished in those WEIRD cultures, and perhaps inevitably around the world (is my provisional conclusion).

Fourth, and finally for now, some of these moral parameters, the six foundations of morality that Haidt describes, will inevitably conflict with reality, as humanity expands to fill the planet, and confronts its effects on the planet (e.g. climate change). Mightn’t ideas about divinity, for example, fade as the importance of responding to such reality undermines the supernatural premises of religions? One might think so, and many thinkers and SF authors have supposed so, but based on the current thinking of current thinkers I’ve been reading, I’m guessing not. Human nature is what it is.

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