I read this book for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion - Jonathan Haidt
In this clearly written and deeply researched book, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out we can predict many preferences based on the trait of openness. According to research based on hundreds of studies, liberals really are more open to new experience and more tolerant of ambiguity while conservatives stay with the tried and true and clear-cut answers with no grey areas. As W once said to Senator Biden, “Joe, I don’t do nuance,” infamously to some, and approvingly to others.
What is the origin of morality? Where do these preferences for tolerance, cleanliness, or fairness come from? Developmental psychology shows that kids come into the world not with a blank slate, but a first draft (Gary Marcus). The first draft of the moral mind, anthropology and psychology research indicates, has five foundations. Our programming from nature makes us care for the weak and vulnerable, especially our children, but not limited to them. This also makes us object to harm to the weak and defenseless. Our module for fairness/reciprocity underlies religious beliefs and ethical behaviors. Another module, in-group loyalty even in very large groups, is unique to human beings, probably from our living in tribes for millions of years. Authority/respect in humans is based on a predisposition for voluntary deference and affiliation. Purity/sanctity is about an idea that tells you that you find virtue by taking care of your body and avoiding contaminants.
The first draft is revised by culture, upbringing and individual experience. For instance, liberals are raised to care about harm and fairness issues. But liberals aren’t raised to consider loyalty, respect, and purity as having all that much to do with morality. Conservatives agree that harm and fairness matter but regard the other three as very important components on morality. People learn and develop intuitive reactions to issues like patriotism, immigration, social justice, rights, greed, duty, crime and punishment. Then, they marshal arguments to support those intuitive reactions. Intuition and emotion come first, then reason develops arguments to back them up, mainly for the sake of the team.
Morality and politics, Haidt points out, are team sports. Nature has programmed human nature to bind into teams (hives), which calls for loyalty to the team’s truth instead of the reality of a given situation. When people share inclinations like morals, they form teams to work toward common goals. Team members cheer each other on when they win and comfort each other when they lose with rational and irrational arguments that the other side is stupid and brutal, they cheated, our side didn’t play dirty enough, etc.
But the team may be dreadfully wrong in its stances. Or traits that were useful to us as hunter-gatherers don’t cut it on our current work sites and around the Thanksgiving dinner table with mouth-breathing relatives. Maximizing fairness and minimizing harm may merely lead to thinking wishfully about having more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Nor does it bode well to ignore the stern reality of climate change because the team says it’s a hoax.
Haidt, as we would expect, makes a plea for tolerance. Of course, it is up to liberals to understand conservatives since conservatives have a better fix on loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity and liberals had better start talking to them in those terms if they ever want the White House back. More practically, Haidt advocates for less partisan gerrymandering so that politicians can no longer pick their own voters and must then appeal to a wider more diverse audience.
On the individual level, Haidt urges readers to think more objectively about their own beliefs. Following what Marcus Aurelius said in Book IV, Part 3 of the Meditations, “The universe is change and life is opinion,” we need to use our reasoning more consistently in order to see our lives as social beings as they had better be lived, not as nature and culture have programmed us to sleepwalk through life without thinking. Mainly, calm down, stop getting annoyed with the other side all the time since anger and disgust won’t get anybody anywhere.