More notes and comments about Haidt’s THE RIGHTEOUS MIND

I like the way Haidt outlines his thesis in the introduction, provides central metaphors for each of the three main sections, and provides a 1-2 page summary at the end of each of the 12 chapters. (Academic books do this to excess; Haidt’s outline and summaries are just right.)

The first part is that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” and the central metaphor is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant, without having much if any control of what the elephant does or where it goes. He describes studies that show moralities based only on fairness and harm are incomplete, contrasting the West with much of the rest of the world, and how moral reasoning is based on gut feelings, with post hoc fabrications constructed as necessary. He contrasts the ideas of Plato, Hume, and Jefferson about the relationship of reason and emotions: Plato said reason should prevail; Hume said reason is the servant of the passion; Jefferson said they were co-rulers. 20th century advances in evolutionary thought have resolved this, after a period of resistance due to fears of ‘social Darwinism’ and the political attraction of the idea of the ‘blank slate’. EO Wilson’s ‘sociobiology’ was reviled in many quarters, until it was recharacterized in the ’90s as ‘evolutionary psychology’ with accumulated evidence supporting it, including how brain injuries affect cognition, e.g. how the absence of emotion cripples ‘thinking’. [I remember the ‘blank slate’ orthodoxy of the ’60s and ’70s, in particular to justify equal rights for women. That minds aren’t blank slates after all, as much research has shown, doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t have equal rights, of course; humans should and do aspire to transcend our biology.]

The contrast isn’t emotion vs. reason; it’s that intuition and reasoning are both kinds of cognition, with that model of the elephant and its rider. He presents a diagram of his ‘social intuitionist model’, in which the rider’s job is to justify the elphant’s action — especially to others. Reasoning is about persuading other people, by appealing to their elephants. Haidt notes what’s become increasingly clear in recent years of psychological studies and political developments: “you can’t change people’s mind by utterly refuting their arguments” p48.6. So: Hume was right.

Haidt goes on to provide several specific examples of how this works: how our brains make snap judgments, how they are affected by our immediate environment. He notes that psychopaths reason but don’t feel; babies feel but don’t reason. Reason can overcome intuition in certain situations. But why did our minds evolve this way? Why not to perceive truth? [This thread expands on my own point that our minds are evolved for survival, not for perceiving reality.] p71: “That depends on which you think was more important for our ancestors’ survival: truth or reputation.” (Ah ha!)

Haidt again revisits Plato, concluding he was wrong, his brother Glaucon right, p74.3: “The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” [I’m reminded of David Brin’s The Transparent Society] He goes on with more specific examples: how we are obsessed by polls; our in-house press secretary automatically justifies everything we do; how ‘reasoning’ and Google can [via confirmation bias] take us anywhere we want to go; how we can believe almost anything that ‘supports our team’. Thus he says: rationalism is a delusion. Reason is a tool for persuading others; confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. Good reasoning, however, can be emergent, through exchanges of ideas with others — which is why diversity is good within any group devoted to finding truth, e.g. universities. [This resonates with the bit a few posts ago about conservatives complaining they are under-represented in universities.] My thoughts are that *science* is this principle exemplified, but Haidt barely mentions the word, though he does say, p92.3, “Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out.”

Part II is about how “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness” with the central metaphor: the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.

Author describes his own studies in India, his awareness that morality is about more than what are emphasized by Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies. He evokes the metaphor of The Matrix, suggesting that each society is a different combination of fundamental moral intuitions. p109m: “I cannot overstate the importance of this… We are multiple from the start.” It is like the many cuisines all employing the same set of taste receptors. He develops a “moral foundation theory”, along five foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. And then, especially fascinating to me, he describes the evolutionary reasons these foundations likely developed:

  • Care/harm evolved for the challenge of caring for vulnerable children.
  • Fairness/cheating evolved in response to the challenge of cooperation without being exploited, open to reciprocal altruism, punishing of cheaters.
  • Loyalty/betrayal to the forming and maintaining of coalitions, team players, with punishment of those who betray the group.
  • Authority/subversion about forging relationships in social hierarchies; sensitive to rank or status and proper behavior for one’s position.
  • Sanctity/degradation is about the omnivore’s dilemma (see p148t), then the challenges of avoiding pathogens and parasites, leading to veneration of symbolic objects and threats that bind groups together.

But then, after getting some strong feedback to his first version of this theory, he added a sixth foundation: liberty vs. oppression. With, again, the conclusion that liberals are sensitive mostly to three of the six, conservatives more or less to all six (and libertarians most strongly to the liberty v oppression foundation).

Part III is about how “Morality Binds and Blinds” with the central metaphor: we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.

The author has concluded so far that “Our righteous minds were shaped by kin selection plus reciprocal altruism augmented by gossip and reputation management”, but this is incomplete. People are groupish — we love teams and clubs and fraternities. We’re adept at promoting the interests of our own group against those of others. [Politics!] This comes about via mechanisms that enable some groups to out-compete other groups — i.e., ‘group selection’, an idea floated by Darwin and others, but which went out of fashion in the ’70s, partly because of arguments about how groups would not be able to manage ‘free riders’, selfish cheaters who, by avoiding risks, would have more children than others and whose genes would thus wipe out the tendency for group cooperation.

