Of Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Historical Narratives

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most coherent thinkers in the social sciences today. A Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he specializes in the study of morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. He describes himself as an atheist, and embraces the notion that there is such a thing as “human nature,” in the sense that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions. For that alone he would have suffered the anathemas of his fellow experts in the behavioral sciences a few short decades ago. Until quite recently they were still in thrall of the collective delusion that human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture and education. But Haidt doesn’t stop there. His work focuses on our moral nature, and he is of the opinion that moral reasoning is not the basis of moral judgment. Rather, he supports what he calls the social intuitionist model, according to which moral judgments are the result of quick, automatic intuitions, including moral emotions. Moral reasoning commonly only appears after moral decisions have already been made, serving to rationalize them after the fact. Innate, evolved traits play a significant role in the process. In Haidt’s words from the paper, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,”

The social intuitionist model… proposes that morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture. Moral intuitions are therefore both innate and enculturated.

Obviously, we have come a long way since the 60’s and 70’s, when the entire orthodox scientific establishment was defending the cherished but palpably absurd dogma that “human nature” was almost entirely the result of education and culture, and the effect of innate predispositions of the kind Haidt refers to on human behavior were insignificant. In one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in scientific history, they have finally been forced by the weight of evidence to abandon that delusion. For all that, they have shown a remarkable resistance to facing the obvious implications of the truth they have finally embraced. Nowhere has that been more true than in the field of morality.

If what Haidt says is true, then human morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. As such, it cannot be other than subjective in nature. Objective good and evil cannot exist because there is no legitimate basis for their existence. Morality has no purpose, nor does it serve any higher end. It exists purely and simply because it has increased the odds that carriers of the genes that give rise to it would survive and reproduce those genes. In spite of these seemingly elementary facts, no human illusion is as persistent and resilient as the belief in objective good.

Haidt explores some related issues in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s a good read, consisting of a collection of interesting ideas, insights and recent research results and concluding with an examination of the question, “What is the meaning of life.” According to Haidt, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” really consists of two sub-questions: What is the purpose of life? and What should be our purpose within life? He does not attempt an answer to the first, but focuses on the second, noting that it refers to what we should do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life. Haidt devotes the final portion of the book to the question. There is something rather striking about his answer. It requires acceptance of the theory of group selection.

Why is that striking? Back in the day when, as noted above, virtually the entire orthodox scientific establishment was proclaiming the dogma that “human nature” was almost exclusively the result of education and culture, the most influential and significant writer insisting that the establishment was wrong, recognized as such at the time by proponents of both points of view, was Robert Ardrey. Well, it so happens that Ardrey, a brilliant writer with a profound grasp of the big picture, was right and the establishment was wrong about the role of the innate on human behavior. Yet today his name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Galileo, or any of the other great destroyers of false orthodoxies in the sciences for that matter. Rather, he has been almost entirely forgotten. It happens, you see, that Ardrey was outside the academic pale. He was, in fact, a playwright for much of his career, and it would be too painful for the guild of “experts” to admit that a mere playwright like Ardrey had correctly insisted on an abundantly obvious truth at a time when they were still collectively defending a cherished but palpably false delusion.

Eventually, when the delusion collapsed, resulting in one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of the sciences, the “experts” constructed an entire alternative reality, exemplified by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, according to which, incredibly, Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” and the real hero had been the more respectable and palatable E. O. Wilson, no matter that the ideas he set forth in books like Sociobiology and On Human Nature were no more than a reformulation of Ardrey’s thought. Now the chances that Pinker ever actually read Ardrey before dismissing him as “totally and utterly wrong” are vanishingly small, but he cited Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene as the basis of his claim, as if Dawkins were as infallible as the pope. Dawkins, in turn, based his entire criticism of Ardrey on some remarks he made in his book The Social Contract about a theory that was of no particular significance whatsoever as far as the fundamental question of the role of the innate on human behavior is concerned. And what was that theory? Why, none other than the theory of group selection, without which Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” evaporates in the mist. It appears that Dawkins was somewhat premature in announcing its demise. Such are the narratives that occasionally pass for “history” in the sciences. Meanwhile, Ardrey remains an unperson. I should think he deserves better.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “Of Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Historical Narratives”

  1. Excellent.

    It’s good to see that you are becoming interested in Haidt’s ideas, but there are limits to his vision, I’m afraid. I contacted him back in late 2007, I believe it was, and while he was very receptive to several ideas in my initial email he never replied to my second, in which I did bring to bear some of Ardrey’s thinking, among other things, which I suppose branded me in his mind as a nut.

    Haidt has helped to found a school of psychology which calls itself positive psychology, as you must know from having read ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’. I think in some way this school is choosing to blind itself to the darkness inside of us in hopes that what is good can be nurtured into some final victory. Truth be told, I suppose I hope something like this myself to some extent, otherwise what am I doing paying attention to world events and searching for some kind of workable solutions to our many existential dilemmas?

