Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

I am beginning to read Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and Haidt writes so well that I feel that I must be on guard. See my summary at the end.

The first chapter, “Where does Morality Come From”, reflects on Piaget’s metaphor of a caterpillar developing into a butterfly, with a child discovering and developing a sense of morality. The metaphor is to counter the notion that we are born with a moral sense. In either case it is in the DNA! Some morality is cultural.

Page 52: “We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgement; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgement.” Some have said the such purposes are the only role of speech. I am glad that Haidt did not say that.

On page 54 Haidt lists reasons why language-based reasoning evolved. I think that all his reasons are good but that he has omitted some. I think that language evolved first to inform conspecifics. Also language is to command in hierarchical arrangements. Language evolved much later prove things to conspecifics. When Euclid invented what is the modern notion of mathematical proof he did not need much in the way of new language patterns. He merely collected many examples of proofs in which old patterns were evident. It is true that proof patterns are often abused for proofs are subtle and the possibilities for fraud are frequent. That there is a there there is astounding. We would not recognize proofs however if they were always bogus, for there would be no adaptive value. To me the amazing thing is that the structures that Euclid identified in natural language suffice for our most sophisticated endeavors.

Page 69: “And strangely when Todorov forced people to make their competence judgments after flashing the pair of pictures on the screen for just a tenth of a second—not long enough to let their eyes fixate on each image—their snap judgement of competence predicted the outcomes just as well.”
Just because the image disappeared from the screen does not mean that it was inaccessible to parts of the brain. The experiment is, however, significant.

Page 83: Haidt ends chapter three with “Wouldn’t it have been most adaptive for our ancestors to figure out the truth, the real truth about who did what and why, rather than using all that brain power just to find evidence in support of what we wanted to believe? That depends on what you think was more important for our ancestors’ survival: truth or reputation.”. I hope that Haidt addresses this pregnant question.

Page 89: “Tetlock concludes that conscious reasoning is carried out largely for the purpose of persuasion, rather that discovery. But Tetlock adds that we are also trying to persuade ourselves. We want to believe the things we are about to say to others.” This quote is clearly in the context of ‘reasoning’ about morality. As Haidt says earlier there is no truth out there to be found. The conversations are adaptive because they search for precedents to decide the case at hand and often to establish new precedents. The verbal arguments about how to deal with a miscreant are nearly the same as transpire within the head of an individual when deciding what to do. There are pros and cons to every action and the discussion makes everyone smarter. The result may establish a new norm, ethic or law. Conformance to old laws is desirable and when a new proposal seems to go against some old precedent it is up to the individual who sees this to speak up in favor of the old and thus perhaps avoid establishing incompatible precedents. I thus object to Tetlock’s pejorative phrase “for the purpose of persuasion, rather that discovery”. It is for the purposes of improving the accepted codes of behavior. It is also adaptive to agree on these, perhaps even when other decisions would have been more collectively adaptive. “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes, than a scientist searching for truth.” What is this ‘truth’ that Haidt speaks of? The process that he describes and pretends to berate, is the making of cultural norms which are useful even when not optimal. It is indeed like the functioning of governments, politicians and all—ugly but adaptive. The individual whose memes prevail, may achieve prestige and more progeny; the group also benefits.

Page 90: “Do some people truly steer by their own compass?” There was no money in the EEA. It is truly different now. To do your own thing now you only have to make money and stay out of jail, but most of us have additional psychological needs.

I largely concur that our thinking is largely confirmatory rather than exploratory, but I am not sure that that is a bad tactic to find the truth; our intuition is worth something after all. A mathematician may spend more time trying to prove his conjecture than trying to find a counterexample to refute it. Too great a bias, however, makes a bad mathematician.

I am confused as to whether my interpretation of argumentation is fundamentally different from Haidt’s; it is certainly more exculpatory in nature. There is certainly a large element of conflict between individuals that accompanies the concomitant conflict between memes. The notion of ‘truth’ is perhaps better supplanted by the notion of ‘what works better’: “Shall we eat the corn now or save it to plant next spring?” The individual conflict is likely to pay dividends in days; meme conflicts are likely to pay dividends on longer timescales. Both sorts of dividends serve as an evolutionary force.

Page 103: “The Rationalist Delusion”. I may grant that the rational behavior is the exception rather than the rule. I wonder, however, how much of the progress of civilization is a direct result of rationality. I can imagine that the ‘elephant’ has changed over the last 10,000 years to be more civil, and that culture has advanced even where the elephant has not. Our ability to fly to the Moon, however, was not principally the elephant’s doing, but the will to go was. The elephant helped out by loving the feeling of doing math and physics.