The solution, to jump ahead a bit, is exactly the elements of human morality that are sensitive to fairness and loyalty. As a matter of fact, human groups are extremely sensitive to cheaters, and extremely ready to celebrate the heroes who, in contrast, sacrifice themselves. That is, human morality evolved in part to enable group selection, thereby promoting larger and larger groups, with the resultant expansion of the species across the planet in the last few thousand years.

Haidt again offers examples, of how such evolutionary changes might have happened relatively quickly (citing ‘ultrasociality’ [what EO Wilson calls ‘eusociality’]); the way humans share tasks in a way chimps, our closest relatives, never do; and then circumstances of a “hive switch” that triggers groupish behavior and the feeling of being part of a greater whole: sports fandom, military solidarity on the battlefield, ecstatic dancing in ‘primitive’ cultures and raves in ‘advanced’ ones; awe in nature; psychedelic drugs that involve oxytocin and trigger the mirror neuron system. Happiness, he concludes, comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, yourself and something larger than yourself.

And thus religion. In contrast to the ‘new atheists’ — Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens — who criticized religious beliefs themselves (and their consequences, which do in fact play out in the daily news), Haidt claims religion is as much about belonging to a group with shared beliefs. The various religions themselves evolved, in ways to create communities, to discourage selfish behavior, to encourage the idea of collective punishment for transgressions — i.e. God is watching you! and if you sin, we will all suffer! [ — as fundamentalist politicians are always claiming that hurricanes or mass shootings are due to gay marriage or abortions. These are delusions, mind you, but they are useful delusions for promoting a kind of group/tribal cohesiveness.] Thus, the evidence that in fact religious people are better citizens, and on the other hand adherence to specific beliefs in scripture are not actually all that important. Haidt claims the absence of religion leads to a kind of anomie, citing the lower birth rate of secular European nations — though on this point I and I’m sure others can identify other factors that explain that. [E.g. that in advanced nations with better health care, women don’t need to have as many children as those in primitive societies with higher infant mortality rates.]

And so Haidt finally offers a definition, not of morality, but of “moral systems”, p270

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identifies, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

He acknowledges this is a functional definition, about what works, not what is ‘right’. If pressed, he admits that there “is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism” as the basis for morality, i.e. that which promotes the great well-being for the greatest number. Here, finally, though he doesn’t spell this out, he aligns with the projects of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer on the arc of moral progress.

In the final chapter Haidt discusses the divided political process in the US, that between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, and why it’s been getting worse. He describes how any one person’s moral development comes in three levels: first, the foundational traits (the six axes described above); then characteristic adaptions that depend on life circumstances; and finally broad ‘life narratives’. At the most basic, conservative minds react more strongly to threat and fear [I think this is an essential point, echoed every day by the Republican candidates for president] (p279), liberals are more responsive to variety and new experiences. These traits support broad narratives that “are not necessary true stories — they are simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future” (p282t). And, p282m:

When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, conservatives underscored deep feeling about respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group, and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized their deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness.

And then he quotes two cogent summaries of the Grand Narratives of the left and the right, on pages 284 and 285. The former is about the struggle for equality and happiness, the latter about the struggle to return to a golden past. These descriptions are creepy in the way they echo current campaign rhetoric.

Haidt describes another personal experience that led him to reconsider his previous assumptions — i.e. that liberalism was obviously right, that conservatism simply meant orthodoxy. He reads a book by Jerry Muller that explores the idea that conservatism is about “the search for human happiness based on the use of reason”. Conservatives, he says, believe that people need external constraints to behave well and cooperate. [And given Donald Trump’s popularity with a base of uneducated, racist voters, who happily applaud his suggestions to subvert the Constitution in oh so many ways, it’s hard to disagree.] Haidt discusses the idea of ‘moral capital’, the shared convictions of society, that make cooperation possible. It means a trade-off between homogeneity and diversity, and when liberals don’t take this idea of moral capital into account, their changes often backfire.

Rather, Haidt suggests, liberalism and conservatism are a yin and yang, complementary, and both necessary. He goes on to explore several current political issues and how, given the basis for the elements of human morality and how they inform these issues, addresses the constraint of corporations, the utility of regulations, the benefit of markets (with a cute yet profound comparison of how government-run healthcare, and socialist economies in general, are like ‘intelligent design’, not giving enough credit to markets [evolution]), and finally, along the social conservative moral matrix, about guarding against threats to moral capital, i.e. how changes in social equality and ethnic diversity threatens moral capital.

It’s not a Manichaean battle between good and evil. He concludes,

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

This is a fascinating book for exploring the parameters of actual human morality, for providing a vocabulary about the motivations of people different from ourselves. (Just recall the justifications of the ISIS attacks in Paris, on the basis of gross immorality.) I’ll have some comments about the book in one more future post, especially about how it does or does not inform the idea of an arc of moral history.

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