Review: The Righteous Mind

Review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be good, but I did not expect it to be so rich in ideas and dense with information. Haidt covers far more territory than the subtitle of the book implies. Not only is he attempting to explain why people are morally tribal, but also the way morality works in the human brain, the evolutionary origins of moral feelings, the role of moral psychology in the history of civilization, the origin and function of religion, and how we can apply all this information to the modern political situation—among much else along the way.

Haidt begins with the roles of intuition and reasoning in making moral judgments. He contends that our moral reasoning—the reasons we aver for our moral judgments—consists of mere post hoc rationalizations for our moral intuitions. We intuitively condemn or praise an action, and then search for reasons to justify our intuitive reaction.

He bases his argument on the results of experiments in which the subjects were told a story—usually involving a taboo violation of some kind, such as incest—and then asked whether the story involved any moral breach or not. These stories were carefully crafted so as not to involve harm to anyone (such as a brother and sister having sex in a lonely cabin and never telling anyone, and using contraception to prevent the risk of pregnancy).

Almost inevitably he found the same result: people would condemn the action, but then struggle to find coherent reasons to do so. To use Haidt’s metaphor, our intuition is like a client in a court case, and our reasoning is the lawyer: its job is to win the case for intuition, not to find the truth.

This is hardly a new idea. Haidt’s position was summed up several hundred years before he was born, by Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” An intuitionist view of morality was also put forward by David Hume and Adam Smith. But Haidt’s account is novel for the evolutionary logic behind his argument and the empirical research used to back his claims. This is exemplified in his work on moral axes.

Our moral intuition is not one unified axis from right to wrong. There are, rather, six independent axes: harm, proportionality, equality, loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, actions can be condemned for a variety of reasons: for harming others, for cheating others, for oppressing others, for betraying one’s group, for disrespecting authority, and for desecrating sacred objects, beings, or places.

These axes of morality arose because of evolutionary pressure. Humans who cared for their offspring and their families survived better, as did humans who had a greater sensitivity to being cheated by freeloaders (proportionality) and who resisted abusive alpha males trying to exploit them (equality). Similarly, humans who were loyal to their group and who respected a power hierarchy outperformed less loyal and less compliant humans, because they created more coherent groups (this explanation relies on group selection theory; see below). And lastly, our sense of purity and desecration—usually linked to religious and superstitious notions—arose out of our drive to avoid physical contamination (for example, pork was morally prohibited because it was unsafe to eat).

Most people in the world use all six of these axes in their moral systems. It is only in the West—particularly in the leftist West—where we focus mainly on the first three: harm, proportionality, and equality. Indeed, one of Haidt’s most interesting points is that the right tends to be more successful in elections because it appeals to a broader moral palate: it appeals to more “moral receptors” in the brain than left-wing morality (which primarily appeals to the axis of help and harm), and is thus more persuasive.

This brings us to Part III of the book, by far the most speculative.

Haidt begins with a defense of group selection: the theory that evolution can operate on the level of groups competing against one another, rather than on individuals. This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a highly controversial topic in biology, as Haidt himself acknowledges. Haidt thinks that group selection is needed to explain the “groupishness” displayed by humans—our ability to put aside personal interest in favor of our groups—and makes a case for the possibility of group selection occurring during the last 10,000 or so years of our history. He makes the theory seem plausible (to a layperson like me), but I think the topic is too complex to be covered in one short chapter.

True or not, Haidt uses the theory of group theory to account for what he calls “hiveish” behavior that humans sometimes display. Why are soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren? Why do people like to take ecstasy and rave? Why do we waste so much money and energy going to football games and cheering for our teams? All these behaviors are bizarre when you see humans as fundamentally self-seeking; they only make sense, Haidt argues, if humans possess the ability to transcend their usual self-seeking perspective and identify themselves fully with a group. Activating this self-transcendence requires special circumstances, and it cannot be activated indefinitely; but it produces powerful effects that can permanently alter a person’s perspective.

