Thursday, May 28, 2015

Haidt's "The Righteous Mind"

I loved Jonathan Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind, when I read it a few months ago. But it requires a lengthy and relatively in-depth review, so I've been postponing it to do some other writing projects.

Haidt's book is a must-read for those interested in politics and religion. (Here's a good audio intro if you'd rather start there or don't like to read.) He comes at his topic as an academic, popularizing research in various fields. He comes into it as a non-fundamentalist, evidenced by his mid-life switch from a liberal (of some sort) to a lower-case-L libertarian. He comes at this from an evolutionary perspective (complete with research and a lot of just-so stories), but you don't need to be an evolutionist to learn a ton. He comes at things as an atheist, but one who is respectful of religion. In a word, the work is fascinating; the thought experiments are provocative; the implications are interesting and helpful. Again, it's a must-read for those into the combo of politics and religion. 

Haidt opens with the Rodney King line, "Can we all get along?" (p. xvii). His goal is "to drain some of the heat, anger and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity...My hope is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, more fun, even in mixed company. My hope is that it will help us to get along." (xviii-xix)

His overview of the book:
Part 1: Intuition precedes moral reasoning. And our reasoning (such as it is) serves those intuitions-- as a rider serves an elephant (his metaphor; xx-xxi).
Part 2: There's more to morality than harm and fairness (xxi). People are prone to think solely in terms of one or the other-- and there are three or four other criteria as well.
Part 3: "Morality binds and blinds" (xxii). His metaphor here is the self-interested and relatively selfish chimp (90% of us) and the social/group bee (10%). In evolutionary terms, individuals compete with individuals, but groups also compete with groups. So, there are advantages to cooperating at times, even when incentives to cheat still abound. 

Haidt argues that the mind is inherently moral, but intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental (xix). He sees its righteousness (and its cousin, self-righteousness) as normal and argues that it's "a feature of our evolutionary design" (xx). (The latter claim ends up somewhere between compelling [in places] and feeling like "just-so stories" [in other places].)

Haidt discusses the literature/debate on where morality comes from (5-9): nature vs. nurture; blank slate (Locke) vs. "pre-loaded" (whether inscribed by God and/or "determined" by evolution) vs. rationalism (where children figure out things for themselves, more or less a la Piaget and then Kohlberg). And he notes 
universal social conventions (in particular, that harm is wrong) vs. cultural conventions (but to what extent are these things a matter of cause or effect?). 

In all of this, "disgust" seems to play a significant role-- frequently (but not always) in response to behaviors that were/are more prone to illness, contagion, and disease. But at times, disgust seems to move beyond harm. As such, Haidt asks "why do most non-Western cultures moralize so many practices that seem to have nothing to do with harm?" (15). Another category that rises to the fore: "disrespect" (22). In fact, when Haidt began experimenting in this arena, he found that disgust (vs. community ethics) and disrespect (vs. divinity) were the two things that set people off within various cultures-- aside from harm (117). 

On a related matter, "liberals" score better on neophilia (open to experience) and "conservatives" on neophobia (172). Haidt sees this as an evolutionary "disgust" adaptation to the "omnivore's dilemma"-- how to eat animals appropriately (172). And without disgust, we can't have the sacred-- by means of a necessary contrast (174).

When people have "harmless taboo violations", they can't defend them and always try to rationalize them back to perceived harms-- even inventing harms as necessary. "These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions." (28-29)

Haidt describes Plato, Hume and Jefferson on the mind and emotions (36), focusing on a distinction between moral judgment as intuition and reasoning. "Emotions are not dumb"; they "are a kind of information processing." (52-53)

As such, one big piece of advice: "Talk to the elephant first" if possible. "If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch-- a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed." (59) Here, it's obvious that empathy is far more important than righteousness. One must be correct but typically needs the tact to approach arguments carefully-- say, to "Tell It Slant" (a la Jesus, Emily Dickinson, and Eugene Peterson).

A big part of Haidt's "conversion" story is the set of revelations he's had in his field research-- in particular, while in India (119-124). As he grew to like the natives, he gained empathy and perspective-- in ascribing weight to community over equality and personal autonomy as "sacred values". As a result, he gained the ability to disagree agreeably with them and was able to practice (true) tolerance. He could still see the ugly side of the implications of their beliefs. But he was able to see the positive sides more clearly and imagine why they would make those choices. From there, he was able to extend the same skills to American disagreements over sacrilege, materialism, and trivialized sexuality.

