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Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Righteous Mind - A book review by Eric Aarons



above: the author of this week's book review by Eric Aarons, Jonathan Haidt       

In this week's 'Left Focus' post we have a book review by former Australian Communist leader
Eric Aarons.     Aarons reviews Jonathan Haidt's '  "
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion".   In summary, the book concerns the search for the social and psychological sources of morality.  

Jonathon Haidt (pronounced ‘height’) has written an interesting book titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He writes clearly, and employs metaphors to make his main points.

The flyleaf introduction says: ‘His starting point is moral intuition – the nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do’, adding that ‘These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who think differently are wrong’. Though noting that those intuitions differ across cultures, he concentrates on the United States and in general on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries, thereby including Australia.                                                          

Haidt’s first metaphor is ‘the rider and the elephant’. The huge and powerful elephant is the embodiment of the instincts (not mentioned by the author , though I don’t see how they can be excluded) intuitions, feelings and emotions we all have, and are expressed, particularly in our values. Instincts are generally taken to be the ‘hard-wired’ or gene-determined aspects of our nature; intuitions arise from our life experiences and, together with our instincts, fashion our patterns of behaviour that can be roughly described as our ‘cultural characteristics’, in striving to secure our needs, pursue our wants, and reach our goals.

The rider is our reasoning self whose task, according to Haidt, is to serve the elephant by steering it away from dangers it cannot see or comprehend: ‘Brains evaluate everything in terms of potential threat or benefit to the self, and then adjust behaviour to get more of the good stuff and less of the bad.’ (p. 35) Overall, in the author’s view expressed in his second metaphor: ‘We are 90 Percent Chimp and 10 per cent Bee’ (p. 187) – proportions we could argue about while accepting the principle.

There are two aspects to this. Though not everyone sees humans in this light, it is no great surprise that many think we are basically self-centred, often violent and dictatorial individuals like Chimpanzees with whom we share 99 per cent of genes, with a minor mix of the social behaviour of bees. These insects are characterized by living in hives and having a division of labour, with the Queen delivering all the offspring of the relatively few sexual males (drones), with the rest doing all the work of hive-building, and nectar collection that in the process fertilizes plants with pollen for their reproduction. This other aspect has been elaborated by biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in his latest book The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), which is intended as an essential moral lesson for modern humanity. The flyleaf introduction expresses this, proclaiming that ‘the origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck, good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever’.

Importantly, Haidt warns that though he does not discount such major issues as ‘the meaning of life’, he uses his metaphor in this book mainly to solve such puzzles as ‘why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite and why political partisans are so willing to believe outrageous lies and conspiracy theories [and] to show how you can better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason.’ (p. xiv)

David Hume

Haidt gives credit to David Hume (1711 – 1776) for his contribution to the understanding of morality. In his day, Hume was the foremost representative of the view that morality was an inborn ‘sense’, an organic part of human nature. He opposed the Rationalists who held that morals were a later product of reason, particularly on the grounds that reason was not of itself a spur to action, whereas the ‘passions’ had precisely that implication. This stance, inadvertently and wrongly, led to the view that Hume was advocating the principle that no ‘is’ can give rise to an ‘ought’ – that is, from no factual condition existing in the world can it be deduced, or the conclusion drawn, that a moral ‘ought’ to do anything about it can logically flow.  This was enshrined by some philosophers as ‘Hume’s Law’ and was so cited by the founder of neo-Liberalism, Friedrich Hayek: ‘Nobody was more critical of or explicit about the impossibility of a logical transition from the is to the ought.’ (HumeA Collection of Critical Essays Edited by V.C. Chappell, 1966, p. 344).

