Thursday, 22 August 2013

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

Why do we hold the moral and political beliefs that we do?  Why are we frequently so certain of them, and why are others so certain that we are wrong?  These are the questions that psychologist Jonathan Haidt attempts to answer in this fascinating book.

Haidt's fundamental insight is that moral beliefs are largely intuitive and innate.  People instinctively feel that they like or dislike X - then, if necessary, they come up with rational arguments to support their position.   Haidt is certainly right about this.  The psychological processes involved are well documented - we can even see evidence of them in brain scans - and I have blogged about them before.  As Haidt notes, they affect intelligent and well-educated people as much as anyone else.  Clever people are just better at coming up with clever justifications for conclusions which they have already reached intuitively.  We shouldn't exaggerate, of course.  It's not that people never arrive at moral positions through objective reasoning.  The head can overrule the heart.  It just doesn't usually do so.

The lack of logical rigour in our moral sentiments might surprise some people.  At times, our moral sense can be affected by trivial and transient things.  Experimental subjects who are interviewed in the vicinity of a bad smell become more morally judgemental, and subjects who have just washed their hands become less tolerant of pornography and drug use.

If our moral sentiments are intuitive and subjective, does our rational mind have any role to play at all?  Haidt accepts that it does - but a second-order one, as befits a faculty which evolved long after our pre-rational instincts did.  Its job is to come up with, and to offer to other people, plausible-sounding justifications for the positions which we have come to through non-rational means.  Haidt uses a number of comparisons to illustrate this, one of which sees our reasoning faculties as a lawyer and our subjective intuitions as his client.  A lawyer can sometimes persuade a client to drop a case or desist from a questionable course of action, but generally his job is to facilitate and defend whatever his client wants to do.  Haidt also makes extensive use of the metaphor of the intuitive elephant and its rational rider.  The rider may be able to rein in the elephant from time to time, but his function will generally be to guide the elephant in the direction where it already wants to go.  If the elephant is determined to turn left, the rider is unlikely to be able to force it to turn right.

If morality is intuitive, where do our moral intuitions come from?  This is the most interesting part of the book, and the one with the clearest political implications.

Haidt's answer is woven into his own life story and career as a researcher.  He explains how, while conducting research as a left-wing atheist postgrad, he came to understand and even admire the traditional conservative culture of Orissa in India, where he did his field-work.  To be sure, he realised that its customs and structures could be authoritarian and onerous for groups such as women.  But he seems to have developed a deep appreciation for the place - he went native, one might say.  When he returned to the USA, the Reagan-era culture wars made more sense to him.  He still believed that the conservative Christian right had the wrong policies for dealing with America's problems, but he now had a greater understanding of where they were coming from.  (His current political position is that he is sympathetic to conservatism, but not to the Republican Party.)

Haidt's psychological model claims that human morality can be categorised into six distinct "foundations":
  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Liberty/oppression
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degradation
Each of these "foundations", Haidt argues, has an identifiable evolutionary origin, and even the less cuddly ones (loyalty to the in-group, obedience to authority) are necessary for social cohesion and progress.  The present reviewer has an instinctive suspicion of evolutionary psychology, but Haidt's claims are at least broadly plausible - if a little reductive - and he refrains from indulging in the kind of just-so stories that get evopsych a bad name.  Haidt's categorisation is not perfect, but it looks as good as any model that anyone has come up with so far (notably, it is an advance on Richard Schweder's earlier three-part model).

Haidt's claim is that Western liberals and left-wingers tend to depend upon three of the above foundations (1, 3 and to a lesser extent 2), while conservatives - like the indigenous people of Orissa - depend upon all six.  (He adds that followers of the characteristically American ideology known as libertarianism depend almost entirely on 3.)  This has been experimentally validated through cross-cultural studies, and it is not a particularly shocking claim in itself.

What, however, are the political implications?  Haidt notes that human beings are given to a baffling mixture of selfishness and co-operation.  He argues, drawing on the work of the pioneering French sociologist Émile Durkheim, that individualistic Western societies need to learn how to shift the balance more in the direction of the community rather than the individual.  His case (which is very skilfully argued - he should really have been an attorney) is that we should aim for a society with greater social capital and "moral capital", and in which individual freedom is balanced against communal interests.  This prescription would involve respecting all of the six foundations, not just the "liberal" ones.  Yet Haidt's vision is not necessarily "conservative": it may appeal to left-wingers who dislike selfish consumer capitalism as well as right-wingers who dislike modern sexual mores.

Haidt gives particular attention to the role of religion in society.  He is not a believer himself, but he has little time for the New Atheists and their rationalism-on-steroids.  He argues that religion has performed a useful function in the development of human civilisation by mobilising resources in the service of wider communities than the individual or the kin group (this involves him rehabilitating Darwin's theory of group selection, which fell out of favour in the 1970s).  As a social psychologist, Haidt has little time for metaphysical issues.  Gods may be the notional objects of religion, but then the movement of the ball on the pitch is the notional object of a sports match, yet the group dynamics among the rival supporters in the stadium are the truly interesting social facts.  For Haidt, religion is not about gods but about the people who believe in them.

Haidt makes his case very well, but I feel some disquiet about the social consequences of a greater emphasis on the "conservative" foundations of in-group loyalty, authority and sacrality.  Haidt is aware (obviously) of the dangers of tribalism and aggression towards stigmatised out-groups, but he takes the view that the cost/benefit analysis ultimately comes out in favour of Durkheimianism rather than liberal individualism.  I have no idea how this claim could be tested or proven, but I do have a feeling that it's an easier claim to make if you're not a member of an out-group yourself.  I'd like to live in a more socially cohesive society, and a Durkheimian society does have certain attractions, but then I'm a white, European, upper-middle-class, (mostly) heterosexual male, so it probably wouldn't be my rights that ended up being traded off to achieve a more cohesive conservative consensus.

Even accepting that a Durkheimian society would be desirable, it is not clear how one could possibly be created in the modern West.  Euro-American society has spent the last 200+ years moving in the direction of more individual freedom rather than less, and - in spite of temporary reverses - this development shows no signs of slowing down.  This is why David Cameron and Nick Clegg are in Downing Street rather than Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton.  Something similar can be said about the rest of the world.  People who start out living in traditional, morally conservative cultures generally end up changing them into something else as soon as they get the chance.  This is a very significant fact, and one which Haidt never really engages with.

In all, this is a stimulating and absorbing book, and one which deserves to be read widely.  Not all readers will agree with everything that Haidt says, but his work is thought-provoking and helps to advance a little further our still imperfect understanding of our own minds and hearts.