I think this is a very important book, which politicians (among others) will be advised to read, and which will teach you something about yourself.
The author, a social and cultural psychologist, declares himself to be a straight-down-the-line liberal (in the American sense) atheist, but seems to have changed his mind in the course of writing the book, or at least in the course of researching for it. The book is in three parts, each with its own conclusion. Part I is headed "Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second", and demonstrates how, rather than using evidence and reasoning to reach a conclusion about what our opinions ought to be, we almost invariably start with our instinctive conclusion and then search around for arguments to fit that conclusion, ignoring counter-arguments. This is why debates, whether about politics, religion, or anything else, so often degenerate to shouting matches.
Part II is called "There's More to Morality than Harm and Fairness", and this is where the author seems to have undergone a personal conversion from his straight-down-the-line liberalism. He identifies five strands of morality, and finds that liberals (again, in the American sense) tend to concentrate on just one or two strands, such as fighting oppression, while conservatives embrace all five, including respect for authority which is low in the liberal priority list. He concludes that the Democratic Party (which he supports) needs to learn important lessons from this research. If I can emphasise one key point: everybody claims to agree with "fairness", but they mean different things by it. The Left tends to mean equality, the Right to mean getting what you deserve. I cringe every time I hear a politician call for "fairness", without defining what they mean.
Part III is called "Morality Binds and Blinds". Groups within society, such as churches, are strengthened by the shared ethical values of their members, but those shared values can often blind them to the merits of different values shared by members of other groups.
The author concludes that the best kind of society is not a centrally-directed one, and certainly not a highly individualistic one with little real trust between its members, but one which consists of groups (churches, political parties, etc.) within which members trust each other, while understanding the different emphases of other groups.
I hope I have summarised Haidt's views correctly, and he gives many interesting examples to support his views. It would be interesting to hear any challenges to his views, based on objective research rather than instinctive prejudice. As I say, an important book which people should take seriously.
This review has taken longer to write than some, because there is a lot of material in this book and I wanted to do it justice. All those with polarised views should read this to see how we can live together better.
The basic idea of the book is that we are divided by our own moral codes which can make us self-righteous and judgemental. Jonathan Haidt sets out how we can live together without forgetting that the moral codes (or matrices to use his term) of others are equally valid and we do well to seek commonality and understanding before jumping in with our own absolute view of morality. Very much food for thought for those engaged in politics or religion.
Well laid out with summaries of each chapter (headed "in sum") if you want to get the gist of what has been said readily before getting down to the detail. There is an introduction which sets out his aims and a conclusion which means he has three goes at getting his views across!
More academic in tone with 50 plus pages of notes, 28 pages of references and 13 page index. The author is American and thus some of the comments and examples relate to USA but are applicable to UK as well. I found it readable but some parts heavier than others - this is where the "in sum" sections are helpful.
I found this to be a completely fascinating book. As well as presenting a theory about moral psychology it also covers the author's journey to reaching that theory.
This does mean that it takes a while to actually get to the point of explaining 'why good people are divided by politics and religion' because, for example, it outlines a theory and then mentions how that theory turned out to have a flaw and then describes how the author revised it and then lays out the new version, so you end up with several iterations of the theory. This is a 400-page book with the last 100 pages being references, acknowledgements, notes and bibliography, so really 300 pages of the proper book and it is not until the last few pages that the question of the title is really addressed, but that is not a problem because you really do need to build up to it.
There are two main metaphors used in the book. One is to picture the mind as a rider (representing the logical mind) on an elephant (representing the emotional mind). By coincidence I have now started reading abook about decision-making processes which covers a lot of the same ground regarding the relationship between logic and emotions, and draws on some of the same references. I'll admit that I found the metaphor a bit cute at first but eventually came to terms with it.
The other metaphor is the description on the human mind as being 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee to explain how we sometimes act for our personal benefit and sometimes for the benefit of the community.
This was where it got especially interesting as it picked up on some of Darwin's ideas about social evolution and developed them.
