Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Jonathan Haidt, _The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion_

MALCOLM GLADWELL'S SUCCESS has, I think, persuaded many academic psychologists that their research can land them on the bestseller list, if presented with timely everyday examples in crisp, inviting prose. Nuances are lost, I imagine, rough spots in the findings glossed over, but since I am unlikely to ever plow through any actual psychology journals, I am glad that people like Haidt are having a go at writing for the lay reader.

Haidt is a social psychologist particularly interested in our perception of the moral, and  his book is in three parts, each with its "central metaphor."

First, "The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant." Reversing somewhat Plato's image of horse (appetites) and rider (reason), Haidt argues that our moral judgements tend be immediate and intuitive, and we use our reason not to arrive at them but to justify them after the fact.

Second, "The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors." That is, just as (if Steven Pinker is right) our brains are born with a predisposition to analyze and acquire language, we are born with a predisposition to evaluate situations in six different moral dimensions: care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation. Not that we all prioritize the six in the same way; those on the right, for example, value authority and sanctity more than do those on the left.

Third, "We are 90% chimp and 10% bee." That is--and here is where Haidt is getting venturesome--he is willing to argue there has been some group selection going on in human evolution, that some kinds of co-operation was both inheritable and enhanced out survival odds. I gather he is a bit unorthodox or at least controversial here, but he seems to have a point--being able to use language, for example, can immensely enhance one's chances for survival, but only if your fellow humans have the same ability. Certain circumstances have the power to make us (but not chimps, apparently) function as a group, like bees or ants. Religions, sports, rock concerts can all flick what he calls the "hive switch," and Haidt argues that you cannot understand human morality if you leave that out of account (as do, he thinks, the "new atheists").

Interesting stuff, and highly readable. Haidt apparently hopes that understanding all the above will improve our national discourse--understanding where the other person is coming from, why minds are so hard to change, that sort of thing. I don't think even Malcolm Gladwell could make that happen, though.

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