Friday, 16 October 2015

My Elephant is Leaning Both Ways

My Elephant is leaning both ways. At least I think it is, having just read "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012, the book is a fascinating look at the way people make up their minds about ethics and social values. It is made all the more fascinating by the fact that it is backed up by a large body of data, which has been collected via a series of field studies, on-line questionnaires, and interviews designed to measure the moral inclinations of people of different ages, different cultures, and a range of different political and religious leanings. This data allows some insightful inferences to be drawn about the evolutionary, instinctive (or, if you prefer, God-given) foundations of human morality. Its subtitle "Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics" gives a good idea of what to expect, but suggests a somewhat narrower scope of subject matter than the book actually covers.

There are three main conclusions drawn, each of which is presented as a central idea in the three sections of the book. The first of these: "intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second" is the basis of the metaphorical Elephant and its imaginary rider - the elephant represents our intuition or gut-responses while the rider represents the intellect, whose job is, primarily, to serve the elephant (and help it avoid obstacles). The metaphor is carried over from a previous book "The Happiness Hypothesis", where as he says:
I described how the rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection. In this book I’ll use the metaphor to solve puzzles such as why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite and why political partisans are so willing to believe outrageous lies and conspiracy theories. I’ll also use the metaphor to show you how you can better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason
The second conclusion (and section): "There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness" discusses the relatively recent tendency toward reducing moral decisions to whether or not there is any harm being done (consenting adults, in private, etc.) which is the yardstick of ethics for those who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD) and is based on the principle which John Stuart Mill had put forth in 1859: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” These principles are central to the laws of most secular democratic societies but it is worth bearing in mind that:
WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class [...] is the most unusual of all.
The corollary then is that there are many people who are not WEIRD and who see things a little differently. Haidt's research has led him to the conclusion that there are (at least) six innate and universal moral foundations which he lists as:
  1. Care/Harm
  2. Liberty/Oppression
  3. Fairness/Cheating
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation
Now you might be inclined to think, if you are as WEIRD as I, that foundations two to six could be rationally subsumed into point one, and I assume we could all pat ourselves on the back for thinking the same way as John Stuart Mill; but the point of Haidt's research is, in short: yes, but you can't so easily convince your elephant. Even among the WEIRD respondents he found that the speed with which people resolved carefully crafted moral dilemmas (presented to them in computer generated questionnaires) demonstrated that the strategic reasoning required to provide a 'care/harm' based explanation for a moral judgement took significantly longer if there was a conflict in one or more of the other areas.

The final section of the book is based on the third conclusion: "Morality Binds and Blinds". In this section we are shown how the data he has collected demonstrates that the relative importance of the six foundations are highly correlated with people's religious and political affiliations. For example the liberal mindset is focussed primarily on the first and, to a lesser extent, the second and third; whereas the social conservative is likely to value all six in roughly equal proportions. These differences make for difficult conversations across groups because the respective elephants are seeing each other as morally reprehensible. And disturbingly, studies conducted on identical twins show that these tendencies appear to be inborn and heritable:
And what’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.
We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your degree of religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
This of course leaves about a half to two thirds of that variability to be influenced by persuasion and other 'environmental factors', so let's not get too disheartened!

An unnecessarily large part, as I see it, of the final chapter was taken up with an attempt to justify the long discredited notion of 'group selection' as a mechanism for shaping evolutionary change in order to justify the existence of 'groupishness' in human beings. (Richard Dawkins's brilliant book from 1976 "The Selfish Gene" explains, in layman's terms, why, as an explanation, the idea of group selection both fails and is unnecessary in understanding the origins of group behaviour.) Nevertheless, If the reader is happy to skim over these parts and accept that groupishness is both a thing and explicable, there are some excellent suggestions about how those with a will can train themselves to communicate across the divide of the many ideological groupishnesses and get their elephants to lean together for the benefit of all.

"The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt - read it. (It'll make you think.)

No comments:

Post a Comment