Page 105: “We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. […] if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.”

That is where I was headed a chapter ago. I think he exaggerates, however.

Page 146: I like Haidt’s five ‘adaptive challenges’. They are each clearly adaptive and require recognition of complex patterns. It is not so clear that they are orthogonal or complete, but Haidt does not claim that.

Page 147: “If our ancestors faced these challenges for hundreds of thousands of years, then natural selection would favor those whose cognitive modules helped them to get things right—rapidly and intuitively—compared to those who had to rely on their general intelligence (the rider) to solve recurrent problems.” I think that society has yet to collectively harness GI to solve these problems. Occasional writers sort of harness GI to point in the right direction, but more often they point in the wrong direction. (There are more wrong directions!) Haidt will need strong arguments to convince me that there was much GI usefully devoted to these issues in the EEA. The evolutionary force was between the DNA providing the adaptive advantage thru intuitive means, and no such genes, not between two kinds of DNA (once supporting the rider and one supporting the intuitive mechanism). It is only in the 20th century that much of such logic has been plausibly explicated even in academia. I suddenly find myself pulling in what I take to be Haidt’s direction, instead of resisting it.

Page 178. Haidt quotes Kass praising repugnance. Kass’s rhetoric is intuitive. (“I am outraged that you are not outraged.”) Hayek’s rhetoric is a logical argument about why we should pay attention to emotion.

Page 192: Loyalty but to what? Isn’t it a bit arbitrary to say that the only thing you can be loyal to is the nation state? Perhaps Obama in Berlin was espousing another level of loyalty. It certainly sounded like an attempt to marshal efforts toward a ‘greater good’. Is that not a form of loyalty? I grant that it won’t please the Republicans in the U.S.

Page 193: I recall a time when Republicans wanted to keep the government out of out private lives; perhaps it was an illusion. I think that the Durkheim vision ignores the invention of money. I think that money greatly diminishes the relevance of Durkheim’s vision. I know that philosophers and psychologists don’t want to consider money.

I think that Haidt missed a foundational element: Providence (Concern for the Future). Such concerns may be folded into the other foundational elements but not without loss of focus. Such providence is often irrational (and as such a candidate for foundation-hood) as when Hoover dam was justified on a 100-year payout. That it may indeed pay off on that time-scale is not entirely relevant. Haidt supports Durkheim‘s notion that religion is an adaption to align emotions of a tribe or larger group. Haidt gives six ‘foundational elements’ for moral values. I think he should have included ‘providence’ which became highly relevant with agriculture where planning a year ahead yielded great benefit. His other foundational elements are presumably in our DNA. I think that providence is a part of many conservative values.

Page 197: “They [private property] put an end to equality. The best land and a share of everything people produce typically get dominated by a chief, leader, or elite class (who take some of the wealth with them to the grave for easy interpretation later by archaeologists).” That is not how I grew up thinking about the fact that some had more money than others. I learned that were some combination of harder working and smarter and by both measures more productive. I later realized that Haidt’s take has some truth, but I think that Haidt is showing bias here.

Page 200: I find Boehm’s hypothesis intriguing but I am not ready to accept it. I am amused that “domestication of people” here refers to decreasing hierarchy. Other descriptions suggest a context of increasing hierarchy. I wonder if any of those who participated in the !Kung execution had ever seen or heard of such an event before. I can imagine an oral tradition supporting such an institution. Otherwise it would seem to be an innate behavior. There was a recent movie “The Fast Runner”, based on oral tradition, describing such a process among the ancient Inuit.

Page 275: “Is it possible to build a corporation staffed entirely by Homo economicus?” Haidt suggests the hive model is necessary. That may indeed describe companies on the East coast of the United States but it does not feel right for Silicon valley where new ideas often flow between companies. The creative energy I see there is devoted to exploring the new rampant opportunities. Employees will respect proprietary rules out of respect for the rules that their employers set, up to the point where opportunities are ignored. Then they jump ship. Companies are a good place to pursue these ideas and you might find a hive like phenomenon connecting those who pursue an idea. Companies reduce transaction costs and it is fun to help a coworker without drawing up a contract, or even doing a ‘handshake’. Many workers in Silicon Valley share excitement about their technology with several levels of management above them and this may form a nucleus for a hive. Open source software is a clear phenomenon that results from these ‘technology hives’ even among groups in which few pairs of members have met face to face.

