Archive for February, 2016

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013. 500 pages, Paperback

The title of Jonathan Haidt’s book is well chosen. This is a book that touches on ethical reasoning, political analysis, and religious faith. There is, however, an ambiguity in the main title. The “righteous mind” can refer either to a mind that thinks about that which is right, or it can refer to a self-righteous or dogmatic mind. Haidt intends both meanings. The overall thrust of this book is to explain how and why liberals and conservatives are so divided about politics and religion, and also how this divide can be overcome. What is missing from title of this book is that it is written from the perspective of evolutionary social psychology.

As a philosopher, I found Part I of this book most intriguing – “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.” Haidt is here challenging much of the history of philosophy that presumes that we are fundamentally rational creatures. For example, Plato assumed that reason ought to control the passions. This kind of thinking was reinforced during the Enlightenment which postulated a universal and objective reason. According to Haidt, we are not as rational as we think we are. We are governed more by intuition and instinct than by reason. Here we must be careful not to see intuition and instinct as inferior to reason. Both are “cognitive” according to Haidt. There are two kinds of cognition, intuition and reasoning. Intuition refers to the hundreds of rapid, effortless decisions and moral judgments that we all make every day (p.53). Many of these are automatic. Only some of them surface as full-blown emotional responses.

Haidt provides a useful illustration to help us understand these two kinds of cognition. He first used this analogy his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). Try to imagine a rider on a huge elephant. The rider symbolizes the rational part of human nature, our controlled processes, including “reasoning-why.” The large and lumbering elephant stands for the automatic processes of human nature, including emotion, intuition and all forms of “seeing-that” (p. 53). For Haidt, it is our automatic processes that run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years (p. 53).

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future and can therefore help the elephant make better decisions. More importantly, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next” (p.54). In evolutionary terms, once human beings developed language and began to communicate with each other, “it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm” (p. 54). So, the rider serves the elephant. Reason is the servant of intuition. “Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president” (p.106).

I think Haidt has got it right. We are not as rational as we think we are. We approach many new situations or new ideas with our minds already made up. This has huge implications for how we think about education, or how we think about influencing or persuading others, a subject that I have been preoccupied with for much of my career. We need to pay much more attention to the way in which our thinking is shaped by non-rational influences – social media, movies, culture, propaganda. We seldom change our minds because of rational persuasion. As Haidt puts it, “if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants” (p. 57). At a personal level, we influence people more by displaying warmth and empathy than by rational argument.

Haidt’s analysis is also helpful in understanding churches. Every church has a distinctive culture that is simply a given. It is this pervasive church culture that determines not only the atmosphere of the church but also the decisions it makes. Decisions are largely made automatically in light of the culture of the church. It is very hard to challenge the culture of the church and the decisions that come out of such a culture. Rational persuasion is really of little value. Here again, one needs to learn how to talk to the large and lumbering elephant. Contrary positions need to be expressed with gentleness, and love, and prayer, and with lots of patience. Maybe over time, over a long period of time, one might bring about a small shift in church culture.

Our moral judgments too are not fundamentally rational in nature, according to Haidt. Here he draws on eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, who argues that morality is grounded in the emotions, though Haidt prefers to talk about social intuition rather than individual emotions. Emotions are only one type of intuition. Here again, the bulk of our moral judgments are intuitive, automatic, and elephant-like. Moral reasoning comes mainly after the initial intuitive moral judgments have already been made, and has the purpose of rationalizing our intuitions, and communicating them to others, particularly in terms of enhancing our reputation. Haidt comes very close to talking about moral intuitions as innate (pp. 153, 178, 325). Here his evolutionary theory gets in the way. As a Christian, I maintain that God has implanted in us certain moral intuitions, so that we instinctively know that some things are right or wrong (cf. Romans 2:14-15). Of course Haidt can’t admit this because he doesn’t believe in God. Further, he deals with morality at a descriptive level, and tries very hard to avoid prescription.

In Part II Haidt goes on to critique the dominant moral theories of a very small subset of the human population – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic Western societies (forming the acronym WEIRD). WEIRD societies favor the values of utilitarianism and justice. Haidt argues that there is more to morality than harm and fairness, the values favored by liberals. Other important values include care, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. These are values that tend to be emphasized by conservatives. Chapter 7 attempts to justify these values as part of an evolutionary process – adaptations for human flourishing. The value of care evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. The value of fairness evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. The value of loyalty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. The value of authority evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. The value of sanctity evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of facing threats of various kinds, and has the effect of binding groups together. The value of liberty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of resisting bullies and tyrants.

Part III involves an extended treatment of the groupish tendencies of human nature. Evolutionary theory has more recently accepted the notion that natural selection can work at multiple levels, and can include both individuals and groups. Religion plays a key role in creating community, an essential component for human survival. Contrary to the current crusading atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, Haidt is quite sympathetic with religion.

