The Righteous Mind

'Resurrection of the Righteous and Coronation of the Virgin' by Francesco Bassano the Younger

(Or “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion“) (written by Jonathon Haidt) (2012)

Yes, TVC knows that our reviews are not up-to-date: this book was published in 2012 and it is now several years hence.  Note that we reviewed Indoctrinaire (1971) this year, as well as A Farewell to Arms (1929), and Those Barren Leaves (1925) for example. Why, we only got around to reviewing The Brothers Karamazov (1880) last year. So give us a break – especially since recent events across the world (particularly Tr(i)umphalism, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Brexit, the crisis in Syria, and the Yellow-Jacket revolt in France) have made this book more timely than before.

Warning to skeptics: the author is a “social psychologist,” which to many mixes a word freighted in fraud with an arts degree. However, whatever one might say about the qualifications, or the value of the various psychological ‘experiments’ designed to gauge the moral sense of the human animal recounted here, the book seems to be full of good sense, sound evidence and analysis, genuine revelation, a key-to-all-mythologies and a cri de coeur, summed up in its opening quote of Rodney King, “Can we all get along?

Perhaps the only flaw in the work is that Haidt thinks we can.  No we can’t – of course we can’t. Spend half an hour on any popular social media platform, with any decent history book, or watching, say, Glenelg v Port Adelaide or West Ham v Tottenham Hotspur, and you will be forced to the same conclusion. We can learn from each other: we can respect and admire each other: we can even engage in civil argument, but we cannot all get along and never shall.  But it is helpful to have a sound operating theory why, and this book provides it in friendly, learned, accessible terms.

Haidt posits three basic principles: (1) Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second. Many times each day, we tend to conclude something is right or wrong in an instant, act accordingly (whether we overcome our borgeois scruples is another matter) and rationalise or justify our actions later. Lawyers will tell you the majority of their clients seek their opinion on a contract after they’ve signed it. David Hume (1711-1776) concluded that “belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.” Haidt concurs and offers an apt metaphor – the Rider and the Elephant, whereby reason tries to steer, or at least influence, the passions, with variable success. His instances (whether from anthropology, experimental psychology, Darwin or life experience) are nearly always apt. For example, as to the inner ‘lawyer,’ or ‘press-secretary’ of the passions, he observes “On February 3, 2007, shortly before lunch, I discovered that I was a chronic liar” and proceeds to explain how and why in brilliant and subtle terms.  In essence, we tend to ‘automatic self-righteousness’ rather than listen to our inner Jiminy Cricket). And, after Glaucon (perception, i.e. reputation, beats reality), Haidt shows that we operate in a moral space not so much on rational or altruistic grounds, but “much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”  Hence ‘confirmation bias’ and the warm inner glow of group-think.

(2) There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. We are multifarious (and contradictory), with varied degrees of empathy and ‘systemizing’. Of the latter tendency, Jemmy Bentham (clinical ‘diagnosis’: Asperger’s) and Immanuel Kant are cited (of Kant’s admonition to act so that every action can become a universal law, we recall Charles Strickland’s response in The Moon and Sixpence; “rotten nonsense.”) Haidt identifies moral foundations that are ‘innate,’ an evolutionary response to adaptive challenges, which resolve into Care and Fairness (the ‘liberal’ pillars) and the other, more conservative bases: Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. He likens these to receptors on the tongue, themselves adaptive to the palette of tastes in the natural world arising from the evolutionary need to distinguish twixt fair and foul. Controversially, but correctly, Haidt criticizes the Left in its limited moral receptors, confined to Care (when at its sometimes misguided best) and Fairness (often disproportionately, and about which you can debate ’til the sun blows up), whilst showing indifference or even hostility to the other moral foundations (particularly the sacred vs the profane). This broader spectrum of moral foundations is what Haidt, a lifelong progressive, identifies as the ‘Conservative Advantage.’ Until liberals (American Democrats in particular) stop treating conservatives as brain-damaged or evil (or both)* and start broadening their campaigns along the moral spectrum (i.e. recognise and respond to issues of individual freedom (but with boundaries), personal loyalty, respect for flag and institutions, and respect or at least tolerance for the spiritual or transcendent), they’ll be in opposition more than in power. (This applies to the Labor Party in Australia as well: they continually gain our empathy with Care and Fairness, which dissipates when they attack the other foundations. Which is probably why, in the 73 years since WWII, they’ve been in opposition two times more than in power.)