Along the way the book provides a way to classify moral matters into six categories, which the author calls moral foundations, and presents the results of large-scale studies to show how people of different political beliefs possess (or use, or are guided by) different foundations in different proportions.
This is, of course, just a theory and in a field where absolute proof isn't likely, but it is all plausible enough to be useful, and for a leftie like me a little bit depressing because I am used to seeing my side as being the goodies and the other side as being the baddies. Instead I have the challenge to consider that the other side might have valid reasons for thinking what they do (while still being wrong of course).
The religious aspect is also disturbing reading for a confirmed atheist like me, because the book makes a good case for religion having a positive impact on the development of human society - regardless of whether gods exist or not.
At the very least this book has made me think more about the relationship between my points of view and those of my political opponents. It has the potential to be life-changing if you totally buy into the theory and use it to guide some decisions. For example, the centre-left could make a careful study of the moral foundations to find ways that their manifesto could address all six and not just concentrate on two to make itself more appealing to more people.
Even without deciding to let this change your outlook completely, there is plenty to dwell on and it is very clearly written and summaraised at every step.
on 5 June 2012
Haidt says we use reason to justify the values we instinctively hold, and seldom arrive at a set of values through reason. In his metaphor we are elephant riders whose purpose is to serve the elephant, and to justify its actions. I find this a very attractive idea. If someone argues strongly for beliefs you cannot possibly accept, yet does not appear to be mad or bad, perhaps this is why. He is riding a different elephant.
He explains how honest folk can never agree about ethics. I think this also explains how mutually exclusive arguments can be used to justify (NOT reach) shared conclusions. Consider Singer and Regan on vegetarianism (this is my example, not in the book). Singer's utilitarian beliefs explicitly reject natural rights, and Regan's natural rights based approach explicitly rejects utilitarianism. Yet they are colleagues, friends and vegetarians - despite the reasoning of each rejecting that of the other.
He also claims that conservatives value the same things that liberals value (caring, fairness, liberty), but also value other things which liberals value less (loyalty, authority, and sacredness). Liberals who don't realise this wrongly suppose that conservatives don't value the first three things, which can result in a dialogue of the deaf. He gives a description of the psychological questionnaire based techniques which led him to this conclusion. It all seems very persuasive. If you want to influence people politically you need to understand their feelings, because you will get nowhere if you rely on arguments alone.
He also makes the point that religion is mostly what people do, not what they believe, and its benefits are in social integration. Support for football teams etc has similar benefits. He recognizes that this creates in-groups and out-groups but that is the way of things, not bad in itself, so long as they avoid war. He uses the phrase 'morality binds and blinds' which is a great phrase though not, I think, original.
Unfortunately in part three he goes off on a tangent and starts talking about group selection complementing kin (genetic) selection. He seems to be well out of his comfort zone here. Dawkins would no doubt be spitting feathers (though some might regard that as a plus!).
He also has no concept of a public good. His criticism of the US health care system is well founded but his solution is to scrap health care insurance altogether. He thinks we should pay as we go just as we do for canned goods in the supermarket - he uses this metaphor. Might be OK if we were talking about routine vaccinations but if you have the misfortune to need major treatment and you can't afford it that is tough. For all his claims to understand the cultures of different continents he would appear to have no idea about Europe.
When he starts wittering on about Yin and Yang, and the benefits of the 'Hive Mind', I think he is losing the plot. He felt the need to offer solutions, which is way beyond his competence, and what little he does offer is exclusively about the USA.
In short, I suggest you read the first eight chapters, not the last four.
on 16 May 2012
This is an important book and one that will test readers' objectivity, for it draws conclusions about differences between conservatives and liberals (American sense) in how they make judgements. It reports years of painstaking research in evolutionary psychology, which in itself will put off those conservatives who prefer Genesis to Darwin. Haidt finds that liberals judge things on a narrower basis, which may upset them.
