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The righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

by Jonathan Haidt, Pantheon Books, New York, 2012, Kindle Edition

BOOK REVIEW Thanks to John Ames and Marc Pasturel´s highlights

Haidt is a psychologist studying the nature and evolution of morals, especially as they apply to politics. He is a political Progressive, but eminently careful to be as objective as possible in his research and his conclusions. His generalizations are supported by numerous experimental test projects and statistical analysis, which are fascinating in themselves.

The book makes two main points. First, our initial reaction to situations or expressions of ideas is formed by deeply held moral foundations. Haidt expresses this as “Intuitions come first, Strategic reasoning second”. Many people, much of the time, of course never reach the second step. He uses a metaphor of the mind consisting of an elephant and a rider, with the elephant being the unconscious moral foundations, and the rider being the intellect or reason. The rider can nudge the elephant slightly one way or the other, but the initial course is chosen by the elephant. In fact, the rider often acts as a “press secretary” for the elephant, spinning a rationale for actions driven by our moral foundation without our conscious thought.

These moral foundations have developed over millennia of evolution, some of it strictly individual, like caring for young, and some related to group life, like sensing helpfulness. (Of course the DNA is carried by individuals, but its development may be driven by individual characteristics that facilitate the success of groups, usually small ones.)
As these moral foundations develop, they create what he calls Moral Capital – this is an interlocking set of values, virtues, norms, and institutions that comport with evolved psychological mechanisms and enable a community to regulate selfishness and promote cooperation. For example, it would include the trust that enables a free market.
Development of moral capital “solves one of the hardest problems humans face: fostering cooperation without kinship.” Elements of this problem are bullying, or exploitive leadership, and free riders, those who consume the wealth of the group without contributing to it.

So, what are these moral foundations?

The answer to this constitutes Haidt’s second main point, which he calls Moral Foundations Theory, and which consists of a set of six dimensions or variables expressing different kinds of human interaction, and which can be measured in individuals. They are:
Care/Harm – This foundation originates in the human need for extended care for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to suffering in others.

Fairness/Cheating – This sensitivity fosters cooperation and reciprocal altruism in small groups without individuals being exploited or allowing tolerance for free riders. It makes us sensitive to indications of good or bad partners for collaboration. It contains the principle of proportionality, as in “the punishment should fit the crime”, and reward should reflect input to production. In this regard, Haidt observes that while conservatives may never use Karma in a sentence, they believe in it, while progressives, at least the New Age sub-species, often use it, but don’t really believe in it.

Loyalty/Betrayal – The early success of larger tribes over small groups led to a sensitivity to the quality of team players and an aversion to “others”, especially traitors. We see it in loyalty to family, sports teams and nations. Unquestioned loyalty leads to Manichaeism (third century Persian prophet) that considers everyone either all good or all evil.

Authority/Subversion – a sensitivity to signs of status, and behavior that is appropriate to one’s status. This is an early trait based on dominance hierarchy, like in chimps and very early man. It is still present, but balanced by.

Liberty/Oppression – a response to the challenge of living in small groups with individuals who would, if given the chance, dominate and bully the others. It is triggered by signs of attempted domination.

Sanctity/Subversion (or pollution) – believed to be based on very early practices around safe eating. This foundation invests classes of objects with intrinsic value or revulsion. In our culture, eating a dog or a dead human seems wrong. This is a refutation of the utilitarian view of values.

Haidt demonstrates, with several laboratory experiments, that these six foundations seem present in a rudimentary form in human brains at birth, and are then refined by life experiences and cultural training. Thus their actual expression as stated morals can vary among cultures.

Progressives emphasize the Care/harm, Liberty/Oppression, and Fairness/Cheating foundations, but they define them differently from conservatives, who regard all six more or less equally. This asymmetry and the different meanings lead to difficulty in communication between these groups. The conservative vs. liberal (progressive) approach to the environment and global warming provide rich examples of several of these moral foundations. (It’s the end of the world – It’s a fraud)
Haidt offers no profound remedies for this problem, only the diagnosis. One of his few concrete suggestions is for congressional representatives to resume the earlier practice of moving their families to Washington during their tenure in office. This no doubt fostered greater collegiality due to easier and more frequent social interaction, but can also be seen as leading to conservatives seeking social approval of the usually dominant Democratic Party and its once monolithic media sycophants.

As another example of Haidt’s progressive bias, he states that it is “profoundly important for the health of a society that governments can and should restrain corporate super organisms”. He leaves open the meaning of “restrain”, and on what basis to do so.

Without detracting from the value of Haidt’s analysis of human reactions to situational stimuli, it bears pointing out that man at his best is rational, not simply reactive. A successful life of an individual or a nation must be based on careful long-term thought and not impulsive reaction to immediate stimulus, which is what is measured in university psychology laboratories. His analysis will be of immense value to advertising executives and political consultants, but to someone planning a career or conducting statecraft only as a reminder of what pitfalls to avoid.

These objections are but quibbles tangential to the main thrust of the book. Every serious student of political (and social) behavior can profit from reading it.

Post-Script: Only because Haidt gave it the prominence of the opening paragraphs, I must encourage readers to overlook his choice of an innocuous platitude quoted from a person hardly to be admired to introduce his exploration of the question, “Can we all get along?” This unfortunate choice doesn’t foreshadow the quality of the subsequent analysis.

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