The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind May 25, 2012

This post is by Ann F-R, and is a series on a new and provocative book that challenges how people think — or think they think.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion explores how human morality develops and affects our daily choices and interactions. For most of the 20th century, developmental (moral) psychology was founded on rationalist assumptions: it was assumed morality & moral reasoning are constructed as children experience harm and negotiate fairness; to this end, they concluded that “reasoning about harm is the basis of moral judgment”. Any cross-cultural variations were assessed as violations of social conventions that exist between people groups. (p.19) Social conventions are “arbitrary and changeable …rules about clothing, food, [etc.]” (p.7). To a significant extent, rationalists privilege reasoning over bodily-based responses to situations. However, new discoveries by other social and medical scientists challenge rationalism.

Haidt sought to understand how people actually made daily, moral decisions, across cultures and classes; to trace how the assumptions of rationalists changed our perspective of others; and, to offer a new paradigm to help us understand ourselves, our moral decision-making, and our reactions to others who differ.

1) Richard Shweder, a psychological anthropologist, challenged rationalism with his studies in the Indian state of Orissa. Shweder observed Indians’ and Americans’ perceptions of morality correlated to their views that the individual or social group mattered more; i.e, morality was individually-centered or sociocentric (p.15). Rationalism is specifically suited to western goals concerning individuals’ rights. Shweder believed that, “When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified” (p.16).  The central question for societies is how to order themselves. From the perspective of societal order, religion itself can be understood as a human response to chaotic human interactions, because religions create & justify some form of order.

Does our understanding of God-in-Christ center us in particular ways which set Christians apart from being either individually or socially centered? If so, how?

But Haidt formulated a study with methodology that would better withstand the rationalists’ challenges than Shweder’s. His results confirmed that Americans distinguish between moral and social convention violations as others do not. Social class & levels of education determined outcome more than locale. He found “very strong support …that the moral domain goes far beyond [reasoning about] harm [and fairness]”, and cultural differences were actually bigger when perceptions of harm were controlled for (p.22).

2) And Haidt traced the roots of the western rationalist delusion (p.28) to Greek philosophy, specifically identifying Plato’s Timaeus. Plato described 2 human souls (dualism): they existed in the head (a superior, rational soul) and body (an inferior, irrational soul):

It justifies [philosophers’] perpetual employment as the high priests of reason, or as dispassionate philosopher-kings. It’s the ultimate rationalist fantasy—the passions are and ought only to be the servants of reason, to reverse Hume’s formulation [that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’ p.25]. [To illustrate] Plato’s contempt for the passions, Timaeus adds that a man who masters his emotions will live a life of reason and justice, and will be reborn into a celestial heaven of eternal happiness. A man who is mastered by his passions, however, will be reincarnated as a woman. (p.28)

Notice this: Haidt tried but couldn’t verify that moral reasoning and moral emotions acted independently. His studies revealed that people’s judgments came quickly, but their reasoning was constructed later! Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error, 1994) studied patients with brain damage affecting a specific area could perform well on moral reasoning tests, but had broken lives due to terribly poor choices. His results confirmed Haidt’s. “Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally, and that one job of [this area] was to integrate …feelings into…deliberations.” (p.33) Emotions and reasoning work together, but emotions precede and affect our subsequent reasoning!

Do these scientific findings affect how we view our justification of self & others?

3) Robert Margolis investigated why “people’s beliefs about political issues are often so poorly connected to objective facts” (p.41). His insights helped Haidt to “see that moral judgment is a cognitive process, as are all forms of judgment. The crucial distinction is really between two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning.” Haidt developed the social intuitionist model of moral judgment, and likened automatic processes (“including emotion, intuition, and [intuitive thinking]”, p. 45) to a large, smart elephant. The controlled processes are the rider on the elephant (including post hoc justification & intellectual processes). The strongest influence over our moral judgments is located in the predispositions of our automatic processes (the elephant). The rider may independently influence the elephant, but it’s more likely that positive social interactions will alter the elephant’s predisposition and the rider’s thoughts. The rider (reasoning) acts more as a lawyer does than as a truth-seeker. “[This model] offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog… Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. …intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” (pp. 47, 49)

Do these insights cause us to reassess the effects of good/poor relationships, political and social biases, and innate gender & race differences?

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