The book ends with a final look at the increasing polarity between liberals and conservatives, arguing that in part these polarities are genetically based. “People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals. They tend to develop certain ‘characteristic adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left” (p. 365). People whose genes have given them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with grand narratives of the right. What to do about this polarity? Haidt pleads with both sides to listen and learn from each other. In fact the two sides compliment each other. A healthy society needs both liberals and conservatives. But he especially urges liberals to recognize that conservatives are better at creating and preserving moral and social capital that are essential to any society. “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy” (p.342). I admire Haidt, a former liberal, for having the courage to say this. I also appreciated his observation that liberals tend to be more dogmatic and narrow-minded than conservatives. So true, but all too often denied by liberals!

I conclude with some comments about the evolutionary perspective from which this book is written. As a Christian I am not entirely hostile to evolutionary theory. I am quite willing to go where the evidence leads me. I believe scientific evidence and biblical revelation point to a position of theistic evolution. Haidt, though more sympathetic to religion than most atheists, in the end interprets religion from an evolutionary perspective. Religion gives expression to our social nature (ch. 11), and captures the sacred (higher than I) dimension of our value system (pp. 173-4). At times Haidt is very careful to provide empirical support for his evolutionary theory. But especially when dealing with religion as a means of creating community, his analysis becomes increasingly speculative. It seems his evolutionary framework drives his interpretation, with or without empirical evidence.

This book provides a good example of how scientific theory relates to empirical evidence. Ultimately, theory needs to be grounded in the empirical. But we can never approach the empirical without some theoretical framework. Hence, the hermeneutical circle. How do we get out of this circle? First, by admitting that there is a problem. Further, a good scientist will always be open to having his/her interpretive framework challenged by empirical data that don’t quite fit the interpretative framework. The danger for a scientist who adopts an evolutionary theory, is that he interprets empirical data from the perspective of his assumed evolutionary perspective, and then lets nothing change his interpretive framework.

Let me give one example. Haidt is very careful to ground his interpretation of moral cognition as intuition in examples. So far, so good. Intuitions are then interpreted as adaptations of the human animal that have evolved over time, and that then become entrenched as automatic moral responses to certain situations. Again, this conclusion seems to be grounded in evidence. But there is a bit of an interpretive leap of faith here. As a Christian I interpret these moral intuitions as innate, as instincts that God has implanted into human nature. This interpretation is surely as plausible as an evolutionary interpretation. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, Haidt at times flirts with the notion of innateness. All that is needed to convert his interpretative theory into a Christian theory is to add the notion of God. Of course, I need to provide some additional evidence for preferring my interpretative framework, but that would take us far beyond the scope of this paper. Haidt clearly doesn’t want to adopt my Christian interpretive framework, because he is so thoroughly committed to his evolutionary interpretive framework. What would change Haidt’s mind? As we have already seen, rational argument will not be of much help. But perhaps the rider might look into the distant future, and entertain alternate scenarios, and this might eventually nudge the elephant closer to a genuinely religious interpretative framework.

Let me say a bit more about Haidt’s approach to morality. I find his position with regard to the nature of morality rather confusing. As an evolutionary social psychologist he is operating primarily at a descriptive level. His six foundational moral matrixes are descriptions of the values that people in fact do appeal to. As already noted, liberals tend to focus on liberty and equality. While conservatives have a broader moral matrix that includes loyalty, authority, and the sacred as importance values. But, as is the tendency of social scientists, Haidt doesn’t limit himself to description. He flirts with prescription. For example, Haidt argues (at least implicitly) that we ought to think in terms of all six moral foundations. He argues that liberals, especially, ought to be more open to conservative values. He decries the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. The book concludes: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out” (p. 371). Yes indeed, but this comes very close to being a prescriptive conclusion. Haidt is saying that we ought to get along. Here again I believe Haidt needs to draw on Christian insights to overcome his confusion with regard to the descriptive/prescriptive divide. In the Christian canon of Scripture, God clearly issues prescriptions, the best example of which are the giving of the 10 commandments. But these commandments are not given arbitrarily. They are in fact given to us for our own good (Deut 6:3, 18). They work. If you want a healthy society, follow God’s laws. Or to draw on Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, God created man and society so that they have evolved in such a way that following the six moral matrixes will in fact lead to a healthy, well functioning society.

And what about the issue of moral relativism. Haidt is in fact very confusing here. At times he quite specifically adopts a relativistic stance (p.368). At other times, he quite specifically says he is not a relativist (pp.132-3). He wants to say that his six pillars of moral values are in fact the right way to make decisions. He comes very close to saying that these are objective moral values that all human beings should adopt. He correctly suggests that while these values are objective and universal, the way they are applied to different cultures will in fact be different (p.31). Here again I agree. There is some truth to situational relativism. But let’s not be so hesitant to admit that there are some core values that are built into nature that all people everywhere ought to follow. Again, I prefer a Christian interpretive framework which maintains that God created the world in such a way that the following of certain norms will in fact lead to flourishing societies.

As a philosopher, I often have difficulties appreciating books written by social scientists. As a Christian I also frequently have problems with overly dogmatic assertions of evolutionary scientists. I did not encounter these problems in reading Jonathan Haidt. Despite its confusions, this book deserves to be read.