Haidt then uses group selection and this idea of a “hive-switch” to explain religion. Religions are not ultimately about beliefs, he says, even though religions necessarily involve supernatural beliefs of some kind. Rather, the social functions of religions are primarily to bind groups together. This conclusion is straight out of Durkheim. Haidt’s innovation (well, the credit should probably go to David Sloan Wilson, who wrote Darwin’s Cathedral) is to combine Durkheim’s social explanation of religion with a group-selection theory and a plausible evolutionary story (too long to relate here).

As for empirical support, Haidt cites a historical study of communes, which found that religious communes survived much longer than their secular counterparts, thus suggesting that religions substantially contribute to social cohesion and stability. He also cites several studies showing that religious people tend to be more altruistic and generous than their atheistic peers; and this is apparently unaffected by creed or dogma, depending only on attendance rates of religious services. Indeed, for someone who describes himself as an atheist, Haidt is remarkably positive on the subject of religion; he sees religions as valuable institutions that promote the moral level and stability of a society.

The book ends with a proposed explanation of the political spectrum—people genetically predisposed to derive pleasure from novelty and to be less sensitive to threats become left-wing, and vice versa (the existence of libertarians isn’t explained, and perhaps can’t be)—and finally with an application of the book’s theses to the political arena.

Since we are predisposed to be “groupish” (to display strong loyalty towards our own group) and to be terrible at questioning our own beliefs (since our intuitions direct our reasoning), we should expect to be blind to the arguments of our political adversaries and to regard them as evil. But the reality, Haidt argues, is that each side possesses a valuable perspective, and we need to have civil debate in order to reach reasonable compromises. Pretty thrilling stuff.

Well, there is my summary of the book. As you can see, for such a short book, written for a popular audience, The Righteous Mind is impressively vast in scope. Haidt must come to grips with philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, history—from Hume, to Darwin, to Durkheim—incorporating mountains of empirical evidence and several distinct intellectual traditions into one coherent, readable whole. I was constantly impressed by the performance. But for all that, I had the constant, nagging feeling that Haidt was intentionally playing the devil’s advocate.

Haidt argues that our moral intuition guides our moral reasoning, in a book that rationally explores our moral judgments and aims to convince its readers through reason. The very existence of his book undermines his uni-directional model of intuitions to reasoning. Being reasonable is not easy; but we can take steps to approach arguments more rationally. One of these steps is to summarize another person’s argument before critiquing it, which is what I’ve done in this review.

He argues that religions are not primarily about beliefs but about group fitness; but his evolutionary explanation of religion would be rejected by those who deny evolution on religious grounds; and even if specific beliefs don’t influence altruistic behavior, they certainly do influence which groups (homosexuals, biologists) are shunned. Haidt also argues that religions are valuable because of their ability to promote group cohesion; but if religions necessarily involve irrational beliefs, as Haidt admits, is it really wise to base a moral order on religious notions? If religions contribute to the social order by encouraging people to sacrifice their best interest for illogical reasons—such as in the commune example—should they really be praised?

The internal tension continues. Haidt argues that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they appeal to a broader moral palate, not just care and harm; and he argues that conservatives are valuable because their broad morality makes them more sensitive to disturbances of the social order. Religious conservative groups which enforce loyalty and obedience are more cohesive and durable than secular groups that value tolerance. But Haidt himself endorses utilitarianism (based solely on the harm axis) and ends the book with a plea for moral tolerance. Again, the existence of Haidt’s book presupposes secular tolerance, which makes his stance confusing.

Haidt’s arguments with regard to broad morality come dangerously close to the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’: equating what is natural with what is good. He compares moral axes to taste receptors; a morality that appeals to only one axis will be unsuccessful, just like a cuisine that appeals to only one taste receptor will fail to satisfy. But this analogy leads directly to a counter-point: we know that we have evolved to love sugar and salt, but this preference is no longer adaptive, indeed it is unhealthy; and it is equally possible that our moral environment has changed so much that our moral senses are no longer adaptive.

