Books: The Righteous Mind

As I often do at the library, I was browsing titles without having anything in particular I was looking for. I had looked over the shelves of new fiction, and moved on to the non-fiction – usually not a source of a lot of exciting reading, but you never know…

Nothing interesting under computer programming (my younger son wants to learn programming so we’re making it a joint project) – all the books dealt with platforms that don’t interest me (such as programming for smart phones). Nothing interesting under health or cooking (topics that interest me but new books rarely present any really new ideas).

Then I saw The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. In a presidential election year, with the country apparently so strongly divided over what candidates or courses of action will best address the moral and economic issues facing us, what could be more compelling reading?

The book covers a lot of material and is much better explained by Haidt than I can do it. So if his ideas, as I discuss them, seem weak, please assume that the fault is with my explanation and not his book.

Haidt’s first major point is that our ideas about right and wrong come primarily from our intuition, rather than our reasoning. I had read previously about studies that showed our decisions were made pre-consciously, but I had also read criticisms that pointed out that the kind of decisions made in such studies were trivial ones, over matters of preference or even whim, rather than issues of any importance.

Haidt provides evidence, however, that our “decisions” about morality are made below the conscious level, and we use our reasoning to justify what we are already sure is true. He likens our moral reasoning to statements by a press secretary, whose job is to present a particular point of view in a persuasive manner, not to figure out what is really true.

It’s not that our moral reasoning is necessarily wrong. Two opposing views can each provide valid moral reasoning, based on differing underlying values. The problem is that we try to use moral reasoning to persuade our opponents, and this is generally not effective because they are as convinced – intuitively – of their views as we are of ours.

When people do change their minds, it is generally not so much due to evidence-based reasoning, but because they have developed positive relationships with people who have different views. Due to confirmation bias, we tend to pick up on all the evidence supporting our own views while dismissing whatever would undermine them.Getting to know someone with different views, however, predisposes us to consider the validity of their views.

One reason for increased polarization in this country, then, is because people find it easier (than in the past) to associate primarily with people with views similar to their own. I know people whom I have never met in person, but only communicated with on the internet, better than the people who live right around me. (Yesterday at the Y, a young women mentioned to me that her family was moving away, and that she remembered me from when they first moved in, two doors down, and I brought them cookies. It took me several minutes to figure out who she was.)

Haidt then spends a large part of the book discussing human “groupishness.” Even in individualistic modern Western societies (and far more in other cultures and earlier periods in history) group belonging is very important to people – whether they admit it or not.

There has apparently been a lot of debate among scientists as to whether evolution can account for traits that benefit groups rather than individuals. Haidt seems convinced that it can, though he can only provide evidence that it is plausible, not that it is true, as no specific genes have yet been identified in that regard. It seems obvious, however, whatever you think about evolution as a scientific theory, that people have a built-in orientation toward functioning as members of a community.

A lot of Haidt’s book also deals with what is “built-in” regarding morality. We are neither blank slates nor pre-programmed with ideas of right and wrong, he says. Rather, we are born with a framework for moral thinking, the specific contents of which depend on experience.

This makes sense in being similar to what I read several months ago (in Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human by Matt Ridley) about built-in brain “programming” for certain kinds of learning at certain stages of life. Certain animal babies are hard-wired to imprint on what they take to be their mother, but the hard-wiring doesn’t tell them what their mother is like and they can imprint on another animal, even one of a very different species. Likewise, people are born with the ability to learn language, but what language they learn depends entirely on what they hear during the years when the language-learning “window” is open.

Inborn personality traits do play some role in shaping moral and political views, Haidt shows. People with a greater openness to new experience, and lower sensitivity to threats (i.e. danger, not necessarily threats from other people), tend to be liberals, while people who are less open to new experience and more sensitive to threats tend to be conservatives. On their own, such personality differences might not account for much, but they result in different treatment by and reactions to the home and school environment while growing up. Experiences and reflection on them can thus magnify small differences into fairly large ones (at least in the examples provided).

Naturally I started trying to see how well this matches my own experience. I took several of the surveys at YourMorals.Org, of which Haidt is a collaborator and whose work he incorporates into his books. Since the survey which rates one on openness (among other traits) only compares me with respondents in general (I score slightly lower), I have no idea how I compare with typical liberals vs conservatives.

I do know that I am generally very open to certain kinds of experiences. When I studied abroad, I was much more inclined both to try new and (to us) unusual foods than most of the American students I was with, and to like them well enough to keep eating them. Callos tasted good; why should I care they were made from a cow’s stomach? Horse meat tasted the same as beef to me. Blood sausage tasted good; so did horchata (a beverage made from ground chufa nuts), despite its somewhat chalky consistency.

I like taking classes to learn new things. I like reading books on subjects I know little about, or reading challenges to ideas I already hold. I like visiting new places. On the other hand, I am not open to new styles of music, as experience tells me I am unlikely to like them. I am not open to going to parties where there are a lot of people I don’t know. I am not open to making major changes to my appearance.

Some of that is probably because I do have a relatively high sensitivity to threats. At least, I think I do – I couldn’t find any surveys at YourMorals.Org on that subject. I have always been fairly risk-averse, which seems to correspond to high sensitivity to threats. When I was younger (teens and early 20’s), I took chances I probably shouldn’t have (especially when traveling alone in Europe), but I think that may have been less an insensitivity to threats than a young person’s refusal to think “it can happen to me.” Getting raped at age 26 changed that.

