2019-08-05

Book Review: "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt

Before I get into the review, I'd like to point out that it has been exactly 10 years since I published my first post on this blog. I've significantly matured since then, and my general interests and specific goals for this blog have shifted, but writing here is still something that I enjoy doing. No matter how many people read this blog, if it's a positive number, I'll be grateful for each and every one of you.

I've recently read the book "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt: this was a book I saw on the SMBC reading list a while ago. This book is about the human psychology of morals at individual and group levels, and is divided into three parts. The first part is about how people's rational minds are actually driven by their emotions and intuitive views of the world, as opposed to the other way around, so any discussion of morals with people of different worldviews must start at the level of values, emotions, or intuition, not calculated reasoning. The second part introduces the framework of "fundamental flavors of morality" in a historical context and describes how this can be used to explain the ongoing tensions particularly in politics in Western countries. The third part, in contrast to the first and second parts focusing on individual behaviors and thought processes, focuses on how people can be so driven to partake in group activities, why this means religion could have a useful place even in contemporary society, and how this leads to more tribal & polarized politics too.

The book is fairly well-written and is a rather engaging narrative; I especially liked the overall division into three coherent parts as well as the summaries at the end of each chapter. Additionally, I found it interesting to see just how many beliefs and symbols even supposedly rational, atheistic, or otherwise "modern" liberals hold with a similar intensity to conservatives. There is one overall major issue, along with some minor quibbles, that I will state here. The major issue is that while the author does a good job of presenting a variety of studies in different situations to support his points, it isn't clear how robust those studies really are to changing conditions: I would have liked to see a clearer acknowledgment of the crisis of replication in experimental psychology (and in fairness, I should also apply this critical view even to things like the stereotype threat effect which may align with my political views, as was expounded in the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele which I reviewed here, as well as to popular psychology books I read in the future). This is related to the minor quibble that especially in the first part, but also at various points throughout the book, the narrative seems to fit together a little too neatly without necessarily considering alternative explanations as carefully; this may be fine given that the book is meant to convey a particular message to a general audience, and to his credit, the author does acknowledge the likely incompleteness of this book in this regard, but even though I agree with the author's praise of Hume's idea of rationality serving emotion rather than the other way around, it would have been nicer to not feel like I was in an epistemic bubble. Another quibble is that in many parts, the author seems to be comfortable using casual superlative language; again, this may be fine given that the book is meant for a general audience, but in some places it struck me as a somewhat less than evenhanded treatment of the historical context. Finally (and this is a very minor quibble), the author claims originality in the metaphor of reason as a rider sitting atop the elephant of intuition: even the author makes reference to Plato's metaphor of the rider of reason steering the horses of emotion, and the Bhagavadgita (which the author does not reference) uses the same metaphor, but even here I must credit the author for novelty in the use of an elephant rather than horses to show how this much bigger animal will more likely steer the rider than the other way around.

The first part went over ideas that I've seen before in other contexts, touching upon epistemic closure, values-based conversations to bridge political divides, post-hoc rationalization, and so on. I didn't feel like I necessarily learned much from that part, but it was still nice to see those ideas again. One issue I had was about the discussion of how upon hearing a story that may generally invoke moral revulsion even in the absence of victims in the story, people from more liberal or educated backgrounds would admit to revulsion but still tolerate it, while people outside of such backgrounds would invent victims to justify their intolerance of such behavior as a post-hoc justification for their revulsion. Yet the same discussion seemed to also suggest that the differences between those two groups grew larger after controlling for the possibility of "invented victims". The section may have just been poorly written, but even if that is the case, it seemed to give the wrong idea. Another issue I had was with the author's accusation that Marxist psychological theorists from a few decades ago were essentially exhibiting post-hoc rationalization of their own beliefs when criticizing evolutionary psychologists, yet he demonstrated no self-awareness in his own lavish praise for evolutionary psychology (unless his willful blindness was a deliberately ironic example of such post-hoc rationalization, in which case this book is a work of genius).