Testing large numbers of subjects with questions such as 'Is it wrong for a brother and sister to have sex as a one-off experiment, using contraceptives?' and 'A man's dog is killed in a road accident; is it wrong for him to cook and eat it?' Subjects were also asked to explain their answers. People did not consciously refer to abstract values when they made their decisions. They reacted instantly to the scenarios and often could not explain their responses. Haidt uses the metaphor of the elephant and its rider for this; our unconscious mind throws up intuitions, which our conscious mind then tries to explain and perhaps redirect.
Analysis of the results found that people use six bases for their judgements, which Haidt likens to a tongue with six taste receptors: care, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity; these were the five of the initial hypothesis, but it emerged from the research that there is a sixth - liberty. Each of these is hypothesized to have had survival value for our ancestors, contributing to the flourishing and survival of the individual and the group.
The balance between individual and group has produced a species that behaves 90% like the chimpanzee and 10% like the bee. Haidt found that people's moral views were correlated with their political positions. Liberals were chiefly, though not exclusively concerned with care, fairness and liberty, while conservatives invoked the whole range of bases for their judgements. I imagine that conservatives will like this result, feeling that it makes them more completely human. Liberals may argue that the values they focus on are more highly evolved, emphasizing the well-being of individual more than that of the group. A dispassionate view would argue that both approaches are important.
Haidt himself, an avowed liberal, has been mellowed by his research. His book should help America's increasingly polarized society to cultivate dialogue and mutual respect between its factions. It deserves a wide readership, being clearly written, well structured and full of concrete examples.
on 10 April 2012
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.
Flitting from subject to subject like a butterfly has brought me here. Haidt is an academic social psychologist, so whilst this is highly readable and engaging, it is founded on research and debate amongst academics - it's not "pop-psychology" written by someone making up vague and untestable theories to flatter people.
The book has several parts, but the heart of his analysis is that a good model of our moral nature is that it is largely "irrational" or "unconscious", and the "rational" side that we have, rather than driving our morality, is actually more involved in post-hoc rationalisation. It sounds like a pretty provocative thesis, but the case in support of it is carefully constructed by experiment. This has implications for the debates that divide society - political and religious divisions - who hasn't wondered why good, moral people should disagree so fundamentally about issues with you? It's a good, entertaining read - an academic who is clearly one of the better teacher-communicators! - which encourages self-examination and reflection.
The Righteous Mind is a discussion of how the moral sense works through contemporary research in cognitive psychology. Written for an American audience, it has a tendency to over-explain things that many British readers will already take for granted. Little of the material is new, though there are some interesting sidelights, and the author is very good at challenging accepted theories. Ultimately, this book is an account of work-in-progress: we now have a much better understanding of how the moral sense works, but questions about why it works are still answered in an essentially speculative way.
A part of me fails to get excited about this book. Coming after The Political Brain The Role Of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation, it doesn't add a great deal to the notion that many of the decision we believe we are making on a moral or logical basis are, in fact, neither. Equally, the more British-oriented Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion covers most of the material rather more concisely and entertainingly.
On the other hand, The Righteous Mind challenges the research much more than many other books, including pointing out that the vast majority of cognitive and moral psychological research is WEIRD -- which is to say, done among White Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic people, which creates a strong systematic research bias. The forensic questioning of research is the real value in this book for me: it's easy to exchange one set of unsupported certainties (Western Capitalist Democratic morality) with another set of unsupported certainties (psychological research). The Righteous Mind points out the flaws in so many earlier theories that it implicitly also questions the latest theories.
Overall I found this book an easy read but rather slow going. Nonetheless, for the interesting sidelights and the challenging approach, it's worth looking at.
