Friday, January 22, 2016

The Righteous Mind - Book Review

Book Review
The Righteous Mind:
Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
Johnathan Haidt
Pantheon Books 2012

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He wrote The Righteous Mind to “at least do what we can to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.” He explains: “My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity.” In view of America’s increasingly irrational political polarization and growing mutual partisan distrust, Haidt clearly has his work cut out for him.

To find answers, Haidt focuses on the inherent moralistic, critical and righteous judgmental nature of human cognition and thinking. He observes that human righteousness is self-righteousness. Because of that, our morals and judgments tend to be more subjective and emotional than objective and rational. Haidt points out that we are designed by evolution to be “narrowly moralistic and intolerant.” That leads to self-righteousness and the associated hostility and distrust of other points of views that self-righteousness so easily and quickly generates. Regarding the divisiveness of politics, “our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Haidt’s focus on subjective personal morality in politics echoes the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist. Lakoff described the fundamentally moral basis of liberal vs. conservative politics in his 1996 book Moral Politics (and in this fascinating 2005 lecture). The evidence from social science is now overwhelming: In dealing with politics, humans slip unconsciously (or are easily tricked) into subjective emotionalism at the expense of objective rationality (here, here, here).

Part 1: The forceful moral elephant and the lazy, sleepy rider
Righteous Mind is organized into three parts. The first part describes the process of human cognition, which boils down to intuitions that come first with strategic reasoning second. In the process, “moral intuitions (i.e., judgments) arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” Initial intuitions driving later reasoning exemplifies some of our many unconscious cognitive biases, e.g., ideologically-based motivated reasoning, which distorts both fact and logic.

Part 1’s central metaphor “is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” Notice that most of our mental processes are going on unconsciously.

Haidt’s elephant corresponds to our cognitive “System 1” that other social scientists, e.g., Daniel Kahneman and Philip Tetlock, refer to regarding our subjective moralistic, unconscious cognitive processes. The rider corresponds to “System 2”, which is our conscious, more rational (but easily deceived) mental processes. The elephant is motivated and moral, while the rider is lazy, distracted and, if given the chance, potentially much less morally constrained. Dealing rationally with our irrational biology requires real moral courage and two psychologically uncomfortable ingredients, self-awareness and a motivation to change.

Dealing with the psychological discomfort is where the moral courage comes in.

Part 2: Our six social receptor moral palette
In part 2, Haidt argues that our righteous mind “is like a tongue with six taste receptors” and “there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.” In his taste receptor analogy, Haidt asserts that “morality is like cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. . . . . Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors.”

Haidt’s six identified moral receptors (and associated emotions) are (1) harm-care (compassion or lack thereof), (2) fairness-unfairness (anger, gratitude, guilt), (3) loyalty-betrayal (group pride, rage at traitors), (4) authority-subversion (respect, fear), (5) sanctity-degradation (disgust) and (6) liberty-oppression (resentment or hatred at domination). These six foundations of morality are posited to be evolved response triggers to threats or adaptive challenges our ancestors faced along their road to survival and success. Modern triggers can differ from what our ancestors faced, e.g., loyalty to a nation or sports team can trigger the loyalty-betrayal moral in some or most people in different ways.

Massive surveys that Haidt conducted led to his observation that in going from politically very liberal to moderate to very conservative, the importance of the care and fairness morals decreased in most people, while the loyalty, authority and sanctity morals increased. The moral palettes of liberals and conservatives are such that you can usually tell one from the other simply by asking what qualities they would want in their dog. This kind of morals-based thinking and preferences spill over into every contested issue in politics. The biological cognitive basis for the polarization and distrust that now dominates and gridlocks American politics becomes crystal clear when politics is viewed through this lens of differing moral palettes.

Part 3: The obscuring narrowness of personal morality
The third part of Haidt’s book focuses on the limiting and blinding nature of personal morality. He observes: “Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature . . . . We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.” That self-deceit is a product of the elephant creating a personal moral framework that the lazy rider works within. Our individual moral frameworks are what unconsciously distorts both reality (facts) and logic (common sense).

It is easy to see why a policy choice that a liberal sees as perfectly logical based on a given set of facts is completely illogical when a conservative looks at the same facts and arrives at a completely different policy.

In trying to attain his goal of reducing subjective emotion and increasing objective rationality, Haidt is a little fish swimming upstream against a powerful, mindless partisan current. America continues its sad, needless descent into increasing polarized, subjective partisan irrationality. That may serve a self-interested two-party political system, including the major (not minor) interests that fund it. Unfortunately, those narrow gains in defense of our inept, corrupt status quo come at the expense of the public interest.

In essence, Haidt argues for political rhetoric that is more rational. His recognition of differing subjective moral palettes forces more nuance into how people think about and talk to each other, assuming they want to persuade people of different views. Such persuasion requires the rider to assume a bigger role to remain consonance between one’s own morals and people with different moral palettes. 

The few people like Haidt who argue for more rationality and less self-righteousness in politics probably represent America’s best hope for future global peace and continuing economic prosperity. Good luck to that rational little fish.

No comments:

Post a Comment