Wednesday, 2 March 2016


Dick Pountain//Political Quarterly 18/02/2014

"The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt
Penguin Books 2013

The protracted war of attrition between those who would defend and those who would demolish the Welfare State is being fought on the terrain of Economics, a great pity because that offers the aggressors far too many advantages. The state's defenders might be well advised to break out toward the more favourable ground of Social Psychology, because in democracies comprised of atomised, vote-wielding individuals the mind is often capable of overruling the wallet. Debates over the role of the state invariably turn moralistic, for example pitting the virtue of "standing on one's own two feet" against the virtue of "caring for others". Could it be that the opposing sides don't merely have opposing views about "human nature", but that they actually possess different natures?

That's a crude summary of the conclusion of Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind", a conclusion that depends upon a relatively new experimental approach to the constituents of human nature. The author researches social and cultural psychology at the University of Virginia, where he's spent a couple of decades studying the mechanism of moral decision-making from an "intuitionist" perspective. That's to say he believes that moral decisions are fundamentally non-rational, that we all possess unconscious, emotionally-based moral heuristics that guide our moral decisions, for which we can only supply rationalisations after we've already made them. This intuitionism draws on a tradition stretching right back to Hume's Treatise, and if true it has profound implications for politics. He believes that people are intrinsically self-righteous and barely amenable to arguments that don't support their existing beliefs.

His experiments depend upon a series of strong moral dilemmas ingeniously devised to preclude all reasoned analysis (often by exploiting major taboos like incest or bestiality). In "The Righteous Mind" he combines these results with others from neuroscience, social psychology, genetics and evolutionary modelling to describe a plausible set of these subconscious moral heuristics which seem innate to human minds of all cultures. Indeed he claims that different cultures, religions and political stances differ precisely in the weight they place on these various heuristics. Clashes between different parties or religions are profound clashes between different unconscious assumptions that distort communication and sometimes render it impossible.

The book begins with this declaration: 
""I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to 'do' morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music [...] But I chose the title 'The Righteous Mind' to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental." 
The book's three main sections correspond to Haidt's three basic principles of intuitionist moral psychology:

1) Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
2) Morality is about more than harm and fairness (the main concerns of liberal utilitarians).
3) Morality may both bind a community and set it against other communities.

Haidt studied in Chicago under the anthropologist Richard Shweder from whom he gleaned a suspicion of rationalism and a distinction between "sociocentric" and "individualistic" societies. A sociocentric society puts the needs of groups and institutions first and subordinates the needs of individuals to them: examples range from traditional tribal societies, through theocracies to secular totalitarian regimes. Individualistic societies place the individual first. This is a distinction that runs deep because it nurtures different kinds of self. The industrial West has become increasingly individualistic over the last two centuries, and even our ostensibly collectivist welfare states mainly protect individuals against the vicissitudes of life. Almost all social and political science starts from individualist assumptions, while many of the world's peoples still live sociocentric lives, hence that incomprehension which, for example, dogs our relations with the Islamic world.

Shweder's influence, and some fieldwork carried out in Brazil, encouraged Haidt to create a repertory of sophisticated questionaires for identifying peoples' moral assumptions, which he used to uncover what he calls his six basic "Moral Foundations", atomic components of actually existing moralities. These foundations are he proposes universal, having a biological basis in brain structure. They evolved by a combination of individual and group selection to make us into social animals, but highly competitive ones. Since group selection is still controversial Haidt devotes a whole chapter to reviewing the latest evidence: "Natural selection favored increasing levels of ... “group-mindedness” - the ability to learn and conform to social norms, feel and share group-related emotions, and, ultimately, to create and obey social institutions, including religion."

Some of Haidt's foundations correspond to known functions of the brain's emotional areas (the limbic system) as recently elucidated by affective neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp. He names the foundations using axes of binary opposition: care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. The last of these would reflect the physiological disgust mechanism, present in all higher animals, which evolved to avoid poisoning and infection. We humans extend its scope far beyond the realm of food by labelling objects, behaviours and persons as sacred or forbidden.

Haidt then applied his framework to the analysis of political and religious allegiance, conducting some 132,000 interviews on US voters who self-described as liberal, conservative and libertarian. He found they differ significantly in the degree to which various moral foundations affect them. It seems plausible enough that, for example, sanctity/degradation might underly totems, taboos and dietary prohibitions in ancient and modern sociocentric cultures, but he finds it equally important in differentiating US conservatives from liberals. The unconscious, emotion-based nature of these moral foundations explains the great ferocity of such differences. Liberals appear most influenced by just three of Haidt's foundations, care/harm, fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression, whereas conservatives are almost equally affected by all six. The sheer venom of the Tea Party's opposition to Obama is clearly fuelled by emotion rather than reason: it violates their notion of loyalty (that birth-certificate libel), authority (soft on our enemies) and sanctity (plain old-fashioned racism). Those values mean less to Democratic voters who are more moved by the unfairness of bankers' bonuses and the lack of "care" of private medicine.

Several books I've reviewed for this journal questioned why US workers repeatedly vote against their own best economic interests, but Haidt suggests that perhaps they don't: they simply vote for interests like authority and sanctity that we on the Left don't share. If so, that suggests that a radical shakeup of Left political theory is overdue. Marx, a convinced materialist, placed the economic (that is, material) at the helm of politics, but notoriously died before he could elaborate a fully-fledged materialist theory of ideology. Left intellectuals strove for much of the last century to extract such a theory, recruiting extra tools from Nietszche and Freud. The result is the babel of post-modern critical theories, all contending either that "human nature" doesn't exist at all, or at the very least is wholly socially-constructed and sufficiently malleable that one can inscribe any desired utopian character upon it. The cost of abandoning dogmatic Marxist-Leninist notions of class-consciousness and economic determinism has been retreat to a thinly-disguised version of Romantic vacant liberty (surprisingly close to neo-liberal ideas of freedom). Haidt's work is unlikely to be well received in these circles, where his semi-popular prose style and liking for folksy metaphors will no doubt be regarded as naïve and less than serious.

In fact this book is far from naïve, presenting an intricate and closely-argued case that draws on Plato, Hume, Kant, Mill and Durkheim to interpret his experiments. Neither is his concept of moral foundations necessarily inimical to critical theory: for example his sanctity/disgust axis has clear relevance to themes in both Foucault and Agamben. When taken together with the cognitive studies of Kahneman and Tversky, Haidt's work traces the outline of a new hedonic psychology, a science of desire (or Bentham's "felicific calculus" finally realised). We instinctively recoil because this prospect threatens our cherished notions about free will, but the absence of utopian goals leaves such utilitarianism as the only compass remaining to democratic politicians. Rather than whipping up the masses to insurrection, social democrats need to continually attract their votes.

Deep understanding of the electorate's desires used to be the mark of a great politician, but like so much else in contemporary society this skill crumbles in the face of sheer complexity. The Left needs to absorb this new science of mind if only so that we can counteract its use by the Right. For example, why did the 2008 financial crisis unexpectedly boost the Right rather than the Left? Because the Right understood how to exploit voters' guilt over excessive debt, and to deflect their wrath over unfair bankers' bailouts and bonuses onto welfare recipients. Or again, current furores over paedophilia and FGM demonstrate how popular evaluations of childhood innocence can change radically over 50 years, and across different cultures. Woe betide the politician who fails to understand such changes.

No comments:

Post a Comment