Having now chewed over this book for a few more days, I want to add one more thought. The part of the book which seems like it is going to be the most compelling -- that is, Haidt's claim that there are six axes of morality, and that liberals use only three of them while right-wingers appeal to all six -- is actually the bit which collapses first under scrutiny. Care, equality and sacredness (though we might not choose that word) are things that intuitively match up with moral ideas most of us hold. However, liberty (for ourselves, as distinct from giving equal freedom to others), authority and loyalty are things which have a rather more mixed pedigree. You cannot have too much care, too much fairness or, for the things you regard as sacred, too much regard for them. Too much obedience to authority, too much loyalty to the wrong things, and pressing too much for our own liberty at the expense of others, are all things which most British readers would put into the category of 'immoral'. What Haidt has done -- having warned us against WEIRD -- is built a moral system on the peculiarities of American culture. Equally, he misses out a fundamental which goes back to the Socrates and beyond: the dimension of truth versus lies -- this surely should fit into a moral framework, but Haidt has no place for it.
Still worth reading, but pay attention in the later chapters -- although the part where Haidt explains how he crossed the shop-floor to Republican-style morality will probably set alarm bells ringing anyway.
This is a totally fascinating read.
I bought it on recommendation from my mum, as both of us were thinking about the incredible animosity being shown by the left towards Conservative Party voters in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election. It gave me a whole pile of really interesting insights into that, and far more: deeper understanding of the current state of play in moral psychology, where we came from, how our morals developed and why we behave the way we do.
In some ways, the book has a similar feel to Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, but focussing on the way we make moral decisions rather than our rationality. In other ways, the book is different: I found it easier going than Kahneman, and it was more evolutionary-focussed. It also felt more current: it's possible that Jonathan Haidt will revise some of this thinking, as some of it is very current. But I would still recommend people who are interested to buy the book: it delivers in interesting ways.
It won't necessarily be comfortable - it's difficult to read about how we make snap moral judgements and rationalise afterwards and then think back on your previous behaviour, and it's difficult to hear your political views dissected in different ways - but it will be fascinating. For me, one of the things was a far greater appreciation for the function of religion in human society, but the moral 'tastebuds' and the post-decision rationalisation are pretty mind blowing too.
If I have a small complaint, it's in the conclusion. I left not quite knowing what to think or what to believe in. Although, I suppose, maybe that is his point. Everyone has something interesting to say, whatever their political and religious backgrounds, and it's always about having a great conversation with people.
I very much enjoyed The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, so I was looking forward to reading this, and was not disappointed. It is perhaps less readable/amusing than his previous book, but more thorough and, if read widely enough, possibly more useful. It sets out to discover why, as the subtitle suggests, good people are divided by religion and politics, and comes up with a few interesting answers. One is that we are not primarily rational beings; we act instinctively, and only use reason to justify our instinctive decisions/actions. So left/right arguments based on reason fail to hit the spot. We need to understand our opponents' instincts rather than countering their arguments. Another is that liberals, libertarians (Haidt explains the difference), conservatives, and people of non-western cultures use different criteria for making moral judgements (Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory). Towards the end of the book Haidt (an instinctive liberal) explains why there is such a gulf between liberals and conservatives (small 'l', small 'c'), why a lack of understanding of conservatives' moral foundations has caused liberals to lose ground in the political struggle between them, and what can be done about this. He sees this as being of vital importance as the increasing polarisation in political life in the west, particularly in the USA, is a threat to the stability of the whole world.
This book is scholarly and well researched, with generous footnotes and index, but is aimed at the general reader, and no prior knowledge of psychology, sociology or evolutionary theory (which Haidt relies on heavily) is needed to understand and enjoy it. There is some repetition, and every chapter ends with a textbook style review; some readers may find this condescending/annoying, but I didn't. Haidt also draws on his interest in philosophy and ancient wisdom (though to a lesser degree than in The Happiness Hypothesis) which added to my enjoyment of this book. Haidt is American, and is writing primarily for an American audience, though he clearly has good understanding of other places and cultures. However, I think that the book will have universal appeal and usefulness. I highly recommend this book, and hope that a lot of people with the clout to put its principles into practice will read it, and that this will be for the general good. However, I hope it does not become a fence sitter's Bible. Being able to see my opponents' point of view is one thing; accepting that they have as much right on their side as I have on mine is beyond me.