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Saturday, Dec. 05, 2015

book review / commentary

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt
Vintage, 2012, 500 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

A fter decades in the wilderness, social psychology has finally come home, a bit frazzled and bedraggled, its lipstick smeared after its torrid affair with sociology, back to its roots in empirical science. The result is a revitalization of sociobiology (now called evolutionary psychology) and profound insights into human nature, due in no small measure to the research of Jonathan Haidt and others on how humans acquire a moral sense.

The Righteous Mind reveals what Haidt calls three insights that come from psychology research. The first insight is that intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Intuitions are what neuroscientists would call conditioned responses. Lots of these are formed during childhood: we are conditioned to hate swastikas, to be disgusted by certain bodily fluids, and so forth. Others, such as fear of snakes, may be innate.

Psychologists now believe that just as our reality is constructed by the brain, our moral sense of right and wrong is not based on conscious thought. Our brain observes our emotional, conditioned reactions to a given situation, then rationalizes it and constructs a plausible explanation—a narrative—to explain our actions.

This may seem shocking, but experimental evidence seems to bear it out. Haidt asked his subjects carefully designed hypothetical moral questions: would it be wrong to do this or that, and why? Example: is it morally wrong to buy a frozen chicken at the grocery store, take it home, and have sex with it? People often say: Yes; yes it is. But almost invariably they can't explain why.

Of course, one could argue that they actually do know the reason, but lack the scientific vocabulary to put it into words. Explaining our moral qualms to others is in itself a social act, and perhaps that's a factor too. But in fact they must ‘know’ at some level; Haidt argues that it is instinctive knowledge that is partly innate, partly taught, and partly learned by social interaction. He writes:

Many of us believe that we follow an inner moral compass, but the history of social psychology demonstrates that other people exert a powerful force, able to make cruelty seem acceptable and and altruism seem embarrassing, without giving us any reasons or arguments.

People are taught from childhood to be disgusted by some things and to value others. Most psychologists probably agree that people adhere to these beliefs because, more than almost anything else, they crave acceptance by others in society. This is a reasonable desire because without society our lives would be harder and probably a lot shorter.

Social acceptance is so important to people that the vast majority of us will lie to ourselves and internalize society's value judgments rather than run the risk of being ostracized. This would deprive us of companionship, sex, income, food, shelter, and medical care.

Of course there are some people who have voluntarily minimized their contact with society and live like hermits, cutting all contacts with relatives and friends as they seek wisdom apart from society. These people will tell you, if you can get 'em to talk to you, that people in society are hopelessly deluded about many things. It is no coincidence that society often attacks such people mercilessly.

If that is true, the implications are clear: as our population density increases, we are more likely to be deluded about ourselves and become more cut off from reality.

Another possible explanation for Haidt's results is that people in society create mental barriers that prevent them from even thinking about actions that society considers taboo. We might think we don't have taboos, but we have lots of them. A good example is ‘racism’: people block even the idea of thinking in terms that could be construed as racist because the costs of having a taboo thought slip out in a moment of weakness can be devastating. The cost of forgetting that something is taboo is enormous: people are ostracized, fired from their jobs, and even attacked if others suspect they don't accept some commonly held social taboo. It is no wonder they can't articulate it. It has become a reflex.

In other words, we are all contestants in the beauty pageant that is our social world. To win that contest we must not only say the right things, but we must believe them internally as well. So when asked, just like a beauty contestant who gets flustered by a question, our answers may come out as a meaningless jumble of nonsense. That's not because our beliefs are not real; it's because, whether what we say happens to be true or not, it is always a lie.

Part Two of Haidt's book discusses politics. The principle here is there's more to morality than harm or fairness.

Two decades ago social psychologists were still stuck in naïve left-wing activist mode: they believed that conservatives were raised by strict parents and were afraid of change and complexity. They often viewed conservatism as a pathology.

Haidt sees it in more scientific terms. He developed what he calls Moral Foundations Theory, which views morality as a combination of five dimensions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Using the same kinds of surveys as in Part 1, he discovered that liberals put greater emphasis on care and fairness and less on sanctity, while conservatives value all five attributes about equally.

This, says Haidt, is why conservatives can understand liberals but not vice versa. Liberals reject the values of sanctity, loyalty, and authority, and focus exclusively on care and fairness. It creates, he says, the fundamental blind spot of the left: if you try to change society without considering the effects on moral capital, says Haidt, you are asking for trouble.

Sanctity, for instance, has strong value for survival of a culture. “A Durkheimian society,” he writes, “cannot be supported by the care and fairness foundations alone.” It is the reason, he says, why liberals are unable to hear the sacred overtones in E pluribus unum:

The process of converting pluribus into unum is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle. [p. 193]

In Part 3 Haidt tells us about his rather un-psychological theory that mirror-neurons and oxytocin activate a “hive switch” that mediates group binding traits [p. 272]. As a neuroscientist I suspect there is probably no such thing, which is why, even though he's only speaking metaphorically (I hope) when he says we are 10% bee, still it may be best to keep sociologists away from the lab for the time being. But humans do have a strong tribal instinct, as befitting any social animal. This, Haidt suggests, is the basis for organized religion.

Thus begets his third principle, morality binds and blinds, by which he means that religion facilitates social cohesion and solves free-rider problems. He cites Richard Sosis, who studied 200 communes in the USA and found that 39% of the religious ones but only 6% of the secular ones survived 20 years or more. Sosis found that the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted [p. 298]. This shows, Haidt says, that by creating a sense of belonging, religions solve the problem of cooperation without kinship, a problem that is hard to solve any other way.

Ironically, then, group selection, first proposed by Charles Darwin, turns out to prove that religion is valuable and possibly essential for survival of human populations. That whirring sound you now hear is fundamentalists' heads spinning.

The Righteous Mind is one of the most thought-provoking books of the decade, and proof that when scientists concentrate on understanding the world instead of trying to reinforce their current belief systems, we learn more about ourselves. Who woulda thought?

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