Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, a self-described liberal atheist, is a breath of fresh air. He understands conservatives better than most conservatives understand themselves. I love truth and I love clarity (therefore I love Dennis Prager) and for those reasons, this book comes highly recommended. 

Jonathan Haidt is a social scientist, dismayed at the deepening differences between people on the right and left. Being a good liberal and atheist, he believed if only conservatives could be made to understand the liberal position, they would surely shift to the left. What he found however changed his life. Conservatives actually DO understand liberals. It is liberals who are limited by tunnel vision and do not understand conservatives. 

Jonathan Haidt believes humans possess what he calls a Righteous Mind, meaning, “human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental.” The task he set for himself was to discover where this moralistic, critical and judgmental mind came from. How did it happen? Was it necessary and could it be changed? His scientific and evolutionary background kicked in as he researched and did his own studies to answer his many questions. Much of the book details those studies and the results. 

Being a good liberal, he assumed most people’s overriding moral concern was whether something was harmful or not. Yet this did not seem to encapsulate all morality. He started studying the source of the righteous mind by telling people “harmless” stories, meaning no one was hurt, yet they sounded wrong for some reason. His first set of stories included one about a family, whose beloved dog had just been accidentally killed by a car, deciding to eat the dog in the privacy of their home. No one else knew. Despite the lack of harm, he was curious about the immediate, visceral reaction of the participants. Without being able to say why, most just KNEW it was wrong. Maybe moral judgments weren’t as rational as scientists liked to think. 

He came to the conclusion, after much research, that moral judgments were far more instinctual than many believed. He developed the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. The rider is our rational brain. The elephant is our instinctual behaviors and beliefs. The rider can try to influence the elephant, but ultimately the elephant is in charge. In fact, most of our moral reasoning, comes AFTER belief, to justify it, and is mostly intended to convince others. Yet it rarely convinces the opposing side. They have their own elephants. It’s why George Will could write, “Hitherto, [conservatives] have thought that the most efficient way to evangelize the unconverted was to write and speak, exhorting those still shrouded in darkness to read conservatism’s most light-shedding texts. Now they know that a quicker, surer method is to have progressives wield power for a few years.” Rational arguments do not convince. Experience and instinct usually lead to moral beliefs. TIme and again, in study after study, he found that rationality was not the way humans reach moral conclusions. Intuition, instinct and “groupish” concerns play a far bigger role.

The more he studied this instinctual morality and looked at studies from around the world, the more he realized that the Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) society he was raised in was too narrowly focused when it came to moral issues. The rest of the world and those in America who were less WEIRD had a much fuller moral realm that consisted of far more than simple harm concerns. 

In fact, he came to discover six areas of what he called Moral Matrixes. These are values that often come into conflict and it is our instincts which naturally lead us to value one over another at a particular time and provide a hierarchy of values. However, while these moral matrixes seem universal to all humans and all cultures, different cultures place different emphasis and priority on different values. The WEIRD culture in particular valued what he labeled “Care” - that is reducing harm. Yet he found others also esteemed other values that liberals had neglected. 

His six matrixes are: 
Care/harm - Is someone being harmed?
Liberty/oppression - Is the government or some other group oppressing another?
Fairness/cheating - Are people being treated with proportionality and getting what they deserve?
Loyalty/betrayal - Does the behavior exhibit signs of loyalty, like patriotism?
Authority/subversion - Is someone subverting authority?
Sanctity/degradation - Are we violating something we as a society hold in high esteem?

Now the dog story could be explained. While no one was harmed, a family engaged in degrading behavior, subverting the community standards, and betraying the memory of their pet. 

The most interesting finding was that while liberals overwhelmingly valued Care/harm, and to a lesser extent Liberty/oppression (when a victim group can be found), and Fairness/ cheating (yet for liberals “fairness” is usually defined as equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity), conservatives valued all six, equally! Conservatives used a much broader matrix when deciding basic morality and weighed each concern against the others. So while liberals claim it is conservative who view the world in very black and white terms, it is actually liberals who judge two-dimensionally. (Yet another example of liberal projection.) He discovered that conservatives, far from simply being mean by not appearing to care about people who are being harmed, are actually concerned with a much farther reaching array of issues. They see “harm” occurring on multiple levels, not just to individual people. 

