Thursday, August 8th, 7 pm
The Righteous Mind by Haidt
Bird & Beckett Political Book Group

This week’s subject of discussion is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Anyone can come and join the discussion, and take part in choosing future books…

Following are some thoughts on the book by one of the regulars in the group, Dwight Smith:

The Righteous Mind

I think this book has enough arguments and evidence to leave liberals, conservatives and libertarians uncomfortable if not in angry denial.     Why are the people we elect to public office today so partisan.  The author says because Americans have become more politically partisan.  The author asks, why, is this the case?   His book, The Righteous Mind explores this issue from the view point of the author’s academic discipline, moral psychology.

One of our problems is that we in the educated western European and American world have bought into a narrow view of rationalism.  We fail to realize that rationality is usually only used (in moral arguments) to justify conclusions that we have arrived at intuitively.  The author’s metaphor for this is the elephant and the rider with the elephant being the intuition and the rider being the rational mind.  The elephant is the more powerful of the two, with the rider thinking s/he (historically he) is in control.

Because of our narrow approach to rationalism the West emphasizes the three moral concerns of harm, fairness (as justice), and liberty (against oppression).    However, he claims there is more to morality than the issues or criteria of harm, fairness, and liberty from oppression.  This narrowing of the moral perceptual field is compared to the human taste receptors.  We have more than three taste buds and we have more than three moral “taste buds.”  The author calls these taste buds of morality the foundations of morality and they are: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation and Liberty/oppression.

The author’s work with questionnaires and reliance upon other scientific studies attempting to verify his moral theories provides empirical support for his theory and provide interesting reading.  He concludes that conservative moral arguments as well as libertarian moral arguments have been successful with many of the electorate because these arguments appeal to the six moral taste buds that have been developed over hundreds of thousands of years by individuals and groups through our evolutionary history.   The development of these moral “taste buds” and the moral matrices which regulate behavior is the reason we have survived and thrived as a human species.

This discussion of evolutionary history addresses something that has been puzzling me for some time and that is rejection of the importance of groups and the sociological insights of classical sociology.  Haidt says that in the 1960’s and 1970’s Darwin’s multi-level evolution theory which purported that  evolution took place at all levels of the organism was rejected in favor of individual adaptation only.  In fact the consensus was so strong that anyone arguing that individuals behaved sacrificially for the good of the group was dismissed.  Social science followed in the wake of this narrowing of the evolutionary process.  Even fairness was based on individuals attempting to maximize their own outcomes.  (I missed the memo on this partly because of the academic study of religion, with a fair dose of sociology and psychology, but also because of the study of the liberal arts.  I suspect other students of the liberal arts may have also missed the memo and wonder about the lack of legitimacy of anything beyond the individual.)  Haidt’s work is part of body of work that it seems is reestablishing the legitimacy of sociology and depth psychology by proving that the individualist consensus is too narrow and does not explain  behavior adequately.   This part of the book is labeled, “Why are we so groupish?” and the central metaphor is “We are ninety percent chimp and 10% bee”.  The latter refers to the idea that we have a “hive switch” that can be turned on so that we will act sacrificially for others, but usually for our own group.  Apparently we are predisposed early in our development to prefer the various groups with their characteristic moral emphases.  We resonate with a narrative and then defend the moral concerns of that narrative against other narratives and moral concerns.  The three major narratives that the author recognizes are, The liberal/progressive, libertarian (classic liberalism of the 19th century) and social conservatism.

While I will be reflecting on the ideas of this book for a long time, the examples that the author uses to compare the moral arguments for the different political positions are quite unsatisfactory and quite shallow.  This is disappointing in a work that covered such good ground.  Discussing how markets are such a great invention (libertarian moral/political argument) is fine because markets have provided many benefits to humanity as even Karl Marx asserted.  However, trying to argue that the health care system should be more of a market determined by price and choice is something I thought we had tried—something that has left millions of people without health care.

On the other hand the need for regulation of markets (a liberal/progressive moral/political argument) has a legitimacy to it that is rooted in the history of capitalism as well as our most recent history as we have once again witnessed the results of a barely regulated market running amuck, and ruining the well-being of millions of persons again, while a few made away with the spoils.

Finally, the concern for the wellbeing of the family and the moral/social capital that the social conservatives are concerned with also has a long history often associated with oppressing weaker groups or groups that are different.   It is just possible that the moral arguments made on the basis of “care/harm, fairness/justice, and liberty/oppression that are said by the author to be too narrowly focused somewhat because of their appeal to rationality may actually be a jump in our evolutionary history.  These moral arguments along with their policies may have be continually pursued over the other political/moral inclinations that come more easily to groups with parochial concerns about moral/social capital.  The rider may have to do some steering of the elephant.

Dwight Smith