In any case, I think that Haidt’s conclusions about leftist morality are incorrect. Haidt asserts that progressive morality rests primarily on the axis of care and harm, and that loyalty, authority, and purity are actively rejected by liberals (“liberals” in the American sense, as leftist). But this is implausible. Liberals can be extremely preoccupied with loyalty—just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. The difference is not that liberals don’t care about loyalty, but that they tend to be loyal to different types of groups—parties and ideologies rather than countries. And the psychology of purity and desecration is undoubtedly involved in the left’s concern with racism, sexism, homophobia, or privilege (accusing someone of speaking from privilege creates a moral taint as severe as advocating sodomy does in other circles).

I think Haidt’s conclusion is rather an artifact of the types of questions that he asks in his surveys to measure loyalty and purity. Saying the pledge of allegiance and going to church are not the only manifestations of these impulses.

For my part, I think the main difference between left-wing and right-wing morality is the attitude towards authority: leftists are skeptical of authority, while conservatives are skeptical of equality. This is hardly a new conclusion; but it does contradict Haidt’s argument that conservatives think of morality more broadly. And considering that a more secular and tolerant morality has steadily increased in popularity over the last 300 years, it seems prima facie implausible to argue that this way of thinking is intrinsically unappealing to the human brain. If we want to explain why Republicans win so many elections, I think we cannot do it using psychology alone.

The internal tensions of this book can make it frustrating to read, even if it is consistently fascinating. It seems that Haidt had a definite political purpose in writing the book, aiming to make liberals more open to conservative arguments; but in de-emphasizing so completely the value of reason and truth—in moral judgments, in politics, and in religion—he gets twisted into contradictions and risks undermining his entire project.

Be that as it may, I think his research is extremely valuable. Like him, I think it is vital that we understand how morality works socially and psychologically. What is natural is not necessarily what is right; but in order to achieve what is right, it helps to know what we’re working with.

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Quotes & Commentary #47: Russell

Quotes & Commentary #47: Russell

Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.

—Bertrand Russell

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the circumstances in which I’ve found it’s wise to distrust my emotions. Now I want to examine the occasions when I’ve found its wise to trust them.

There are few things more daunting, more agonizing, and more frightening for me than making important decisions. Yet life constantly confronts us with difficult choices. Where to go to school? Who to date? Who to marry? What profession to pursue? What job to accept? Where to live? To have kids? How many?

I hate making decisions like these, because it seems as if I’m gambling with my very life. Since I can’t know the future, how can I know I’m making the “right” choice? No matter how much information I collect, I can never be sure whether I have surveyed all the relevant points, nor can I ever be sure that another factor, unforeseeable but decisive, might appear in the future.

And if I could know all the important facts, even then, how could I be sure that my choice will maximize my happiness? What if my priorities change? What if something important to me now seems silly to me in ten years? How can I be certain of my preferences—whether I prefer living in the city or the country, for example—when I haven’t had experience of all the different options?

So you can see that both the relevant factors and the criteria are, to an extent, unknowable. The paradox boils down to this: I’m supposed to make a choice in the present that will bind my future self, without knowing exactly what I’m choosing or what my future self will be like. How can I do the right thing?

Thinking along these lines, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair. It’s a gamble any way you look at it; and yet this is not money you’re dealing with, but your own life.

One way I’ve found to reduce this despair is to try to remind myself that my happiness does not depend on my external circumstances. As I know from painful experience, my mentality is far, far more important than my surroundings in determining my levels of anxiety and contentment. And the more I cultivate this ability to find joy within me rather than in external things, the less pressure is there to make the “right” choice. I no longer feel as though I’m gambling with my happiness, which reduces the significance of the decision.

Paradoxically, the less pressure you put on yourself—the less you tell yourself that your life hangs in the balance—the more likely you are to make the “right” choice, since anxiety, frustration, and fear are not conducive to clear thinking. Indeed, I think it’s wrong to apply the categories “right” and “wrong” to any choice like this. Life is wide open, and each option carries its own positives and negatives. Besides, no choice is absolutely binding. People change jobs, switch careers, get divorced and remarried, move cities, go back to university, and make a thousand other changes that their younger selves could never have predicted. All these are reasons not to agonize.