The second part felt a lot more novel to me in its introduction of "fundamental flavors of morality", discussion of how broad labels like "utilitarianism" or "deontology" focus almost exclusively on one of those "flavors" to the detriment of others, and how in Western countries, liberal politics tends to focus exclusively on one or two specific "flavors" while conservative politics tends to appeal to all of them, explaining why conservative politics may tend to be more deeply rooted in the broader population. This was an eye-opening introduction to how modern Western liberal/progressive politics may need to work with rather than denigrate alternative flavors of morality if it is to succeed more broadly, though it is also hard for me to see how that would work if progressive politics aims to tear down oppressive power structures that conservative voters appreciate for inspiring loyalty and obedience to authority that they see as keeping their communities functioning smoothly. Perhaps the solution is to listen with an open mind to people who may have been oppressed by those in power abusing the moral "flavors" of loyalty, authority, or sanctity, and recognize their own oppression while still valuing those "flavors" more broadly; this may allow liberals to more concretely mesh well with those "flavors" instead of dealing with oppression by proverbially throwing out the baby with the bathwater. My only quibble in this regard is that the author consistently describes Western society as a monolith which prizes autonomy above larger group virtues while simultaneously showing how poorer communities in developed Western countries have more in common with more community-oriented mindsets outside of the West.

The third part described links social behavior in humans to eusociality in bees in order to show why humans may be so prone to prizing group interactions far above what they can do individually, and how this can explain a lot of the observed behaviors and potential benefits of tribalism in religion and politics, but I felt that the way the author tied these ideas to evolution as well as political history made this the weakest part of the book. In particular, in the discussion about group-level selection versus individual selection, I felt the analogies to bee eusociality were undercut by the lack of clarity regarding the extent to which bees in one hive are actually related to each other (so a lot of the behavior could be explained through kin selection — presumably the point of eusociality is to transcend this, but it would have been nice to see a clearer explanation bolstering the analogy), how comparable human division of labor & tribal identity really are to the rigid caste division & hive mind of bees, and why the author didn't consider the perspective of taking individual human behaviors as the results of kin selection among constituent cells. There's probably a lot of basic evolutionary biology that I'm missing here, but I would have expected to see such explanations if these analogies are so important to the main argument. Additionally, the author argued that it is a logical fallacy to say that fascism and other ugly political outcomes could possibly be an endpoint of hive-like group instincts among people, but I completely disagree with this, given the long history of large nationalistic or smaller corporate "hives" with leaders who create the illusion of equality & moral rectitude to lead constituents to do horrible things in the name of an abstract ideal while covertly ensuring that they (the leaders) ultimately unfairly benefit. Finally, the author seemed to use a lot of motivated strawman reasoning in defense of the benefits of religion. One example would be the use of college football to then claim that "rational liberals" argue against sports in general and are therefore blinding themselves to the potential benefits of tribal belonging, when from what I've seen, the arguments are more against American football (for the injuries) and the current collegiate athletics setup in particular. Another example would be his retort to the claim that the Catholic Church is exclusionary by pointing to how many colleges are more exclusive in their acceptance rate; this obtuse remark completely ignores how many organized religions have cultivated group cultures which, one way or another (whether between "nonbelievers are sinners who will be damned to hell" all the way to "the righteous believers must kill the infidels"), systematically sees out-groups as lesser than the in-group, whereas college admissions committees don't cultivate these sorts of attitudes in admitted student bodies.

As a final comment, given my own liberal predisposition, I noticed that the author spoke of his growing reverence for traditionally conservative moral "flavors" being sparked by his long-term stay in India conducting moral psychology experiments and surveys. It's hard to say whether people in lower positions in such cultures (like maids or street sweepers) truly like being in such positions as opposed to feeling like they have no choice but to accept their lot in life, and it is easy to project Western ideas of individual liberation onto people in such circumstances, but even so, I was struck by how little he directly reflected on the circumstances of such people in the context of respect for societal hierarchy and how easily he came to accept the existing power structure there, because he was in a position where that would have no negative consequence for him. (This critique of his seeming conservative disposition leaves aside some of the other US policy-specific arguments he made, such as about health care, where it seems clear enough to me that the inherent properties of human health and its treatment are fundamentally incompatible with the characteristics needed to sustain a truly free competitive market.) At the same time, being of Indian descent, I know that when I visit my relatives there, I feel the need to suppress any discomfort with how household help and other people in lower stations in life are treated mainly to avoid friction with relatives (especially given that I didn't grow up there, so there's a good chance that any contrary words I say will be met with references to that fact).

Overall, this is an interesting book of great relevance to the current political climate. Given this, I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about why we think the way we do.

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