Book Review - The Righteous Mind

Imagine being able to have political or religious discussions with people you fundamentally disagree with yet respect isn’t diminished? Especially on emotionally charged issues while remaining civil?

Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt aims to normalize discussions involving politics, morality and religion with his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion.

This book won’t convince anyone to shift their views on politics or religion but may help them make sense of our modern culture war.

This book starts off with the question “where does morality come from?”

The is a rephrasing of the nature versus nurture discussion. If you believe children come pre-wired with knowing right and wrong you’re a nativist. If you believe we learn right and wrong from our upbringing you’re an empiricist. The author says both are inaccurate. Instead Haidt uses findings from Development Psychologist Jean Piaget that says morality is self-constructed meaning kids figure it out for themselves by interacting and playing with other kids.

Part 1. Intuitions come first. Strategic reasoning comes second. We make our decisions quickly based on gut feelings and intuitions and justify with reasoning afterwards. Here Haidt discusses the research from French cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason”. Reasoning didn’t evolve out of a need to discover truths but rather to help us justify choices, engage in arguments, persuade or manipulate. Reasoning can support nearly any conclusion we want to be true or build a case against any idea, philosophy or religion we don’t like.

Haidt proposes that groups didn’t create supernatural beings to explain the universe but instead to organize society.

One of the most important questions a society has to ask itself is “how do we balance the needs of individuals and groups? In the West we emphasize the individual and make society subservient. In an individualistic society, any rule that limits personal freedom yet doesn’t protect people from harm can be considered a social convention.

During his thesis, the author asked participants a series of questions designed to trigger disgust yet no harm resulted from the actions of the people in the hypothetical questions. Haidt found that people weren’t reasoning in these instances to arrive at truth but instead to support their emotional reactions. He arrived at the same conclusion as philosopher David Hume, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Moral reasoning is often an afterthought of a person’s initial gut reaction.

You don’t change people’s minds by refuting their arguments. Instead, Haidt uses a metaphor of a rider on an elephant with the rider representing Reason and the elephant representing automatic processes including emotion and intuition. If you want to change someone’s mind, talk to the elephant first.

In the last part of this section Haidt states “we can believe almost anything that supports our team. Where often just a google search away from finding an article or study that supports a conclusion we want to be true.

Haidt discusses the rationalist delusion that is the false notion that reasoning is one of our  most noble attribute that can make us like gods or helps rid us of our delusion of believing in gods.

Part II. There’s More To Morality Than Harm And Fairness

Haidt refers to the West as WEIRD culture standing for Western, Educated, Industrialized, rich and democratic. The WEIRDer you are, the more likely it is you see the world full of separate objects rather than relationships. This in turn affects how a society sees morality, for example in putting the needs of the group ahead of the individual like a sociocentric society does. Equality and personal autonomy not being the sacred virtues like in the West. Other cultures may have divinity as a preeminent virtue and toleration of liberal sexuality is incompatible with the main virtues. This may lead to certain individuals being oppressed like LGBT.

In a brief chapter on innateness, Haidt puts forward a proposition from scientist Gary Marcus explaining that “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired, fixed and immutable.” And clarified by the analogy “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. . . . Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.”

Haidt uses the analogy of taste buds to make up flavour with the modules that construct morality. He calls this The Moral Foundations Theory.

The Care/Harm Foundation

“Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering."

Liberals emphasize the Care foundation more than heavily in the Moral Matrix than conservatives do according to Haidt.

The Fairness/Cheating Foundation

“Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. it makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be good (or bad) partener for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish.”

To the left fairness often means equality and to the right that one is rewarded in proportion to what they contribute regardless of outcomes.

The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

“Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize or even kill those who betray us or our group.”

Interestingly the left doesn’t embrace nationalism the way the right does and is often critical to their country’s foreign policy.

The Authority/Subversion  Foundation

“Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank, status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.

The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

“Evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites.It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats.”

This chapter could be its own book and helps articulate to the left where the right finds some of their views appalling.

The Liberty/Oppression Foundation

“People notice and resent and sign of attempted domination. It triggers and urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants. This foundation supports the egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism of the left, as well as the don’t-tread-on-me and give-me-liberty antigovernment anger of the libertarians and some conservatives.”

Where Conservatives And Liberals Differ

According to Haidt, liberals tend to focus on the Care and Fairness foundations whereas conservatives support all five of the foundations.

Part III - Why Are We So Groupish?

Haidt examines evolution not just at the individual level but at the group level as well. Natural selection works at multiple levels simultaneously. Most of our nature was shaped by Natural Selection operating at the individual level but there are group related adaptations. Haidt uses the metaphor that we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee to highlight our dual nature. Haidt has an interesting hypothesis that humans are conditional hive creatures that have the ability to transcend self interest and lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves under the right conditions (The Hive Switch). The Hive Switch works at the group selection level as well by making groups more competitive with other groups through social cohesion.

To activite the Hive Switch, emphasize similarities rather than differences. Everyone needs to feel as family.

Many moving as one through synchrony enhance the Hive Switch effect.

Create intergroup competition rather than competition between individuals.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson suggests that religions exist primarily for people to achieve what they cannot achieve on their own. Group level selection is present and visible in religion. Members look out for each other, practice generosity and esteem members behaving altruistically.

Haidt suggests there are three steps in the process for the developing of ideology.

Step 1: Genes makes brains- Genes provide some peope with brains that are more reactive to threats and other brains that produce more pleasure when exposed to new experiences (openness).

Step 2: Traits Guide Children Along Different Paths - The origins of our personalities are discussed here. The same traits are possessed by everyone in varying amounts. These traits are fairly consistent throughout one’s life. The traits are things like threat sensitivity, extraverson, openness to new experiences, and conscientiousness.

Step 3: People Construct Life Narratives - People construct narratives to make sense of their lives and the world around them. These narratives are not neccessarily true but influence people’s behaviour nevertheless.

Based on the construction of narratives and the Moral Foundations Theory, Haidt ventures into new territory tediously highlighting the differences in narratives between liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

Closing Thoughts

In The Righteous Mind, we learn about how people learn morality, what foundations make up morality and how morality is influenced. How narratives are created and how groups can offer survival advantages. How groups reinforce morality and create narratives. How group competition enhances cohesiveness.

Changing people’s minds is very difficult. It won’t happen through applying reason to demolish other people’s arguments. Most of our stances on issues are intuitive and instantaneous. We make use our gut for making moral decisions and justify with reason after.

For society to function smoothly we need differing viewpoints so that all concerns are heard and addressed. Different groups have different narratives that create their sacredness. Creating a nation of multiple competing parties was seen by America’s founding fathers as a way to prevent tyranny.

In knowing that morality binds and blinds and understanding the blindspots of different political leanings we are better equipped to civilly disagree with others on emotionally charged issues. Perhaps an openness and desire for understanding moral psychology will create opportunites for more open and honest dialogue eroding some of the deep divisions and making productive conversations toward ameliorating societal ills.