Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

107. The Righteous Mind, Part 4

Note: This post is the one hundred and seventh 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.

Today's post covers the third of Haidt's three main arguments, that people are 90% chimp and 10% bee, meaning that people are a mix of self-interested and group-interested.

In this section of the book, Haidt eventually defines 'moral systems' as,
"interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible."

This definition follows a lengthy argument by Haidt trying to justify the notion that people could have evolved to be cooperative in nature (10% bee), which he no doubt felt was necessary because this is a controversial position to take in the current academic environment. But I didn't need any convincing on that score, so I'm not going to dwell on that aspect of this section of the book.

Instead, let's look more closely at the definition of moral systems spelled out by Haidt.

The first point to make is that it seems a bit narrow, in denyng the possible existence of morality outside of a social context. I tend to agree more with Francis Fukuyama, who, if we recall from an earlier post in the series, stated that,
"The capacity for hard work, frugality, rationality, innovativeness, and openness to risk are all entrepreneurial virtues that apply to individuals and could be exercised by Robinson Crusoe on his proverbial desert island. But there is also a set of social virtues, like honesty, reliability, cooperativeness and a sense of duty to others, that are essentially social in nature."
More recently, we saw that Ayn Rand spokesman John Galt made the point even more clearly,
"You who prattle that morality is social and that man would need no morality on a desert island - it is on a desert island that he would need it most. Let him try to claim ... that he will collect a harvest tomorrow by devouring his stock seed today - and reality will wipe him out, as he deserves."
Ayn Rand, in a point echoed more recently by Joseph Heath, emphasized further that there are situations (e.g. corporations that might mutually benefit from cooperative price-fixing) where the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of cooperative behaviour is the best course of action. True, Haidt might argue that this falls under the 'regulation' of self-interest, but it doesn't seem like this sort of thing is what he had in mind.

More generally, Haidt suggests the existence of moral systems, denies that he is a moral relativist who believes that all moral systems are equally valid, and identifies two distinct moral casts of mind present in the population ("WEIRD" and "Normal") but he never makes any sort of attempt to categorize what sort of moral systems might exist or what might make one moral system superior to another.

This is not really criticism, Haidt has already covered a lot of ground, it's just that he went quite far, but mostly stopped short of addressing the questions I've been pursuing in this series. Why do some moral systems apply in some contexts and not others, what makes one moral system superior to another, etc.

Haidt spends a chapter explaining his viewpoint (which I mostly share) that religion may be wrong (supernaturally speaking) but is nevertheless useful (here on earth) because it helps bind communities together and support cooperative efforts (such as feeding the poor or inquisiting heretics). Throughout the third section of the book he emphasizes that our groupish behaviour typically applies only to whichever group we identify with, not with the human race as a whole, but that experimental results have shown as people become more groupish in a situation, the increased love for the in-group outweighs any increased hate for  out-groups.

Haidt briefly (page 266) seems to suggest that religion is beneficial to trade, "In the medieval world, Jews and Muslims excelled in long-distance trade in part because their religions helped them create trustworthy relationships and enforceable contracts." However, he doesn't go on to note that Christians were certainly quite religious during the medieval period as well, or that in modern times, the nations with the highest standard of living tend to be the least religious. Similarly, he doesn't spend any time on the relationship between religion and scientific inquiry. Coming from an Irish background, I can see that religion supports social cohesion, but I might take some convincing that greater religiosity coincides with greater commercial trade.


Putting the three different sections of the book together, Haidt has presented three reasons why we struggle to agree on what is right: 1) We have instinctive moral reactions to situations that we rationalize, rather than coming to a rational conclusion based on disinterested reasoning, 2) different people have different sets of moral instincts, and 3) by our nature we are tribal, in the sense that we define ourselves and choose our actions based on the groups that we belong to, not just on our individual situation.

Earlier on in the book, Haidt suggested that rather than aiming for some grand rational argument that would teach us how to all act morally (as he thought Plato was engaged in in The Republic) we should instead try to design society in such a manner that we would naturally behave in a moral manner (which is what Plato actually was engaged in in The Republic). But where Plato set out an elaborate scheme for disentangling two sets of people to follow two distinct moral systems, according to their nature, Haidt has little to offer beyond suggesting that U.S. congressman should bring their families with them to Washington rather than leaving them at home, so that there is more socializing across party lines. But despite the lack of solutions offerred it's an interesting book that just might change the way you think about how you think so it's worth a read.

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