Ex Libris: Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind” (Part III)

by | February 21, 2014

My first and second posts about the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion” discussed Haidt’s claims that morality is largely intuitive rather than rational and that moral intuition is based on six “foundations” that Haidt calls “Care/Harm”, “Fairness/Cheating”, “Loyalty/Betrayal”, “Authority/Subversion”, “Sanctity/Degradation” and “Liberty/Oppression”. I ended up more or less endorsing the first claim and acknowledging the second as at least a good starting point, given the evidence that Haidt provides. This post is devoted to Haidt’s third major claim, that morality “binds and blinds”.

What Haidt means by this is that shared moral attitudes can both “bind” people together and “blind” them to the moral sensibilities of other groups. It’s an intuitively plausible suggestion, but this part of the book is nevertheless unconvincing compared to the other two and only tenuously connected to them. The fundamental problem is that, while Haidt does a great job of establishing that humans have a “groupish” tendency to clump together in associations of all kinds, from tribes to nation-states to corporations, he never  makes much of a case that common moral values are particularly likely to be the glue that binds such associations together. What about all the other things that people might have in common, such as ancestry, socioeconomic status, or even tastes in literature, art, music and fashion?

Haidt is especially interested in political groupishness, but even in this domain his assumption of the primacy of morality runs into trouble. His evidence that liberals (in the American sense) are morally preoccupied with Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression whereas conservatives are also inclined to worry about the other four foundations is persuasive, but Haidt also acknowledges that liberals differ statistically from conservatives in being more drawn to novelty and less sensitive to potential threats. The tendency to scoff at danger and regard variety as the spice of life evidently defines an attitude that brings liberal-minded people together and colours their approach to concrete political questions, but hardly seems like a moral position. Similarly, Haidt repeatedly describes religions as “moral communities”, but fails to demonstrate that religions are primarily about morality as opposed to beliefs, ritual practices, and identity. In a chapter called “Religion is a team sport”, he compares religion to allegiance to the University of Virginia football team, which is not exactly a moral commitment. Later in the same chapter he makes the following interesting admission:

You don’t need moralistic high gods thundering against adultery to bring people together; even the morally capricious gods of hunter-gatherers can be used to create trust and cohesion.

The part of the book ostensibly dedicated to the proposition that “morality binds and blinds”, then, works better as a discussion of the not-necessarily-moral mechanisms that promote groupish behaviour among humans. This doesn’t have much to do with the rest of The Righteous Mind, which really is about morality, but nevertheless is interesting and illuminating on its own terms. What I found to be the most stimulating chapter in the whole book makes an extended argument that the roots of human groupishness lie in group selection, the historically controversial idea that a form of natural selection can apply to groups as well as individuals.

Group selection makes sense at an intuitive level: one might expect social groups of organisms that function well as collectives to outcompete more dysfunctional groups, monopolizing territory and resources and ensuring their own survival. Group selection would then reward cooperative, altruistic behaviour on the part of individuals, and punish selfishness. Around the middle of the last century, however, evolutionary biologists firmly rejected group selection on the grounds that competition within groups, which rewards selfishness and punishes altruism (unless reciprocated, or directed towards genetic relatives) would always trump competition between groups. Evolutionary theory became wedded to the idea that natural selection operated only at the level of the individual, or even in a sense at the still-lower level of the “selfish” gene.

Haidt reviews all this, but also invokes some interesting recent literature arguing that group selection can work after all under certain conditions. Drawing on evidence from artificial as opposed to natural selection, as Darwin did when he included a discussion of pigeon-breeding in the Origin of Species, Haidt mentions a striking experiment. A geneticist called William Muir was interested in creating battery hens that would put their energy into laying eggs rather than trying to kill their cage-mates:

He worked with cages containing twelve hens each, and he simply picked the cages that produced the most eggs in each generation. Then he bred all of the hens in those cages to produce the next generation. Within just three generations, aggression levels plummeted… Total eggs produced per hen jumped from 91 to 237, mostly because the hens started living longer, but also because they laid more eggs per day.

There was no divine geneticist on hand to artificially select and breed particularly harmonious or productive groups of early humans. However, Haidt argues rather persuasively that, once humans became capable of cooperating to perform simple tasks such as carrying logs – a capacity that barely exists among chimpanzees – group selection was able to kick in and favour groupish as opposed to selfish behaviour. Haidt sees moral instincts as an adaptation fostered by group selection, a mechanism for making social life feasible. This account of morality works even if, as I’ve been arguing, the actual nuclei around which people like to form groups are not necessarily moral in character. The role of moral instincts is to make it possible for people to come together around a suitable nucleus without too many of them getting screwed over or stabbed in the back.

Haidt applies similar reasoning to religion, in a line of argument that has proved understandably controversial with other atheists. His starting point is the fairly conventional view that religion has its ultimate roots in a “hypersensitive agency detection device” in the human brain. Confronted with natural phenomena such as storms, the agency detection device leads people to instinctively assume that a conscious agent is at work, and before you know it there’s a shrine to Thor on every street corner. “Thunder and lightning,” Haidt wryly notes, “sure make it seem as though somebody up in the sky is angry at us.”

However, Haidt doesn’t buy the widespread notion in atheist circles that religion is just a misfiring of the old agency detector, followed by cultural refinements that postulate increasingly compelling and plausible agents. Instead, he endorses the work of the anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich, who think the initial misfiring was in a sense exploited by cultural as opposed to genetic group selection. Religion, once it appeared, could be moulded into a useful adaptation for promoting groupishness:

If the gods evolve (culturally) to condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, they can then be used to promote cooperation and trust within the group… Creating gods who can see everything, and who hate cheaters and oath breakers, turns out to be a good way to reduce cheating and oath breaking.

Haidt is convinced of the usefulness of religion, which he describes as a “moral exoskeleton” that imposes “a set of norms, relationships, and institutions” on people who might otherwise stray into socially destructive behaviour. People, for example, like the relatively godless Europeans:

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

I suspect Haidt may actually be wrong about that last part, given the situation in Japan, but in any case there are a couple of broader points to be made. Turning resources into offspring is not necessarily the ultimate measure of national or societal success, and in any case whatever benefits may flow from religiosity are unavailable to people who find religion impossible to take seriously. Forgoing the exoskeleton of religion is not a choice, but rather the natural consequence of having a critical mass of individuals who are sufficiently confident, irreverent and well-educated to apply the battering ram of reason to religion’s various claims.

Nevertheless, The Righteous Mind presents a great deal of interesting information and analysis regarding moral intuitionism, the nature of moral instincts, and human groupishness. It’s an important contribution to the growing literature on morality and behaviour written from an atheistic perspective, and it’s well worth reading.

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