    For that matter, what did Ardrey himself have in mind when he spoke of our being “a head above the ancestral ape and a head below whatever must come next… evolutionary failures, trapped between earth and a glimpse of heaven, prevented by our sure capacity for self-delusion from achieving any triumph more noteworthy than our own sure self-destruction”? Apparently, he too must have reserved hope for some breakthrough in collective human disillusionment, based on a rational understanding of our full nature, which might hold out hope for avoiding sure self-destruction.

    But who knows what his vision of that state of consciousness would look like? I have often thought about it in my own terms of comparing it to the alcoholic who must look himself in the mirror every morning and resolve to take that drink tomorrow. Perhaps we individuals of the human race must reach the point where we each look in the mirror, with a full knowledge of our total capacity, and resolve to give free rein to our hatred of those outgroups and yield to the temptation towards genocide against them tomorrow, not today, and thus perpetually give ourselves one day of unnatural, peaceful existence. Or perhaps consciousness of the collective hazard we face, the other variable in the AE equation, could bring such a state about. But I don’t know. What do you think?

    At any rate, in spite of Haidt’s weaknesses, I am convinced that his five, integrated foundations of moral psychology which characterize human social behavior– what he calls the binding foundations of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity, and the individuationg foundations of harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity– are about as reduced in nature as are Ardrey’s three oppositional faces of Janus– individuation versus anonymity, stimulation versus boredom, and anxiety versus security– in terms of describing the evolved psychological/territorial underpinnings of individual animal behavior in the group context– along with the AE complex, the illusion of central position, and the romantic fallacy, of course, among much else besides.

    I know you have mentioned elsewhere in your blog that you read edge.org on occasion if not regularly. If you haven’t seen the following edition, which is where I first became familiar with Haidt’s ideas, I think you might find it quite interesting to do so: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt07/haidt07_index.html

    Dan Parkinson

  2. I hope you are enjoyed your extended vacation and am anxious to read your next post. I remember your comment that you monitor the traffic to your site, which is considerable, but viewer comments were low. I think the reason is that your writing is so powerful, viewers may be intimidated to measure up to the standard you set. That’s why I don’t respond more often.

    I recently re-read African Genesis, and enjoyed it more than the first time because I absorbed more of his evidence, which he modestly called an inquiry. I think his books could easily become a foundation for a new Scientology-type religion, as it unintentionally mirrors a belief system that makes more and more sense as scientific advances validate his observations. The fact that Stanley Kubrick incorporated Ardrey’s fundamental idea into the best sci-fi movie ever made, 2001 A Space Odyssey, (which I saw 100 times as a $1.10 an hour usher in high school), makes me a junkie for whatever you write about him.

    Kubrick’s museum curator states Arthur Clarke was marginalized after Kubrick read African Genesis, because Clarke’s Sentinel never looked backward, only forward, and made observations about the present. His book came out after the movie. What’s with that?

    Ardrey, along with Raymond Dart, simply state what humanists don’t want to contemplate. Dart was thrown a bone after the 40-year Piltdown academic disgrace and allowed to name Australopithecine Africanus (since deemed an extinct offshoot). You posted the neurological science breakthroughs and no doubt the science cannot be muzzled at this point, even with the bowdlerized Naked Ape and Montague’s excusionist rants. What they miss is out-group hostility fosters in-group cooperation.

    Ardrey’s book is such a liberation for me, as a 12-year inmate of Catholic education. I never quite understood the basis of original sin. Now I know. Mankind, you are off the hook; don’t feel guilt because Nature made you this way.

  3. I’m sorry about neglecting the blog. Taking a new job and moving across country can be distracting.

    Heaven forefend that Ardrey’s work should ever become the basis for a new religion. I’m sure it’s the last thing he would have wanted. He always made a point of emphasizing that he wasn’t omniscient. He was much too brilliant a man to want to become the founder of some new system.

    As for Montagu, he actually did the world a great service by giving it “Man and Aggression.” That little book documents the fact, based on the testimony of the most influential blank slaters of the day, that Ardrey was their most influential and credible opponent, at least from the time he appeared on the scene through 1968, when the book was published, with Konrad Lorenz a close second. In doing so he saved us the trouble of refuting the imaginary history of the demise of the Blank Slate created by Steven Pinker in his book of that name. Instead, we can just laugh about it, and point to Montagu’s book. Pinker went to a great deal of trouble writing his tome, citing the works of all sorts of scientists and philosophers, many of whom I strongly suspect he never read, or at least didn’t understand. John Stuart Mill and Margaret Mead come to mind. But to top it all off, it turns out that this “historian” of the blank slate had never even read the work of Ardrey and Lorenz, its two most effective and devastating opponents, at all. The current textbooks of Evolutionary Psychology are similarly reticent about telling the truth, to the extent that their authors even know it. It’s just too embarrassing for them to admit that the entire guild of behavioral scientists and related academic gentry could have been so wrong, and a “mere playwright” so right.

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