This brings me back to the role of emotion. I have found that, in making important life decisions, it is usually wiser to trust my intuition than any conscious analysis. Whether I’m visiting a potential college, going on a first date, or interviewing for a potential job, I have found that it either feels “right,” “wrong,” or somewhere in between, and that this feeling is often (though not always) more trustworthy than any of the factors I am weighing.

Let me give a concrete example. While in college, I took a class on the sociology of relationships. One day, the professor said something that has stuck with me. When looking for a partner, usually we have certain criteria we are applying to potential mates, a mental checklist we are trying to tick off. Maybe you want someone who doesn’t smoke, who’s taller than you, who is within a certain age-range. These are the things we normally use when on dating websites, for example, when judging other people’s profiles.

And yet, there is something besides these criteria, what my professor called “chemistry.” This is the way that two people actually interact: how they behave around each other, whether they make each other laugh, if they feel comfortable or uncomfortable, if they feel energetic or bored.

Chemistry is unpredictable. Somebody may satisfy your every criteria and yet bore you to death; and someone else may be totally unacceptable on paper and yet consistently make you laugh.

I think this notion of chemistry is applicable far beyond relationships. There is always an unpredictable element in your reactions. This is why we have interviews rather than hire people just on their résumés, and why we visit college campuses rather than decide from home. We need to experience something for ourselves, to confront it in our own experience, to see how we will react.

This leads to the question: What should you do when your instinctive reaction is out of harmony with your consciously chosen criteria? What if you instinctively like something that is mediocre on paper? Or if you instinctively dislike something that is great on paper?

I can only answer for myself. With decisions, I have learned to trust my gut reaction and to distrust my consciously chosen checklist. With very few exceptions, this strategy has proven satisfactory to me.

If life has taught me anything so far, it is that I am very bad at consciously predicting what I will like. From the university I attended, to the subject I studied, to the people I’ve dated, to the jobs I’ve taken—the most pleasant experiences, and the most satisfying choices, have inevitably been the result of unexpected gut feelings. Likewise, the periods in my life I have felt the worst, the choices I have most regretted, were times when I was trying to carry out some consciously-devised plan.

This leads me to another question: What is intuition? What is this part of my brain, unconscious and inaccessible, that is more trustworthy than my conscious thoughts? This is really a question for psychologists, I suppose, and I feel presumptuous answering it.

I will only say that, judging from my own experience, we are subconsciously aware of far more things than we can consciously take note of. Small details in our environment, little social cues and ticks of personality, a thousand details too fine and too subtle to be intentionally investigated—all this is taken in by our brains, automatically and without effort.

Now, I am not believer in the mystical subconscious, and I do not follow either Freud or Jung. Nevertheless, it seems one of the basic facts of my life that my brain performs far more operations than I am consciously aware of. There is no contradiction or mystery in this. Insects scan their environments with great efficiency without the need of consciousness at all (or at least, I don’t think insects are conscious). And in any case, to effectively comport myself in a physical environment, coordinating my limbs with my senses, keeping myself out of any sudden threats, I need to process many more facts than my poor conscious mind is able to.

(I hope to write more about this in the future, but for now it’s only important that I think we do the majority of our most vital cognitive labor without being consciously aware of it.)

Considering all this, it seems eminently wise to trust my intuition. With regards dating, for example, I believe my unconscious brain is a far more reliable judge of character than my conscious self. While I am fiddling around with psychological guessing games and simplistic theories, my unconscious brain, honed by thousands of years of social evolution, is producing a sophisticated analysis on the person I’m with, and giving this information to my conscious brain in the form of intuition and feeling.

I’ve gotten this far, and yet I still haven’t delineated the situations in which our intuition should be trusted, and in which it shouldn’t. The short answer is that everyone must figure this out for themselves. Only experience has shown me when following my intuition gets me into trouble, and when it has guided me well.

More generally, however, I think that, when making decisions regarding one’s own happiness, it is necessary to consult your intuition. But when making decisions of wider consequence, it is reckless to rely on intuition alone. Your intuition may let you know what will please you, but not what will please others. In other words, your intuition provides information about what you want, which is a fact about yourself. It does not, and cannot, provide reliable information about the world. This, I think, is a vital distinction to keep in mind.