(3) Morality Binds and Blinds. We like to ‘team up.’  Whether in the deity you worship, the sporting team you follow or the party you vote for, group adaptation, a kind of multi-level selection made up of complex natural and nurturing causalities, informed by reason and a hankering for the sacred, makes us choose sides. (It is part of why homo sapiens saw-off neanderthals.) We’re 90% monkey but 10% bee. Haidt cites Darwin: “Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment – originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” Haidt hoes into the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, who, unlike Darwin, lazily demolish the metaphysical element of belief and reject idealism while ignoring its social and evolutionary utility. Haidt asserts that teaming-up spiritually, as group adaptation, was a major transition up the evolutionary ladder, a once in half-billion year event that resonates today. The binding inculcates trust, and “trust makes people less selfishsimilarly, patriotism and parochialism are good things because they lead people to exert themselves to improve the things they can improve.”

The righteous and unrighteous awake (by Émile Signol)

The author calls progressive and conservative thought the Yin and Yang of contemporary politics. For example, freedom does need fences (conservatives might say) and the liberal preference for regulation provides a legitimate fence in certain circumstances (such as anti-trust laws). But legislators should ‘first do no harm’ – when rules go viral and enmesh all, you get the type of governance described by Ronald Reagan: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. When it stops moving, subsidize it.”  A good example is offered in the book of the application of a universal healthcare model to groceries – resulting in limited choice, food shortages and skyrocketing costs. Markets only work when they are open and free.  Governments traditionally hijack, blunder into, or relentlessly tinker with, free markets.

Haidt has very little to say generally about a person’s own developmental worldview (e.g., Churchill’s aphorism that a man who is not a socialist at twenty has no soul; a man who is a socialist at forty has no brain) but he certainly records something along these lines in a personal sense.  He’s a lifelong bleeding heart, but read this comment: “Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently on sexual orientation. But their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital. For example, the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families. The urge to empower students by giving them the right to sue their teachers and schools in the 1970s has eroded authority and moral capital in schools, creating disorderly environments that harm the poor above all. The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity. Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less. On issue after issue, it’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive. Such “reforms” may lower the overall welfare of a society, and sometimes they even hurt the very victims liberals were trying to help.”  

Nevertheless, Manichaeism abounds, which goes some way to explaining the Middle East. But the types of issues mentioned above, at least, can surely be debated civilly, with evidence and reason. Can’t they? The author thinks so, and he has been so fair and persuasive to this point that we fervently hope he is right when he concludes “we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply a part of the whole.”

We conclude with two other cris de coeur.  One is from The Affair by C. P. Snow (1960) which concerns a trial of a don for scientific fraud at a College. Lewis Eliot, defending, comments on some of the prejudicial evidence about the accused’s political leanings, and says in his closing: “Could the Court really give the faintest encouragement to the view that character and opinion went hand in hand? Wasn’t this nonsense, and dangerous nonsense?…Wasn’t it the chronic danger of our time, not only practical but intellectual, to let the world get divided into two halves? Hadn’t this fog of prejudice – so thick that people on the two sides were ceasing to think of each other as belonging to the same species – obscured this case from the beginning?

The other is from George Santayana, in his essay Intuitive Morality (1905): “Viewed from within, each religious or national fanaticism stands for a good; but in its outward operation it produces and becomes an evil. It is possible, no doubt, that its agents are really so far apart in nature and ideals that, like men and mosquitoes, they can stand in physical relations only, and if they meet can meet only to poison or to crush one another. More probably, however, humanity in them is no merely nominal essence; it is definable ideally by a partially identical function and intent. In that case, by studying their own nature, they could rise above their mutual opposition, and feel that in their fanaticism they were taking too contracted a view for their own souls and were hardly doing justice to themselves when they did such great injustice to others.

[* Haidt quotes Michael Feingold, writing in the ‘Village Voice’: “Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” – p. 335.]

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Smug of Glebe

    March 22, 2019

    ...or Celtic vs Rangers...

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