The issue arose from a passage in Hume’s conflict with the rationalists, analysed by Steven Buckle in his Doctoral thesis (published as a book Natural Law and the Theory of Property, Grotius to Hume, 1991):

All the rationalist moral theories, with their attempts to found morals entirely in reason, or abstract rational relations, implicitly deny the reality or significance of moral sense. So, when these theories introduce the word “ought”, they have introduced a new relation which they cannot explain. This is a decisive failing. A moral theory without obligation is no moral theory at all, since morality is a practical matter, and the obligation is precisely the action-making element – the motive force – in moral practice. (p. 282)

We’ll meet Hume again later, but if there were ever a time in which the connection between existing facts and a moral ‘ought’ obligating us to act stands out more prominently than at any other, it is the here and now, with the factual twin challenges of global warming and the resource sustainability of our planet!

The Political Centerpiece

The  author’s main conclusion to the first chapter is this advice:

If you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuition, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed. (p. 50)

Haidt leaves no doubt that his book has political aims. He is worried about the negative consequences that would flow from a continuation of the present trend, becoming world-wide, of increasing violence in language between different sides of the political fence, carrying threats of actual violence, and in not a few cases the act itself. In the extreme form we have terrorism, which has its own specific sources, but in today’s globalized world, everything tends to interact.

I will not try to describe all those multiple sources, but hazard the view that peoples, from the WEIRD to the underdeveloped and repressed, sense that something like what Haidt calls a Rubicon Crossing (as in Julius Caesar’s crossing of a river of that name to gain control of the Roman Empire) is in the wind. A decisive part of this is climate change and planetary sustainability, but we now also experience a flashback of nearly a hundred years to an economic catastrophe that few people alive today experienced, and a repeat of which people had been assured could never recur. We also have a revolt against long oppression in Arab and other countries, a challenge to American dominance and assurance of security to the rest of the WEIRD countries. And if these and other problems are to be adequately confronted, social changes of ‘Rubicon Crossing’ dimensions will have to be made.

Haidt has implied and others have told us that intuitions, formed from past experiences in life, form the basis of the elephant’s trajectory, and are generally acted on immediately as being true. But now many of the old truths no longer apply; people feel this, but new intuitions are not immediately formed, nor do previous theories work  as they did or appeared to do before. The times are experienced as being topsy-turvy, and it may take some years for a new, socially workable plateau to take shape. These are often called ‘revolutions’ of which there have been not a few in human history, and they do not need to be violent.

Haidt’s central metaphor for Part 111of his book is that ‘We are 90 percent Chimp and 10 percent Bee’ – the Chimp dominating, often violent, and self-centred; the bee socially oriented and even altruistic. We do in fact share 99 percent of genes with Chimpanzees, and often suffer from the dominating ways of top males and a general lack of cooperation. But having read Christopher Boehm’s 1999 book Heirarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior,  and works of Franz de Waal, he accepts that egalitarianism prevailed for scores of thousands of years, and that those early peoples found ways to deal with ‘free loaders’, prior to the advent of agricultural society.

Moral Matrices  

Somewhat on the left in American terms, Haidt wants it to overcome its disadvantage in competition with the Right by correcting the too narrow base of its ideological position. This he does by defining what he calls the modules of ‘the moral foundations’. There are six of these: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity and Liberty, which he clarifies by placing them in conjuncture with their opposites:
Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation and Liberty/oppression.

Haidt believes that the American Left pays too little attention to all except the first two of these, while the Right, gains by the wider scope of their moral and cultural concerns. Some Australian writers, for instance David McKnight in his 2005 book Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and The Cultural Wars, has covered similar territory, while climate change and planetary sustainability surely constitute a new moral (values) foundation that neither Right nor Left has so far adequately grappled with, either in America, Australia or other WEIRD countries.

Connection between the inside and the outside – mind and body

A psychologist cannot be expected to give equal attention to body as well as mind and, though he does quote Antonio Damasio’s treatment of the connection between our emotional and cognitive faculties, he pays little attention to what goes on outside the mind. That is, the activities that are needed to maintain a body that can sustain the brain by providing it with enough energy from the particularly high blood supply it needs to think, intuit and respond to the demands of instincts. These include automatic reflexes, for instance that of bodily balance. But many thinkers did pay attention to these aspects of humanity, including Adam Smith and David Hume, and a number of others including one who wrote:

In every inquiry concerning the operations of men when united together in society, the first object of attention should be their mode of subsistence. Accordingly as that varies, their laws and policy [and one could add their ways of thinking] must be different.

