Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt is a cultural and social psychologist at the University of Virginia and he wants to explain three key 'facts' about morality.

The first is that our moral intuitions come first and our reasoning as to why we hold those moral positions second. We react first, think later (as the eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, proposed).

The second is that there is more to morality than notions of harm and fairness - indeed he offers six patterns of moral intuition on which we weave our moral viewpoints. The four additional ones are liberty, authority, hierarchy and sanctity.

The third is that morality both binds groups together and because of this blinds people to a full appreciation of those who lie outside or beyond 'our' group.

The book is closely argued, intelligent, and written with clarity and humour. It has a practical purpose too as its subtitle reveals: 'Why good people are divided by politics and religion' (though it has to be said that, by way of example in the text, the 'good people' are overwhelmingly American).

It is the second claim that I found personally most interesting - because I think it carries the greatest explanatory power. Haidt's research shows that people of a 'liberal' persuasion tend to base their moral viewpoint on notions of harm and fairness  and tend to oppose it to moral perspectives that take into account authority, hierarchy and sanctity. Meanwhile, conservatives are able to use all five threads in their weaving of morality though they place less emphasis on care and interpret fairness differently to liberals.

Liberals are in a minority in the world and if they are to grow (and be more deeply listened to) they have to find ways of reframing their moral offering in ways that offer wider sense making. Not all authority, hierarchies or sense of bodily sanctity are wrong or wrong headed. They have important and valuable social work to do - we need to think more carefully about them. He quotes President Obama to good effect pointing out that Afro-American men's ability to perform their responsibilities as fathers may be as much about the dismantling of hierarchies of respect as it is about an unfair economic system denying opportunities to blacks. Germany's legislating on bestiality (as it is now) is not only driven (perhaps) by a concern for the welfare of other animals but arises out of beliefs about the propriety and boundaries of acceptable human behaviour: what we do with our bodies counts even when 'no one' is looking.

As with many popular science books, it is the experiments that are fascinating - like the one that shows that the closer one is, physically, to, say, a sink or a latrine (cleanliness/purity) the more likely you are to adopt more conservative, bounded moral view points! You loosen up as you move away and down the corridor!

The book as a whole is a salutary reminder that much of what we do belongs to the elephant (our below conscious processes) rather than to the rider (our reason) which can prod, nudge and direct but only in close collaboration (to use one of Haidt's guiding metaphors),

However, the book has its difficulties:

First it has no account of how we come to be weaving differently from the same foundations. Why is the world growing (very haltingly and with many revisions) towards more 'liberalism', more concern for individual rights, even within worlds where the primary focus is on relationships (rather than freedoms)?

Second, like all accounts from 'evolutionary psychology' the purported 'reasons' why x, y, z are emergent read as remarkably thin when placed against the complexity of the emergent phenomena. This is especially true in his account of the origin of religion. Having taken to task the 'New Atheists' for painting a portrayal of religion as a collection of (mistaken) beliefs about the world, Haidt tells us that it is, in fact, nothing but a mechanism for building morally homogeneous groups (better equipped to collaborate and survive). At which point, you want to throw up your hands saying, 'Please....'!

Third, his account cannot deal with outliers. He tends to dismiss people who spend their whole lives seeking to better the lives of 'others' (people not, at least at the outset, in their group) as kind of casual, eccentric aberrations. This seems neither to do justice to the quantity of such outliers - what after all are all those people working in my own field of development doing - or their quality?

What does Haidt make of saints (even quite humble, unassuming and sinful ones)? To which the answer is nothing.

This, finally, is the book's most obvious flaw - it does not ask itself what our ability for reflection on our processes (conscious/unconscious) actually mean for our potential as persons/societies? It may be true that most of us, most of the time are ridden elephants (or indeed, to borrow from Gurdjieff's metaphor, machines). But sometimes we are not, and we can cultivate and deepen our not being so, but Haidt does not appear to be very interested, sadly.

This is revealed too in his 'straw man' version of Plato (a rather frequent occurrence) where Plato is said to believe in reason's capacity to control desire. Plato thought that it was the faculty of 'intellect' (nous) not reason that was the rider (of a chariot, not an elephant). But of 'nous' there is no sign in Haidt - we only have one level of consciousness (wrapped around in unconsciousness) and must stoically get used to this imprisonment.

However, the saints have a different challenge for us: one which recognises Haidt's description of our current, usual state, and yet offers a path towards transformation - long, difficult and hard - but with proven results in the lives of others, the remarkable men and women, who speak humanity at its finest.

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