This explains why a good liberal will decry the use of “Merry Christmas” because it might harm a non-believer, whereas a conservative will understand that society is fragile and tearing down those things that unite it may cause much greater harm to the whole. Conservatives are the guardians of the group, while liberals bemoan the unavoidable injustices that occur to individuals in any society. It’s not that conservatives don’t recognize the harm to the individual. They do. It’s that conservatives see the trade offs involved in rectifying some of those harms. 

Interestingly, he did a study in which he asked people to describe their own views and also the views of the opposing group. Conservatives consistently nailed the liberal position while liberals consistently misunderstood conservatives. Because the moral calculus of the right includes the concerns of the left, the right understands those concerns. The left fails to even acknowledge that the other moral matrixes of the right even exist! So they have no way of empathizing with the positions.

After all his research into studies and philosophers, and his subsequent rethinking of his previous positions, he stumbled upon a book entitled “Conservatism” edited by Jerry Muller. He discovered that “conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought...see chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes...see chapter 2...and chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize but if we strip these institution of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie [lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group] and social disorder (yes...see chapters 8 and 11)”

He described conservatism perfectly and was surprised to discover that conservatives were RIGHT!

Conservatives believe in the idea of moral capital. This refers to “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” Haidt further states that, “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as a nation, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense . There is not a big margin for error.” 

This explains the panic conservatives feel when they see our nation turning from basic moral principles. The whole group is threatened. Liberals do not understand this because they do not see the bigger picture. Haidt believes, as a leftist, that the “fundamental blind spot of the left” is that they do not consider the effects of their changes on the moral capital of the group.  

In fact, contrary to the left’s usual description of the right as SIX HIRB [Sexist, Intolerant, Xenophobic, Homophobic, Islamophobic, Racist, Bigoted], he states, “A more positive way to describe conservatives is to say that their broader moral matrix allows them to detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive. They do not oppose change of all kinds, but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family) Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.” In fact, he comes to the conclusion that by focusing on a very narrow subset of the population that may be harmed by a tradition or institution, liberals risk lowering the overall welfare of the society and may actually hurt the very people they are intending to help.

As a good conservative, I say, “Duh!”

In a nutshell, here are his main points:
  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. (Think: rider and elephant)
  2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. (Beware of moral monists who claim there is only one morality)
  3. Morality binds and blinds. (The groupish parts of ourselves ties us to our “team” and it’s hard to separate that out)

Finally, he uses the concept of Yin/Yang to show that the left and the right need each other. The left is good at pointing out the places where the valued traditions and institutions of society may be causing harm. But the right is needed to protect that precious and fragile moral capital. This is a beautiful concept, but it only works if each side clearly sees their role. The left needs to understand that they have a role pointing out harms, but at the same time recognize that the right can have real qualms about the trade-offs involved. The left needs to recognize that it’s not that the right doesn’t care. It’s that the right correctly perceives additional problems can result from the left’s solutions. We are far from this understanding. I think the right basically understands this. After all it is the right that is highly demonized. The left is simply thought to be bleeding-hearts and naive. The right is continuously portrayed as evil.

The right has warned for decades that our social fabric is fraying. They see society as a Jenga tower. If you continue to pull out the pieces, eventually the whole thing crumbles. But we seem to believe the warnings will continue indefinitely. Yet if conservatives are right, one day the final piece will be pulled and the whole thing will crumble. I fear that day has past. Unfortunately Frank Luntz, the famous researcher of attitudes and beliefs, has fallen into a deep funk since Obama’s reelection. He is starting to grasp that we may have gone too far. We may have finally sunk this ship. The attitudes of entitlement he is seeing has him scared and hopeless. Unfortunately all the warnings begin to sound like the boy who cried wolf. So we shut them off and drown them out. We won’t know it’s too late until it’s too late.

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