No, it wasn’t Karl Marx; it was William Robertson, who wrote it in 1812, four years before Marx was born.  Marx wrote similarly, elaborating and extending the idea, though I doubt he actually knew of Robertson’s conclusion. Marx’s work in this field was fruitful, but contained faults, ignoring other factors, including and in particular, neglect of morality and values.

In pointing out that the Liberty/oppression module changed things after that long period of egalitarianism, Haigt does not canvas any of the reasons involved, other than psychological and moral ones. I believe the central factor was that agriculture, in its various forms, raised the productivity of labour, thereby providing a surplus above purely survival needs. For instance, slavery before this was not an option when each person in a group could, overall, produce only enough for their own survival. And, during the long transition to inequality,  there arose in a number of places what were called ‘big man’ societies, where dominant owners, feeling the pressure of the earlier egalitarian culture, would strive to satisfy it by putting on festivals and feasts. As such overlaps weakened, the dominance of concentrated property, and ultimately financial wealth, took on more oppressive and even brutal forms, though ideological hegemony has up to the present been predominant in the WEIRD countries.

Evolutionary theory

The second part of Haidt’s book concentrates on the theory of evolution, naturally beginning with Darwin. Specifically it canvasses the possibility of competition between groups as well as between individuals resulting in the natural selection of the fittest group. There is also evidence of a cultural practice achieving genetic status. When herding of milk-producing animals occurred about 10,000 years ago, children alone could produce the enzyme that split the sugar lactose into its two digestible parts. But most adults today can now produce that enzyme, and consume large quantities milk, cheese and other dairy products. Haidt gives a couple of other examples purporting to have a like trajectory, but it seems to me that these examples, even if true, are not likely to play a major role.

Selfish Genes

‘The selfish gene’ is a clever but misleading metaphor created by Richard Dawkins and used as the title for his best-selling 1976 book . Haidt gives far better definitions of ‘selfish’ and ‘groupish’:

When I say that human nature is selfish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers…, When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.

Yet in his work and in that of many biologists, and now psychologists, there are what I believe to be questionable dichotomies .

Selfish’ seems often to be taken to be the antonym of ‘altruistic’, individualism often equated with individuality, and cooperation sometimes taken as a denial of that individuality.    Dawkins has 4 index references to altruism, none for cooperation. Haidt has 22 index references to altruism, none for cooperation, though it is referred to in several places in his text. Altruism is not unimportant, and displays of it are elevating and praiseworthy. Nor do I cavil at Haidt’s  preference for the term ‘groupishness’, because of our limited capacity for meaningful relations with a virtually infinite  number of others. But I do think it tends to obscure the centrality of cooperation for early, and indeed in all states of human social existence.

Cooperation neither detracts from individuality, nor requires disregard of self. It was characteristic of all early humans, such as Australian indigenous peoples. They arrived on the continent about 60,000 years ago, spread over the whole of it, and survived several major extremes of climate change and other hazards. Now comprising about 200 groups they refer to as ‘nations’ they are basically kinship groups, speaking 230 distinct languages and perhaps 500 dialects. They are hunter-gatherers on their particular parcel of land which they regard as ‘owning’ them rather than the other way around. I think the tragic results of European invasion are well enough known, but no one who has anything to do with these people can fail to discern the ‘common humanity’ that I believe underlies the cultural and psychological spheres, whether or not some particular aspects of them may now have become genetically involved.

Haidt himself seems to be aware of the quantitative and time aspects of this issue, writing:  ‘I don’t think evolution can create a new mental module from scratch in just 12,000 years … (p. 216), He is also aware of the dangers of the present trend of heightened political conflict, where previous give and take in negotiations enabled conflicts to be mitigated and sometimes lasting ‘settlements’ arrived at between various components of the society. The present challenges I have outlined are, I trust, at the top of his priorities when he writes: ‘Who among us will still be alive a year from now? Will it be the biggest, strongest and most violent individuals in each town? Or will it be the people who manage to work together in groups to monopolize, hide, and share the remaining food supplies among themselves?’ (p. 217).

