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Charming the elephant,
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This review is from: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Hardcover)
The title of this astonishing book by Jonathan Haidt appears simple enough, and to be an unpalatable conclusion of any enquiry into the human condition. Who wants to think of themselves as righteous, let alone self-righteous? And who wants to read a book with the take-home message, however ancient, that "we are all self-righteous hypocrites"? Of course, when it comes to science, whether or not we like the conclusion has no bearing on its truth. But is it true? Insofar as I understand the arguments in the book (and Haidt provides copious references to the scientific literature), I'm persuaded by them (I'm also reassured that the author knows the difference between explanation and speculation). However, it should come as no surprise that any "portrait of human nature that is somewhat cynical" is not the whole story. Yes, we do "care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality" and, yes, people are selfish, but it's also true that people are "groupish". I found this approach to understanding ultrasociality particularly fascinating, especially how it begins with cognitive psychology and then draws upon moral and political psychology.
The three parts of the book deal with three principles of moral psychology: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second; there's more to morality than harm and fairness; and morality binds and blinds. Alongside these principles come three striking metaphors: "the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant"; "the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors"; "human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee".
The first metaphor aids our understanding of a crucial fact, that the mind is more than just consciousness, and that what is going on outside of conscious awareness matters. The elephant (broadly speaking, unconscious automatic processes) came first in evolutionary history, long before the rider (conscious controlled processes) appeared on the scene. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, and one of its main jobs is "to be the full time in-house press secretary for the elephant". Hence we want to look good and will sometimes distort reality to preserve our reputations.
Haidt argues "that the Humean model (reason is a servant) fits the facts better than the Platonic model (reason could and should rule) or the Jeffersonian model (head and heart are co-emperors)". However, Hume went too far in describing reason as the "slave" of the passions, since a slave is never supposed to question his master. "The rider-and-elephant metaphor works well here. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, but it's a dignified partnership, more like a lawyer serving a client than a slave serving a master." When it comes to designing an ethical society, the most important principle is to "make sure that everyone's reputation is on the line all the time", so that bad behaviour will always bring bad consequences. (Elephant and rider correspond to System 1 and System 2 in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
The second metaphor helps us get beyond "moral monism" - the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle, such as avoiding harm. Haidt and his colleagues have developed an approach they call "Moral Foundations Theory", which seeks to explain how our various moral principles might have come about. There's no fixed number, but Haidt starts with five possible "taste receptors of the righteous mind": care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These correspond to five adaptive challenges: "caring for vulnerable children, forming partnerships with non-kin to reap the benefits of reciprocity, forming coalitions to compete with other coalitions, negotiating status hierarchies, and keeping oneself and one's kin free from parasites and pathogens".
Although Haidt stresses that morality is rich and complex, he's not saying that "anything goes" or that all moral principles are equally good. His experience of living in India, where he studied a culture that was very different to that back home in America, was key to this broadening worldview. Just as we humans all have the same five taste receptors, but don't all like the same foods, so the same righteous mind can produce a range of moral judgements. "Moral Foundations Theory also tries to explain how that first draft gets revised during childhood to produce the diversity of moralities that we find across cultures - and across the political spectrum."
The third metaphor shouldn't be taken too literally, and does not diminish the peculiar uniqueness of the human species. Indeed, Haidt was struck by a remark made by Michael Tomasello: "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together." As Haidt puts it, if you see one hundred insects working together toward a common goal, it's a sure bet they're siblings. "But when you see one hundred people working on a construction site or marching off to war, you'd be astonished if they all turned out to be members of one large family. Human beings are the world champions of cooperation beyond kinship, and we do it in large part by creating systems of formal and informal accountability." (Although Haidt doesn't cite The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition), Paul Seabright's book is another powerful argument celebrating human cooperation.)
So, we're not always selfish hypocrites. "We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group." This is good news, in that this aspect of our nature facilitates altruism and heroism, not so good in that it also makes possible war and genocide.
I've barely touched on this book's subtitle - "why good people are divided by politics and religion" - or on the rather uncomfortable conclusion (for anyone on the left of American politics, like Haidt himself) that Republicans appeal to a broader range of moral foundations than do Democrats. There's so much to recommend that any synopsis will inevitably leave something interesting out. The author's ability to handle sometimes difficult arguments with clarity, humour and style is, however, a constant throughout. Making things more complex than we think they are is often necessary, but rarely rewarding. In the case of righteous anger, which often demands a black-and-white judgement ("we are right, they are wrong"), moving beyond simplicity turns out to be a good thing. Understanding the righteous mind is worth the effort, and may even be the first step to a better place.