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1 April 2012

Why good people are divided by politics and religion

Filed under: books, collaboration, evolution, motivation, passion, politics, psychology, RSA — David Wood @ 10:58 pm

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have thanked me over the years for drawing their attention to the book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” written by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. That was a book with far-reaching scope and penetrating insight. Many of the ideas and metaphors in it have since become fundamental building blocks for other writers to use – such as the pithy metaphor of the human mind being divided like a rider on an elephant, with the job of the rider (our stream of conscious reasoning) being to serve the elephant (the other 99% of our mental processes).

This weekend, I’ve been reading Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. It’s a great sequel. Like its predecessor, it ranges across more than 2,400 years of thought, highlighting how recent research in social psychology sheds clear light on age-old questions.

Haidt’s analysis has particular relevance for two deeply contentious sets of debates that each threaten to destabilise and divide contemporary civil society:

  • The “new atheism” critique of the relevance and sanctity of religion in modern life
  • The political fissures that are coming to the fore in the 2012 US election year – fissures I see reflected in messages full of contempt and disdain in the Facebook streams of some several generally sensible US-based people I know.

There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to summarise it without doing an injustice to huge chunks of fascinating material:

  • the importance of an empirical approach to understanding human morality – an approach based on observation, rather than on a priori rationality
  • moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second, to justify the intuitions we have already reached
  • there’s more to morality than concerns over harm and fairness; Haidt memorably says that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors”
  • the limitations of basing research findings mainly on ‘WEIRD‘ participants (people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)
  • the case for how biological “group selection” helped meld humans (as opposed to natural selection just operating at the level of individual humans)
  • a metaphor that “human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee”
  • the case that “The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction”
  • methods for flicking a “hive switch” inside human brains that open us up to experiences of self-transcendence (including a discussion of rave parties).

The first chapter of the book is available online – as part of a website dedicated to the book. You can also get a good flavour of some of the ideas in the book from two talks Haidt has given at TED: “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence” (watch it full screen to get the full benefits of the video effects):

and (from a few years back – note that Haidt has revised some of his thinking since the date of this talk) “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives“:

Interested to find out more? I strongly recommend that you read the book itself. You may also enjoy watching a wide-ranging hour-long interview between Haidt and Robert Wright – author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Evolution of God.

Footnote: Haidt is talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts on lunchtime on Tuesday 10th April; you can register to be included on the waiting list in case more tickets become available. The same evening, he’ll be speaking at the Royal Institution; happily, the Royal Institution website says that there is still “good availability” for tickets:

Jonathan Haidt, the highly influential psychologist, is here to show us why we all find it so hard to get along. By examining where morality comes from, and why it is the defining characteristic of humans, Haidt will show why we cannot dismiss the views of others as mere stupidity or moral corruption. Our moral roots run much deeper than we realize. We are hardwired not just to be moral, but moralistic and self-righteous. From advertising to politics, morality influences all aspects of behaviour. It is the key to understanding everybody. It explains why some of us are liberals, others conservatives. It is often the difference between war and peace. It is also why we are the only species that will kill for an ideal.

Haidt argues we are always talking past each other because we are appealing to different moralities: it is not just about justice and fairness – for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty are more important. With new evidence from his own empirical research, Haidt will show it is possible to liberate us from the disputes that divide good people. We can either stick to comforting delusions about others, or learn some moral psychology. His hope is that ultimately we can cooperate with those whose morals differ from our own.

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