I like to think that humanity can do better than that, and will in time undertake what I believe (after Karl Polanyi) to be ‘The Greatest Transformation’ ever, in which all nations and peoples will, for the first time in history, have perceived the necessity to cooperate and live sustainably on our planet – our only possible home – for an indefinite stretch of centuries ahead.

Structure and Agency; the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’

We return again to David Hume to discuss relationships between structure and agency that have long featured in discussions about society, especially in sociology. In particular, the point at issue has concerned the relative degrees of causality in outcomes brought about by individuals or groups, and already existing social structures  (now including the natural environment and the rest of the earth’s biota).
And, on another ‘structural’ front, though in this case differentially for separate countries, we are rapidly reaching the point at which the peoples of the whole world, whether they like it or not, will find that they cannot double every 20 or so years our ‘take’ from the earth’s resources of oil, gas, coal, water, timber, many minerals, fresh water, fish … because they won’t be there. No human ‘agency’ can surmount such objective facts.

David Hume lived at the beginning of the capitalist era, and belonged to its progressive wing. But he did perceive its flawed underside, which he described by saying that: ‘ unlike other passions which are quite inconstant, material interests are constant and difficult to restrain [and that] this avidity alone of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends, is insatiable, perpetual, universal and directly destructive of society.’ (A Treatise of Human Nature , second edition ed. Selby-Bigge, p.p. 491-2)
I quote this not because I think that capitalism alone led to these outcomes, or that its practices are evil, full stop. But I do so because its extremes have got out of hand, as did the extremes of Marxist socialism. We have now reached the point where ‘sufficiency’ ought to replace the ‘avidity’ Hume refers to. 

Today’s politics                

Haidt’s ‘six mental foundations’ modules approach:  Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/ degradation and Liberty/oppression , are useful, especially for a modern left in today’s conditions. The Right is having severe troubles that are likely to remain virulent for several more years. But the Left has yet to fully identify with building a coalition of social forces strong, enlightened and moral enough to cross the Rubicon we face.  

The increasingly  urgent nature of the environmental and fiscal dilemmas facing humanity needs to be addressed by all people. Both sides are in the same earthly ‘boat’, and as such need to listen to each other. Jonathan Haidt  suggests a possible pathway.   
What would a society accomplishing that feat be like?
It is neither possible nor advisable to attempt to give a detailed description of changes that will require two or perhaps even three generations’ efforts and struggles to fully bring about. It will be a state of affairs that will have ended excessive emissions of global warming gases and won the battle for ‘sufficiency’ in our take of resources from the earth’s great but limited bounty. It will establish economic arrangements that do not require endless growth in material production and ever-greater gains for rich individuals and enterprises. It will have  begun to reduce the inequalities within and between nations, and slowed the rate of growth of the world’s population. It will have tamed the financial sector by changing profit to yield thereby radically reducing the danger of economic crises, and levelled power on the economic playing field.

It will have established a different view of ‘progress’
At first encounter this may seem to be ‘going backward’ from where you were or currently are; but think of the many benefits: It will lay the basis for a far more egalitarian existence for all the world’s peoples, both within and between nations. It will have begun to switch the focus of the majority of people away from social status based mainly on acquisition of wealth, to the development of cultural pursuits and deeper multi-dimensional  relationships. It will expand our horizons with better health, education, caring and gradual elimination of all forms of discrimination. It will have begun to solve the work/life conflict – that is, helped to establish a harmonious combination of these two sides of most people’s lives, the absence of which is one of the biggest issues in the search for the elusive ‘happiness’. It will have preserved our beautiful and majestic environments and the creatures it harbours into the indefinite future of untold generations.
Should we be able to find and communicate with other intelligent beings, it would represent Homo sapiens’ gift to the universe.

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