On ignorance and fundamentalism in social/political matters...
Haidt finds that social and political judgments are particularly intuitive (66-69). This lines us nicely with what economists say about limited info and "statistical discrimination". The latter is the *universal* and nearly-continuous practice of drawing inferences about individuals from information about the relevant groups-- and about specific contexts from knowledge of related contexts. 

Along these lines, Haidt lays out some fascinating research on the use of "trigger words" and the "Implicit Association Test" at illustrating how quickly/easily (and perhaps disturbingly) many of us can flip our supposed views.

In the political realm, "Public Choice" economists call this "rational ignorance and apathy"-- recognizing that it's worth little effort to gain knowledge or take action in political markets. The result is a ton of ignorance, "special interest" to an issue or two, and an often-unseemly adherence to the major political parties. 

Haidt wonders why we would evolve toward rationalization over truth-- and persuasion over discovery (83). His just-so story is based on the importance of groups and the role of reputation within groups. He notes, as have other authors, that individual self-interest is (or seems to be) lightly related (or unrelated) to political stances. Early-on, he posits instead that voters are focusing on their group. That's a just-so story-- and seems lame, pushing the question to why the individuals would join that group in the first place. (Later, he argues that it's moral self-interest instead of economic self-interests [216].) But why bother with these stories when this sort of thing is the natural result (with or without evolutionary processes) of making important decisions with limited and costly-to-obtain information?

Haidt shares some amusing research on the limits of ethical reasoning (104), noting that moral philosophers are equally likely to engage in all sorts of unethical behavior. Given our limited information and our penchant for rationalization, the best opportunity to make progress is to read widely and surround oneself with a diverse set of people who can help one reason (relatively) openly (105). Unfortunately, few people seem to care about that, more comfortable in their ignorance, rationalizations, or even fundamentalism. Some people would need to work really hard intellectually to get "there", given their current constraints. Others could get there more easily-- e.g., given their greater ability to read and find a diversity of friends. But in my experience, I don't see as much of it among my "smart" colleagues as I do among my average friends.

Another interesting angle is the addictive nature of partisanship (103). This probably connects to "rational ignorance" and fundamentalism, especially among "smart" people. In any case, it speaks to the wisdom of avoiding immersion in the toxicity of the contemporary political culture. As such, one is probably in a much better position, avoiding TV-news and talk radio-- instead, reading, practicing silence and solitude, etc.

On politics, ideology and political parties
Haidt draws an important distinction (161) between "fairness" as "equality" on the Left vs. "proportionality" on the Right. (In economics and public policy, the distinction I've heard and used is a focus on outcomes on the Left vs. processes on the Right.)

In chapter 8, Haidt has some fascinating observations about differences in political marketing. He sees Democrats appealing on Care and Fairness, but Republicans appealing on those two (albeit differently), as well as Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.

Part of his passion for this field stemmed from his desire for Democrats to do a (much) better job in selling themselves to those outside their camp. "Republicans understand moral psychology; Democrats don't." (181). "I didn't blame the Republicans for trickery. I blamed the Democrats for psychological naivete." (182) Ironically (given their reputation and often-self-righteous self-assessments), Haidt found that the Democrats were much worse on understanding and empathy in this realm (even though they score a little bit higher [333]), hamstringing their ability to achieve (more) political success. (One fascinating piece of evidence: moderates and conservatives were best able to pretend to be liberals, while "very liberal" people were the worst [334].)

He critiques John Kerry's two most prominent slogans as "ineffectual". The first, "America can do better" was "connected to no moral foundation at all". And the second, "Help is on the way" was "connected weakly to the Care/Harm foundation, but only if you think of America as a nation of helpless citizens" (180).

More need for empathy: Democrats constantly ascribe evil motives or use (bad) "psychology to explain away conservatism", making it "unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously..." (191)

Haidt on the need of leaders to practice civil religion (193): "The president must invoke the name of God (though not Jesus), glorify America's heroes and history, quote its sacred texts, and perform the transubstantiation of pluribus into unum."

Haidt on the importance of social moral capital, usually overlooked on the Left: "Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build up and easy to destroy...the threat of moral entropy is intense...not a big margin for error...[if] you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot on the Left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism." (342-343) 

Haidt sees trade-offs here: liberals are more likely to push for individual rights, but more likely to "reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently". Conservatives are better of that but often fail to recognize certain victims. Aside from the violation of Webster's Dictionary and the other reasons why "civil unions" would have been preferable to "same-sex marriage", is there any better example than the recent and on-going debate on "SSM"?

