Monday, April 16, 2012

Lovin' Haidt

So lately I’ve been absorbed with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a study in the psychology of ethics that is interesting to me in about 11 different ways – though I’ve only read half of it so far.
First of all, I should clarify that the good professor’s name sounds like “height” not “hate,” so my play-on-words title is completely bogus (except maybe for Australians who say hite when they mean hate). 

But being bogus is actually a prominent theme in The Righteous Mind.  According to Haidt, when we explain and justify our viewpoints we do not trace a careful path of impeccable reason from premise to conclusion; rather we cobble together a framework of excuses that we hope will convince both ourselves and those whose opinions we value of our moral righteousness.  Our moral (or moralistic) views are determined by processes lying below consciousness and which Haidt represents as a willful elephant.

The “reasoning” with which we explain our personal moral philosophy is, according to Haidt’s metaphor, like a deluded rider on the elephant’s back who imagines himself to be directing the elephant when, in fact, he simply goes along for the ride, offering rational justifications for every turn the elephant makes.  “Verdict first, evidence afterwards,” to paraphrase the Red Queen.

Haidt describes himself as a long-term liberal who, as a consequence of his research, has moved more to the center of the political spectrum.  No wonder he used an elephant metaphor!  Anyway, Dr. Haidt’s transformation is particularly interesting to me, since I made the opposite move: raised in a moderately conservative Republican household, I moved leftward as a consequence of my education.

My mother's version of my transformation is that I went off to college a good, red-blooded, American boy and four years later came back a socialist.  To Mom, socialist was roughly equivalent to Satan-worshipper.  My narrative of what happened to me in college is that I left Plato’s cave and came out into the light of reason.  My parents’ image was of a hopelessly naive young man propagandized into leftist views by scheming professors.

At any rate, I do not now believe, as I was taught in my childhood, that our fates are almost entirely in our own hands, and those who prosper deserve their riches by virtue of talent and effort, while those mired in poverty deserve their fate; i.e., if they weren’t a bunch of lazy-ass losers and goof-offs, they wouldn’t be so damn poor. 

Not that effort and talent are unrelated to success.  It’s just that the connection is much looser and less predictable than conservatives believe – I would argue.

A couple of points continue to puzzle me: if, as Haidt maintains, we’re all just making up excuses to justify our own prejudices, how can it matter whether we’re liberal, socialist, conservative or Nazi?  And, for that matter, were the liberals who fought so hard to promote civil rights in the 1950s and 60s no more right or reasonable than the conservatives who fought to deprive African-Americans of the vote?  If our ethical views are unconsciously constructed and our verbal justifications of them are mere, after-the-fact excuses, it’s hard to see how any ethical viewpoint has more validity than any other.  Well, since I’m only halfway through his work, I may be selling his argument seriously short. 

Haidt spends much of the first half of The Righteous Mind outlining six moral premises all of which are incorporated into conservative thinking, but only three of which liberals defer to.  They are


The last three are the ones which the right honors far more than the left.  Haidt says that these three moral ideas are designed (through Darwinian evolution) to promote group solidarity so as to give one’s group an edge in conflict against out-groups. 

Haidt’s writing style is very engaging and the extent to which he relies on the work of anthropologists is impressive.  However, I’m not yet ready to say just how valid I think his conclusions are (though I am ready to say that he is at the very least partly right).  I’m certainly not willing to declare that his decision to “move right” makes enough sense that I’m planning to follow him back toward that particular cave. 

As of now, I would say that yes, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity do function to promote group solidarity, and yes, conservatives honor these values more than liberals do.  But it may be the case that these values are relics of an era long past, before humanity began to weave itself into a global whole underlain by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such broadly humanitarian institutions.  Or, it may turn out that the right-wingers are correct: every society needs enemies the way yin needs yang.

Stay tuned for a final explanation - or, at least, a pretense of an explanation merely contrived to bolster the prejudices I already embrace.

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