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  • Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”: Take Two

    Posted on August 5th, 2012 Helian 1 comment

    If I were a Kantian, I would say that as I read this book, at the same time, I willed that reading it should become a universal law.  It’s the best book on morality I know of.  Keep that in mind in reading the criticisms that follow.  Instead of presenting us with yet another tome of finely spun arguments in support of yet another version of what we “ought” to do, Haidt has focused on the ultimate wellsprings of morality in human nature.  Instead of another “ought,” Haidt has presented us with a general theory of “is”.  He argues that moral reasoning is an after-the-fact rationalization of moral intuitions.  He categorizes these into what he calls the six foundations of morality; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.  According to Haidt, one’s “moral matrix,” including the degree to which one is liberal or conservative, secular or religious, etc., depends on the role each of the six plays in generating moral intuitions.  Much of the remainder of the book is a discussion of the social and moral implications of these insights.  It is, of course impossible to do justice to a book like this with such a brief vignette.  It should be read in full.

    I certainly agree with Haidt’s intuition-based interpretation of morality.  I can imagine that future criticisms of the book based on expanded knowledge of how the brain actually works will find fault with his six foundations.  It would be remarkable if the complex behavioral algorithms in the brain actually fell neatly into categories defined by words that became a part of the language long before anyone imagined the evolutionary origins of human nature.  Our thought is, however, limited by language, and Haidt has done his best to fit the available terms to the observed manifestations of morality.  Science cannot advance without hypotheses, and while Haidt’s foundations may not be provable facts, they should serve very well as hypotheses.

    There is good news and bad news in the book.  The bad news starts early.  In the introduction, Haidt writes,

    I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.

    I’m afraid he’s right.  I’m certainly no exception to the rule.  The only problem is that I find self-righteousness in others very irritating.  It seems to me I loathe self-righteousness (in others) with good reason.  If, as Darwin and a long line of scientists and thinkers since him have been saying, the origins of morality are to be found in evolved mental traits, the basis for claiming there are such things as objective good and evil disappears.  In the absence of objective good and evil, self-righteousness is rationally absurd.  However, Haidt tends to dismiss most rationalist arguments as beside the point.  He would reply that it is our nature to be self-righteous whether I happen to think it reasonable or not, and he would be right.  It seems to me, however, that if people in general gained some inkling of what morality actually is by, for example, reading his book, it might at least take the edge off some of the more pathological instances of self-righteous moral preening that are now the norm.

    Of course, if, by some miracle, self-righteousness were to disappear entirely, things would be even worse.  I know of no other effective motivation for moving the culture forward.  Absent self-righteousness, we would still have slavery, serfdom, absolute monarchies, and gladiatorial shows.  I suppose we will just have to grin and bear it unless we want the culture to stagnate, but we can at least raise a feeble voice of protest against some of its more extravagant manifestations.

    I seldom run across anyone who has a lower opinion of human reason than I do.  However, Haidt sometimes seems to positively despise it.  Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate.  He doesn’t really despise it as much as he considers it a mechanism for justifying moral intuitions after the fact, a sort of inner lawyer or public relations expert, as he puts it.  Still, he seems to have a profound distrust of reason as a means of discovering truth.  For example, in chapter 4 he writes,

    Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.  We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.  The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in social psychology).  They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings.  Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law.  Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing:  summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that  some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.  This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

    Well, even Einstein said he could only see farther than others because he sat on the shoulders of giants, but it seems to me that individuals have played a greater role in the expansion of human knowledge than Haidt’s take on individuals as mere “neurons” would imply.  I would be the first to agree that we shouldn’t “worship” reason.  Still, even though it’s a blunt tool, it’s the only one we have for discovering truth.  We have a marked tendency to wander off into intellectual swamps the further we get from the realm of repeatable experiments.  Still, airplanes fly, the atomic bomb exploded, and man landed on the moon.  None of these things could have happened absent the power of reason to distinguish truth from falsehood.  The tool may be blunt, but it isn’t useless.  There are some interesting implications of Haidt’s view on the limitations of reason touching on religion, but I will take that up in another post.

     

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