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Monday, April 02, 2012

Haidt on Moral Pluralism

"I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians." - Charles De Gaulle

***

‘The Righteous Mind,’ by Jonathan Haidt - NYTimes.com

"You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong...

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The ­Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature... people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about ­manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them...

All the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes... E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right”...

When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why... subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments...

If you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends...

He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation...

You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.

This is where Haidt diverges from other psychologists who have analyzed the left’s electoral failures. The usual argument of these psycho-­pundits is that conservative politicians manipulate voters’ neural roots — playing on our craving for authority, for example — to trick people into voting against their interests. But Haidt treats electoral success as a kind of evolutionary fitness test. He figures that if voters like Republican messages, there’s something in Republican messages worth liking. He chides psychologists who try to “explain away” conservatism, treating it as a pathology. Conservatism thrives because it fits how people think, and that’s what validates it. Workers who vote Republican aren’t fools. In Haidt’s words, they’re “voting for their moral interests.”

Liberals dissolve moral capital too recklessly. Welfare programs that substitute public aid for spousal and parental support undermine the ecology of the family. Education policies that let students sue teachers erode classroom authority. Multicultural education weakens the cultural glue of assimilation. Haidt agrees that old ways must sometimes be re-examined and changed. He just wants liberals to proceed with caution and protect the social pillars sustained by tradition...

He highlights broad areas of culture and politics — family and assimilation, for example — on which liberals should consider compromise. He urges conservatives to entertain liberal ideas in the same way. The purpose of such compromises isn’t just to win elections. It’s to make society and government fit human nature.

The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves “very liberal,” were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment...

Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”

Our task, then, is to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways. Haidt’s research suggests several broad guidelines. First, we need to help citizens develop sympathetic relationships so that they seek to understand one another instead of using reason to parry opposing views. Second, we need to create time for contemplation. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person’s mind. Third, we need to break up our ideological segregation. From 1976 to 2008, the proportion of Americans living in highly partisan counties increased from 27 percent to 48 percent. The Internet exacerbates this problem by helping each user find evidence that supports his views."


Other comments on this book:

"Liberals who are usually quick to discount scientific (especially biological) explanations for phenomena inconvenient to their ideology are much more flexible in trotting out “studies” to paint the right as racist neanderthals" (hotair.com)


The Guardian:

"Are you deeply offended by works of art such as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, which depicts Jesus as seen through a jar of urine, or Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, which shows Mary smeared with elephant dung? So offended that you think they ought to be banned and the galleries that display them prosecuted? No? OK, then try replacing the religious figures in these pictures with the sacred icons of progressive politics, people such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. How would you feel if you walked into an art gallery and saw an image of King submerged in urine or Mandela smeared with excrement?...

People with high IQs are no better than anyone else at understanding the other side in a moral dispute. What they are better at is coming up with what he calls "side-arguments" for their own instinctive position. Intelligent people make good lawyers. They do not make more sensitive moralists...

Our moral instincts are inherently judgmental: being moral makes us moralistic... often moral judgment is a case of us v them rather than right v wrong...

Religion, Haidt says, is a "team sport". In one of the many striking images in this book, he suggests that "trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of football by studying the movement of the ball.""


NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF:

"“Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters,” writes Haidt, a former liberal who says he became a centrist while writing the book.

In recent years, there has been growing research into the roots of political ideologies, and they seem to go deep. Adults who consider themselves liberals were said decades earlier by their nursery-school teachers to be curious, verbal novelty seekers but not very neat or obedient.

Some research suggests that conservatives are particularly attuned to threats, with a greater startle reflex when they hear loud noises. Conservatives also secrete more skin moisture when they see disgusting images, such as a person eating worms. Liberals feel disgust, too, but a bit less.

Anything that prods us to think of disgust or cleanliness also seems to have at least a temporary effect on our politics. It pushes our sanctity buttons and makes us more conservative... interviewees on Stanford’s campus offered harsher, more moralistic views after “fart spray” had been released in the area...

Liberals prefer dogs who are gentle but not subservient, while conservatives seek dogs who are loyal and obedient...

Do you know what kind of books are disproportionately stolen from libraries? Books on ethics"


Addendum - Interview with the author:

"The happiest people in America are Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians. The least happy group in America is secular liberals...

There’s some scholarship I cite in the book, an anthropologist by the name of Richard Sosis. He studied communes in the nineteenth century. These were groups of people that left the corruptions of the city and tried to create their own moral community off in the countryside. He studied about a hundred religious communes, Christians communes. And he studied about a hundred more left-wing communes, usually socialist. And what he found was that the socialist communes basically broke apart within a few years. The religious communes lasted three or four times longer. And the magic ingredient turns out to be rules that require self-sacrifice. Cutting off all your hair, wearing strange clothing, worshipping in certain ways, getting up early in the morning—all these things that are irrational and uncomfortable. But when people do them—and this is where I get evolutionary—it’s like there’s a switch in our head that says: “If I’m worshipping with other people and doing rituals with other people, I can trust them”...

Even when you look at non-church-related giving, religious people simply give more. They are locked into moral communities that are always talking about helping others—and they do it...

Since the Enlightenment, since the eighteenth century, I think liberals have been too quick to knock down institutions, to want change, and to try to tinker and maximize—and when you do that, you often end up with anomie, or normlessness. People should read about the French Revolution. Growing up as a liberal, I always thought the French Revolution was this wonderful thing. It was an absolute nightmare. Of course, the king was a nightmare too. But the French Revolution shows the excesses of liberalism. And it ended with genocide, it ended with mass slaughter in Paris with the guillotine. It was an abomination, because they destroyed all their moral capital and they had chaos. And that excess is actually the founding event of modern conservatism. It’s people like Edmund Burke, who said we need to preserve institutions even if we don’t always understand them. We have to proceed carefully...

The natural tendency of our righteous, tribal minds is to say: “Well, I’m in my tribe, and we’re right and we’re obviously right. And the people who disagree with us are wrong and obviously wrong. So wrong that the only way they could believe what they believe is if they’re truly evil or motivated by greed, or racism, or the devil, or whatever.” Because we don’t understand each other, we tend to demonize. And when you demonize the other side, then you cannot compromise.

Republicans and Democrats during the post-war years—the 1950s, 1960s—didn’t demonize each other as much...

In terms of liberal/conservative, I think you need both. And I can’t say that liberals have a better plan for society than do conservatives"
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