Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

104. The Righteous Mind, Part 1

Note: This post is the one hundred and fourth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week the topic is the book, "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Having read the book, I highly recommend the NY Times review of it as an excellent summary.

Note that we have encountered the work of Jonathan Haidt before, albeit indirectly, in this earlier post which discussed an essay by Steven Pinker, which was written as a reaction to Haidt's work.

The Righteous Mind has three main arguments:

1) People don't make rational decisions to decide what is moral, but instead have instinctive reactions regarding morality and then rationalize their instinctive reaction after the fact. Haidt likens the rational, conscious part of the brain to a rider sitting on an elephant (the part of the brain which makes the instinctive moral judgement) and argues that the rider has little control.

2) Rather than seeing people as having no morality at all and being solely self-interested or even just having a moral system oriented solely around not doing harm or being unfair, Haidt argues that in addition to caring about care/harm and fairness/cheating, people also care about freedom/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Haidt compares these moral senses to tastebuds, and according to his studies, people that are "WEIRD" (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) tend to to focus more on Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating and Freedom/Oppression, while Conservatives have a wider range of moral values (note: you can take Haidt's test here (registration required) - I tried it and scored higher than both the typical American liberal and the typical American Conservative on care, fairness, loyalty and authority, and lower than both on sanctity - even though I am Western, Educated, Rich and Democratic, perhaps my lack of exposure to Industrial workplaces made the difference :)

3) That people are 90% chimp and 10% bee, meaning that people are a mix of self-interested and group-interested. I won't recount the old arguments about how on the one hand, being selfish helps individual genes reproduce while on the other hand cooperative groups can outcompete selfish ones, but Haidt offers lots of support for the notion that evolution offerred ample opportunity for humans to evolve a nature that is at least partly group-interested rather than being purely self-interested.


I do recommend Haidt's book, it is easy to read, entertaining, covers a lot of ground, and will change the way you interpret other people's (and perhaps your own) expression of opinions and moral views.

Additionally, Haidt is well read, marshals lots of empirical evidence for his arguments, doesn't seem to be following a rigid ideological agenda and seems willing to consider new information and change his views accordingly.

The next few posts will look at some of Haidt's arguments in a bit more detail and get into some of the areas where, in my opinion, there is some room for improvement in his thesis.

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