Haidt doesn’t talk about someone who has relatively high openness and also high threat sensitivity, or the possibility of scoring low on both traits. I don’t know if I am atypical, if I am wrong about myself, … or if Haidt allows confirmation bias to influence what data he includes to make his points.

If my particular combination of the two traits tends to put me somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative, that would make sense. I was raised in a liberal household and found the transition to conservative somewhat difficult at first – but in fundamentalist churches it was made clear that conservative politics were closely tied to conservative theology, so I did my best to adopt both. All this time I’ve thought that it was my upbringing that made me somewhat sympathetic to liberal viewpoints, but perhaps my personality has a role in that as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of Haidt’s comparisons of liberals and conservatives – and one which I can see reflected in my own experience going from liberal to conservative – has to do with the six different moral dimensions he discusses. Liberals think primarily in terms of caring for those in need/preventing harm, and to a somewhat lesser extent in terms of liberty from oppression, and then fairness (as opposed to cheating).

Conservatives care about all of those, though to a lesser degree than do liberals, because they also think in terms of loyalty, authority, and sanctity when it comes to defining right and wrong.They give about equal weight to all six dimensions, and their comparatively lower esteem for the value of caring makes them seem uncaring in the eyes of liberals.

Furthermore, liberals tend to have a knee-jerk response against any appeals to authority, and distrust appeals to loyalty because loyalty to any group implies that one has fewer obligations to people outside that group (exclusivism). As for appeals to sanctity, the idea of people, places, objects, or ideas being imbued with any special “sacredness” is likely to be so nonsensical to them that they assume it is really a cover for hatred and bigotry.

One of the first things that made me feel I had trouble fitting in at the fundamentalist church was their emphasis on authority. I struggled first of all with the authority of the Bible, which went contrary to what I had been taught at home and at the liberal church. But that I was doing my best to accept, because how else could I believe in salvation through Jesus Christ?

When I heard comments about obedience and respect for parents and teachers, however, I always felt uncomfortable, however. The comments weren’t directed at me; I never mentioned my discomfort. It was just that my first reaction, emotionally, was always a feeling of rebellion at the idea of being expected to give respect first, just because of someone’s position, before it had been earned. My mother, in particular, had taught both by word and example that respect had to be earned; being in a position of authority did not automatically make one worthy of respect.

I also had trouble understanding the reverence shown toward Bibles. The contents might be very special, but the physical object was not sacred – it was just a book. Nor could I understand why parents got so upset at their children for running around in the church building. The fundamentalists taught – just as I had been taught at the liberal church – that the true church was the people, not the building. It wasn’t “God’s House,” it was just a building where God’s people met to worship.  (Probably the elderly members of the liberal church had the same objections, but then I kind of expected old people to be unreasonable in some ways.

Eventually I more or less absorbed the conservative views, though perhaps not as thoroughly as someone who had grown up with them. (On the other hand, I had no reason to rebel against them as many children of conservative homes did – to the extent that I rebelled against my parents’ views it was by becoming conservative.) Not only did I hear the intellectual arguments many times, and learned to make them myself, but I also knew plenty of conservative people well, and knew that they did not fit the unflattering stereotypes propagated by liberals about them.

Of course, it works the other way also. I never could see myself vilifying liberals the way so many conservatives did, because I had grown up among them and still counted some as friends. I could understand their arguments and sympathize with at least some of their intuitions. On the whole, I felt (and still feel) more a conservative than a liberal, but somewhere much closer to the middle. (Which means that my views tend to be tarred with the “fence-sitter” brush by both sides.)

If there is one thing I wish Haidt had addressed in this book that he does not, it is people like myself who tend toward the middle. Not necessarily because we think compromise is necessary so that “we can all get along,” but because we honestly can see enough value in both sides that choosing one side over the other means losing too much that is good. I also would have liked to see him address people who have gone from being liberal to conservative, or vice versa, especially those who were already adults at the time (I was a teenager).

Haidt attempts to show this by listing important points that each side gets right. (There are three sides, actually, because libertarians do not fit into either the right or the left. Their primary value is liberty from oppression, which sets them at odds sometimes with the left and sometimes with the right.)

Liberals, he says, “are better able to see the victims of existing social arrangements, and they continually push us to update those arrangements and invent new ones.” (Unfortunately, they don’t always foresee how their suggested changes may create new victims, as Haidt points out when he discusses the positive contributions of conservatives.) Specifically, Haidt thinks that liberals are correct in the need for government to restrain corporate “superorganisms,” and that “some big problems really can be solved by regulation” (the example he uses is removing lead from gasoline).

Libertarians contribute the insight that “markets are miraculous” (I think conservatives make the same point). He provides an excellent illustration of what a mess our food markets would be if we tried to organize them in the same way we do healthcare. Consumers purchase products without little if any regard for prices, the total is charged to a corporation (to whom the consumer also pays a high monthly premium), who decides how much of the bill to pay for, and the consumer is then billed for the rest.

As for conservatives, Haidt credits them with the insight that “you can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.” In trying to help certain subsets of society that liberals see as victims, they (liberals) break down social structures that they see as arbitrary and unfair, not realizing that in so doing they are breaking down society as a whole, which is good neither for the “privileged majority” nor the victims whom they were trying to help. Conservatives recognize that traditions, institutions, and shared values provide a positive benefit to society as a whole, not just those who benefit most obviously.

Some of the reviews of the book wonder what good all these insights can do, considering Haidt’s emphasis on the impotence of rational argument where morality is concerned. But Haidt makes it clear that people do learn from people who think differently if they can get to know them – which means not assuming the others’ viewpoints indicate a lack intelligence and/or moral discernment.


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