Friday, 21 July 2017

The Righteous Mind

When I retired a few years ago I began to take a lot more interest in global politics and global society. By the time that 2016 rolled around I considered myself to be very well-informed about the Western World in particular and I took pleasure in discussions with my friends about what I had read. My occasional posts on this blog reflected my new knowledge and, for a short time, I felt I was verging on elder statesman wisdom.

2016 punctured my hubris. The Brexit vote and the Trump presidential victory showed me how little I really understood despite my extensive reading. It was obvious that I hadn't understood very much at all and it was only small comfort that many others had fallen into the same traps that had snared me.

Where had I gone wrong? Why had the UK and US electorates made such different choices to the ones that my careful analysis had predicted?

I was aware that I tended to read left-wing political and economical analyses but I felt these were giving me an accurate factual appraisal of what was best for these two electorates. In any case it was clear that many people with access to the same facts had come to different conclusions and I wanted to understand how this could happen. I had been a member of various Skeptic movements over the years and was aware of how pernicious motivated reasoning could be and I thought I was aware of the many fallacies that could skew reasoning into incorrect conclusions. But that didn't really explain to me how intelligent people with access to the same facts could disagree so profoundly.

Over the last month I have read one of the most illuminating books of my life. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt has helped me to understand how this diversity of opinions arises. Haidt is social psychologist who works on the interaction between conscious reasoning, intuition and emotions. He gathers data by presenting subjects with questions that tease out where their moral reactions are the strongest and his book is partly the conclusions about he has arrived at by analysing a large body of such data.

The first part of the book traces the large body of evidence whose conclusion he summarises in the single phrase "Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second". This is far removed from what I had supposed: that, when faced with a moral or social question, people deploy reason to arrive at an answer. Far from it. Haidt convincingly explains that reason is used to justify ones immediate intuitive response.

The second part of the book seems to be targeted at people from WEIRD cultures. The acronym stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. That is my own culture. Indeed, as Haidt admits, it is the culture that provides the easiest access to subjects for psychological study (graduate students in American universities). Haidt maintains that early studies accidentally reflected a culture that is much rarer in other parts of the world and therefore that these studies came to unsound conclusions.

WEIRD people tend to reach moral judgements based on fairness and the avoidance of harm. Haidt however has discovered (through very many interviews and questionnaires) that these two Moral Foundations (Care v. Harm and Fairness v. Cheating) are just two out of six Moral Foundations. The other 4 are Loyalty v. Betrayal, Authority v. subversion, Sanctity v. Degradation, and Liberty v. Oppression. On the basis of his fieldwork Haidt believes that non-WEIRD cultures find the latter 4 foundations more natural moral compasses than WEIRD cultures.  He also thinks that, in the US political context, Republicans respond to all 6 Foundations whereas Democrats focus much more on the first two. This, he believes, give Republicans a natural advantage in political wrangling since they have more ways that they can be won round to a point of view.

If you are curious which Moral Foundations you yourself respond to you can take some of the psychological tests to be found at

The third part of the book is about the human tendency to coalesce into groups and, within groups, to feel more secure and more loyal. He talks about this in the context of an evolutionary idea of group selection that postulates that, through time, groups evolve because of selective pressures that make some groups more likely to survive than others. Now group selection is currently not thought (by biologists and anthopologists) to be an important influence on how our species has evolved. However, Haidt is not put off by this orthodoxy and presents arguments for its rehabilitation at least in certain cases. Whether or not he is right to elevate the idea of group selection I will leave it to the reader to judge; but he certainly makes an interesting case and presents some historical evidence to defend his thesis.

He also identifies what he calls "hive behaviour" which a sort of super groupishness that can fall on a society that finds itself under extraordinary stresses. One of his slogans is that human beings are 90% chimp and 10% bee. An example of hivish behaviour is the remarkable solidarity that can descend upon a group of military men who first interminably train on parade grounds and then go off to fight as a tightly coordinated force. Such men describe their feeling that the sacrifices they make are not for King and Country (or any ideology) but for their fellow soldier comrades. Again, whether you accept that human beings have a "hive switch" is perhaps not conclusively demonstrated but it is certainly a compelling hypothesis.

The writing style is laudably lucid. He discusses a large number of complex ideas with great skill and clarity. At the end of a major section he will summarise the main points he has developed so that you are in no doubt what they are.

So, how successful was this book in helping me understand why I come to different conclusions than some other people? On moral questions I certainly have more sympathy for other opinions. I find myself applying what I have read in the book when I listen to arguments from my own quarter or an opposing quarter. And I am now more likely to seek out other points of view than those that fill my own WEIRD culture. For me this book was a tremendous success.