Haidt follows this with a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of the views of liberals, libertarians, and social conservatives (345-361). He admires liberals for believing that "governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms". But of course, there is are gaps (massive chasms?) between "should", "can", and "can do well". And in practice, there are so few liberals. Instead, we see a lot of posers-- a dog's breakfast of statists, partisans, crony capitalists who favor certain special interests, and true liberals. 

For Libertarians, he focuses on their admiration for the "miracle of the market". He then takes another poke at "liberals": "Liberals generally embrace Darwin and reject 'intelligent design' as the explanation for design and adaptation in the natural world, but they don't embrace Adam Smith as the explanation for design and adaptation in the economic world. They [often] prefer the 'intelligent design' of socialist economies" and government control (356). 

On altruism...
Haidt devotes considerable attention to the difficult topic of "altruism". Simplistic models in economics ignore "unselfish" actions within its "self-interested" models of economic decision-making. (Haidt makes a common error in relying on a standard caricature of reductionism in Economics [150].) Broadening things a bit, it's easy to include the well-being of others into one's "utility function" and to define unselfish actions as self-interested (chosen because they reveal that the decision-maker believes the altruism to be their best choice). 

In contrast, scientists (and Evolutionists) have heavy lifting to do here: "evolutionary theorists have realized that reciprocal altruism is not so easy to find among nonhuman species...[some] evidence for reciprocity in chimpanzees and capuchins...but still ambiguous...Reciprocal altruism also fails to explain why people cooperate in group activities." (207) Haidt cites the free rider problem and the "strong desires" to protect community from individual slackers (210). "Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. We're one-of-a-kind freaks of nature who occasionally--even if rarely-- can be as selfless and team-spirited as bees...But if you focus on behavior in groups of people who know each other and share goals and values, then our ability to work together, divide labor, help each other, and function as a team is so all-pervasive that we don't even notice it." (229-230)

Gould's argument about "punctuated equilibrium" has always interested me. On the one side, we have those who have relatively few explanations-- and tremendous faith, that an amazing number of small changes led to what we see today. On the other side, we have those like Gould who (quite reasonably) have less faith in the mechanism and engage in a different sort of hand-waving-- that the evolutionary mechanisms are insufficient and require some unexplained quantum-leaps forward to reach what we see today. Haidt visits a version of that here: "I used to believe that there were too many small steps in the evolution of morality to identify one as the Rubicon", but he changed his mind when he heard this from Michael Tomasello: "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together." (237)

Haidt ultimately concludes that "human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee". We're like chimps in the competition we face between individuals. "But human nature also has a...groupish overlay..shaped by the relentless competition of groups." In a word, "human beings are conditional hive creatures...[with] the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest..." (258) Haidt points to "hive switches" that encourage the move from individual to group focus. For example, he sees rave music/dancing and religious worship as examples (267-269). 

The "bee" part of us explains (or at least, allows us to weave reasonably-compelling stories about) group behavior-- whether altruism and heroism or war and genocide. Of course, an alternative explanation is that its in an individual's interest to be a part of a well-functioning group-- whether a company, a church, an extended family, or a civic organization. (We cover this sort of thing in economics-- particularly, "managerial economics"-- in great detail.) As such, Haidt sees religion as "an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality." (xxii)

In chapter 11, he provides a "positive" and "rational" approach to religion as a "team sport" that encourages good behavior among individuals and groups. He takes (some, many?) sociologists to (ironic) task for the way they approach religion: "Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees." (287) And of course, aggregating individuals through polling data doesn't, at least by itself, move the analysis toward the hive. 

He also takes "the new atheists" to task. He dismisses Hitchens out-of-hand, since he advertises his own work as polemical. The others (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) claim "to speak for science" (289). But in seeing religion as "sets of parasitic memes" (292), they're stuck in a strange and faith-filled paradigm: "you have to grant that religiosity is (or at least, used to be) beneficial or you have to construct a complicated, multi-step explanation of how humans in all known cultures came to swim against the tide of adaptation and do so much self-destructive religious stuff. The New Atheists choose the latter course." (290) Instead, he cites Nicholas Wade (!) [306] and others approvingly-- on the idea that religion helps groups which helps individuals (297-298). He also brings Pape into the mix (312)! 

A host of other resources: 
1.) My favorite: Haidt (138) notes that "Bentham offended many of his contemporaries by his inability to perceive variety and subtlety in human motives." He uses Bentham to mess with a group of Libertarians to great effect on 
2.) Haidt's TED talk on this topic. 
4.) On the channels in our brain from muscle memory-- here, riding a bike
5.) Cass Sunstein on what conservatives care about
6.) Shermer in Reason on a supposed increase in moral smartness
7.) Related research from Joshua Knobe on the "Knobe Effect"


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