Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind argues that our political leanings are strongly tied to our moral intuitions, and explains that people in each of the main political categories have different fundamental tenets that they each believe in strongly. There's some overlap between the various groups, but Haidt presents evidence that there's a lot of consistency within each group. If you hope to convince people on the opposite side of these divides of anything important, it's crucial to understand the foundations their reasoning is based on. If you believe the people you argue with are confused or evil, rather than reasoning from different premises, your arguments will fail to sway them.

In part one, Righteous Mind argues that intuition comes first, and strategic reasoning second. People enter a discussion of morality with instincts that tell them the answers. Most of the arguments they make are driven by their instincts, and little follows from intellectual considerations. Haidt relies heavily on the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. It's possible for the rider to decide which direction they go, but the elephant makes the first choice, and the driver has to convince the elephant if they're to end up somewhere else.

The second part covers the common foundations of our moral instincts. Most philosophers have concluded that morality is based on fairness or avoidance of harm. Haidt's research has shown that across cultures, there are actually six relatively consistent value frameworks that different political camps choose among. He says "The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors."

The third part shows that common feelings about morality bind communities together and blinds members of those communities to the goals, tastes, and priorities of their neighbors. He argues that religion evolved because of its contribution to social cohesion in contrast to the common atheist accusation that it's mostly religion is a memetic parasite that wins at the cost of its carriers.

Haidt is a master at presenting short vignettes that adherents to one viewpoint will say shows immoral behavior and others will be fine with. Whatever your outlook, he knows some stories that your group will be the only one to approve of, and other stories that you'll find to be disturbing while people with other political views won't be bothered. This technique seems to have been the core of the research underlying the book. He uses it to good effect in teasing apart the most basic drivers of people's instincts about right and wrong.

The underlying drives presented in the book. The names represent virtues and the adaptive challenge in the evolutionary environment that they protected us from. Haidt often refers to them just by the name of the virtue, and so will I.

  • care/harm
  • fairness/cheating
  • liberty/oppression
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation
Liberals rely on caring, then fairness and liberty. Conservatives rely on all six, somewhat equally. Libertarians rely most on liberty, and a little on fairness. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes. Liberals also have a streak of sanctity, but it usually applies to nature and cleanliness rather than religious faith. Notice that there is no foundation used by the left that is not also important to the right. Liberals reject altogether some of the values that matter to Conservatives. To Liberals, loyalty and respect for authority can be outright negatives.

If you have trouble seeing how virtues other than the ones you believe in can be seen as fundamental, you're going to miss most of the point of the book.

When Haidt's research team asked liberals and conservatives to predict one another's responses to his Moral Foundations survey, they found that conservatives were the best able to understand other's motivations. Liberals seem to assume that where others hold values more weakly than liberals do (because there are other values they hold more strongly) that those with whom they disagree hold the opposite position from them rather than understanding that value but having another, higher priority. Many Liberals, when asked to describe Conservative values, say that they are actively pursuing evil ends. Conservatives, since they use all 6 metrics, can recognize when others are relying on particular values. Libertarians are most handicapped by this standard (having only one prime value), but their advantage is that, being in the minority, they are more used to talking to people with different points of view.

Part three of the book argues first, that humans are uniquely social creatures (He cites Tomasello, an expert on chimpanzee cognition, who said "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.") Bees and ants sacrifice themselves for the hive, but individual cooperation is extremely rare if you exclude sex and other instinctive behavior. Second, that religion is mostly used to bind us into communities. He argues that we have a built-in "hive switch" that makes us bind more tightly and unthinkingly into groups. The release of oxytocin binds people to their groups, not to humanity as a whole. Finally, he argues that the New Atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris, primarily) miss the main point of religion, which is to bind people into groups. The fact that they naturally divide everyone into insider and enemy is a consequence of human psychology. The rituals "that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems human [societies] face: cooperation without kinship." Haidt uses these points to support his conclusion that treating people who disagree with us (or merely act differently) as repugnant is a deep-seated reaction.

Haidt says he grew up a liberal, and it was partly due to his studies of different political approaches that led him to a conservative viewpoint. It was also as a result of his studies that he came to see that libertarians have a distinct approach that is straightforward to describe in his framework. The descriptions of the liberal progress narrative (a quote from Christian Smith's Moral, Believing Animals) and the conservative mindset (a description of the "Reagan narrative" from Westen's The Political Brain) are masterful in their contrasts. Smith wrote

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism…But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitations, and repression.
Westen's description is
Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and Faith at every step of the way. … Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to "understand" them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals, … Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle … and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles. … Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism.
Haidt points out that these are very much descriptions of the American liberal and conservative viewpoints. In other countries, the narrative would be different, and in some, the constellation of values wouldn't align the same way. But in all the countries he's studied, the same 6 underlying values keep coming up in different combinations, and his story problems elicit the same distinctions, when adjusted for local customs and unique traditions.

Haidt believes that the crucial value that liberals misunderstand is moral capital (he's careful to draw a distinction from social capital). He cites Bertrand Russell to make the point: "Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence of tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible." Haidt then says

If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

I found this to be a very helpful book, explaining how different factions see the world, and it's presented in a way that's sympathetic to everyone's views. If you want to argue constructively with people it helps tremendously to be able to understand where they're coming from. Having more of an understanding of other points of view also makes it much easier to hear what someone else's concerns are so you can address those directly. When we misunderstand one another we often talk past one another, not realizing that the other party has different values, rather than misunderstanding our position. Too much of politics today is based on ascribing bad motives to the opposition.

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