Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: The Righteous Mind

Like many people before him (e.g., John Lennon and Steve Jobs), author Jonathan Haidt traveled to India seeking enlightenment. There he learned that he was morally challenged, a discovery that led in part to this book The Righteous Mind. Among the first indications of this occurred when his academic hosts in India advised that he should stop saying "thank you" to his servants as they did their jobs. In contrast to his experimental subjects in Orissa state, he discovered he was WEIRD.

Not only is Mr. Haidt WEIRD, but so am I, and likely as a reader of this blog so are you. The acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, terms that describe almost all college graduates in the Western world. But they don't describe the rest of the human race (including many American subcultures); the pun is totally intended.

Mr. Haidt postulates that our moral reasoning is done with a set of biological tools. These are analogous to taste buds, of which there are five: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. The myriad combinations of these result in the cuisines of the world. You can think of them as the alphabet.

Analogously, human beings are possessed of six moral processors (call them moral-buds, if you will) that are part of our innate, human biology. The six moral axes are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/anarchy, purity/impurity, and liberty/oppression. Culture determines how these are mixed together in making specific, moral choices.

What's weird about WEIRD people is that we only use three of these moral-buds, mostly ignoring the rest. It's as if we devised a cuisine that only used the sweet and salty taste buds--we'd be culinarily challenged compared to the rest of the globe. Accordingly, says Mr. Haidt, we fail to understand how much of the world thinks about moral issues. The three WEIRD axes are care, fairness, and liberty.

Mr. Haidt's Orissa hosts, for example, employed the authority/anarchy module in their advice to stop thanking the servants. Contrary to Western opinion, authority is not necessarily oppressive, but rather serves the interests of social order. It involves reciprocal relationships and obligations, for which no thank you is required. We WEIRD people might recognize this in a beloved teacher. We grant him great authority, trusting him to consider our benefit, and it would not occur to us to say "thank you for teaching us arithmetic today."

Likewise, WEIRD people often fail to understand the moral power of dietary laws, or rules regarding sexual intercourse. The rules of kosher or halal seem silly and arbitrary to us--mere social conventions. Yet to most people on the planet those sorts of rules carry as much moral weight as thou shalt not steal. They preserve purity.

The subtitle of Mr. Haidt's book, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, describes why conservatives are likely to be more successful than liberals or libertarians. Conservatives are less WEIRD than the others--they appeal (at least somewhat) to the other three axes. For conservatives, for example, gay marriage is not primarily an issue of fairness, but rather one of purity. Gay sex is disgusting because it is impure, and therefore immoral. That makes little sense to us WEIRD people, but since humans come with a built-in purity moral-bud, it will strike a chord with most of the world's people.

I guess I'm a pretty WEIRD person. The raw conservative moral arguments don't make too much more sense to me today than they did when I was a Trotskyist. Still, thanks to my long-standing interest in religion, and now thanks to Mr. Haidt's book, I do believe I understand better than I did.

Mr. Haidt describes human nature in terms of aphorisms, one of which is human beings are like an elephant with a rider, and the rider serves the elephant. Our biological, subconscious impulses are the elephant, by far the strongest part of our make-up. The tiny rider represents our conscious selves. Perhaps one can compare it to Freud's id and ego. But unlike in Freud's scenario, where the ego is constantly fighting the id, Mr. Haidt tells us that the elephant and the rider are on the same side, with the elephant in charge.

First impressions matter. The elephant leans one way or another when confronted with new people or situations, either for or against. This is technically known as affect, which lasts for about eight seconds. The rider, meanwhile, serves as the elephant's lawyer or public relations agent, devising post-hoc rationalizations for why the choice was made. The rider's job is to preserve our reputation. Mr. Haidt claims that the elephant almost never listens to its own rider, though it will more often take advice from other people's riders.

This all rings true to me. Short term behavior is made instantaneously, and often regretted later. "I didn't mean to say that," is the oft-heard excuse when the rider can't come up with anything better. I think Mr. Haidt accurately describes behavioral psychology.

But it's not a description of moral psychology. Moral decisions are always conscious, made by free will if put in theological terms. The law certainly recognizes it that way--accidents, or actions done while insane are not considered criminal. Spur of the moment crimes--crimes of passion committed by the elephant--are treated more leniently than the premeditated sort committed by the rider.

Mr. Haidt never discusses free will, and probably for good reason. It is not amenable to scientific investigation. Nevertheless, it likely exists. Unless one is some kind of super-Calvinist (i.e., you believe that every event is predetermined since the Big Bang), then there must be some freedom in the universe. Given that, then both logic and common sense suggest that some of that freedom lies within the human brain.

Without free will it is impossible to discuss morality, at least as theologically understood. Unfree decisions are not moral decisions. Decisions made by affect have no moral content. Mr. Haidt's book, however interesting and however correct, is not really about moral psychology.

For all that, I found Mr. Haidt's book totally convincing. It certainly delimits the constraints on our moral behavior, better defining the scope of free will. It is a tour de force of evolutionary psychology (evopsych), using clever experiments and evolutionary reasoning to derive counter-intuitive conclusions. If you don't like evopsych, then you will hate this book. My Trotskyist friends, for example, believe in the miraculous exemption theory, i.e., that human being are somehow exempt from the laws of evolution as they apply to all other life on earth.

But my former comrades do have some cause for doubt, for evopsych has been something of a moving target. Mr. Haidt's book is a nice summary of the evolution of evopsych.

In the beginning was Edward Wilson's groundbreaking work on the sociobiology (his term for evopsych), emerging from his study of ants. The theory was generalized and popularized by Richard Dawkins' excellent classic, The Selfish Gene, which was my introduction to the discipline. That book identified evolution of the individual gene as the key player.

The second iteration is due to improved experimental technology. For many years it was assumed that we had stone age brains, evolved in an Era of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA). The impression was that during historical time human biology was more or less fixed. However, as Mr. Haidt details and as I described in my review of Nicholas Wade's book, it has become apparent that evolution moves much faster than that. Mr. Haidt introduces the concept of gene/culture coevolution.

Finally, Mr. Haidt asserts the heretical concept of group evolution, something that Mr. Dawkins thought he had vanquished once and for all. Mr. Haidt states that religion offers benefits to the entire group. The classic example is that devout Jewish observance builds substantial social capital, sufficient to allow diamond traders to make million dollar deals based on a handshake. Mr. Haidt convincingly refutes the Dennett - Dawkins thesis that religion is some kind of parasitic growth on human society.

Overall, I really enjoyed Jonathan Haidt's book, and highly recommend it.

Further Reading:

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