Page 277: “If you ask people to sing a song together, or to march in step, or just tap out some beats together on a table, it makes them trust each other more and be more willing to help each other out, in part because it makes people feel more similar to each other,” In the late 40’s and early 50’s there was an IBM song book distributed mainly to IBM salesmen. These were often used in sales meetings. This form of hive maintenance can be overdone. It fell out of fashion and the song books quietly disappeared. I have a friend who still has an ‘IBM Hymnal’ but he tells only close friends. The following decades were the pinnacle of IBM’s business success.

Page 280: “Inspiring stuff” Haidt says of a quote post identified as Mussolini. (I am happy to note that I was not inspired.) Haidt continues to give a credible definition of fascism. It makes more sense than any definition that I recall:

Page 284: I have just one thing to say in summary about the hive: Money changes the game. There are people who can do just fine without connecting. They contribute to the culture, to the economy, and to general wealth, but they are not of the hive. Haidt tries to be descriptive but he sometimes lapses into normative. There may indeed be more autism today because of the decreased evolutionary pressure to perform well in a hive. Still Haidt’s insights illuminate the psyches of most of us.

In footnote 7 on page 289:

That phraseology sets off all my alarm bells at once. I do not dispute the accuracy of the description but I dispute the desirability of the resulting life form. Perhaps Haidt has capsulized here the dispute between the ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’ and the old guard. It would seem to me that the question is “Is there anything of value in the old?”. I am a fan of Hayek and must admit that the presumption must be yes; yet I want the question to be laid out clearly. Even Hayek admits that we must sometimes find our way forward from the old to the new. I have worked for several companies and furthered their goals, without losing my identity and personal goals. This is due mainly to sharing goals, not being a team member. This is in part due to choosing the companies that I work for. I have sensed that many or most of my coworkers acted likewise (except perhaps a few of my IBM coworkers who sometimes spoke of a loyalty to IBM transcending their professional values). I adhere to such bothersome issues as trade secrets because it is the law, and that I understand that it is a good law; it is also a deal I made when they employed me. I think that both Haidt and the Four Horsemen omit money as a lubricant that may come to supplant the purposes of visceral shared intentionality. I do not claim that all things of value are motivated by money, merely that money allows other passions to be followed; you have to eat. Open source software still seeks a stable modus vivendi.

This book is forcing me to defend an almost Randian philosophy, which I do not follow.

Page 299:

Again, money to the rescue, together with some new(?) trust mechanisms álà Fukuyama.

Page 300: Regarding religious propensity: “But now that we know how quickly genetic evolution can occur, I find it hard to imagine that the genes stood still for 50,000 years.” Perhaps. Somewhere we learned about fast and slow evolution in the topic of punctuated equilibrium. Slowly evolved mechanisms that were intermittently adaptive during our EEA, quickly reemerge later as needed but entirely new tricks take much longer. Haidt goes on to make a similar point.

At this point Haidt makes a plausible improvement on the story of the emergence of religion by the New Atheists but provides no reason to embrace the old, except for some yet unexpressed Hayekian reason.

In Dogville the gangster berates his daughter for holding Dogville residents to a lesser ethical standard than her own. In “The Righteous Mind” Haidt holds people in general to a lesser intellectual standard than he does his readers; Haidt admits there is no reason to believe in god, but it is good that most people do. That is a rational stance that I, like the gangster, refuse to adopt. I, like the gangster, feel that it is condescending. It is, itself, a tricky ethical question.

Forrest Bennett reminds me that Haidt says later “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.” which somewhat blunts my point.

Page 302: The description of the Balinese story is very good and seems apt. The water division is indeed zero-sum but the water-value division is positive-sum. Again priced water is not zero-sum. Money again!! None of my harping on money detracts from the observations on original mechanisms to solve problems; but money is the new kid in town. Marx taught that money could and should disappear. I suppose he understood and preferred the old ways. He roughly understood the new ways but underestimated the problem of central planning.

Page 314: Haidt gives a belated definition of morality quoting Durkheim: “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to … regulate his actions by something other than … his own egoism.” Curiously, I agree. Money, like an Archimedean lever, can align incentives so as to greatly ease the weight of the moral imperative. Some will respond that if you do it for money then you are doing it for the wrong reason. But where do you stand to declare it wrong?

End of Page 316:

OK, I will give Haidt that much.

Page 349: On Lead: I want to believe Haidt’s figures on lead and I wish he had given more detail to make them more plausible. Few of his readers will follow the references that he provides. I have not yet. The recent drop in crime has been ascribed to each of several developments, some of which annoy liberals and others of which annoy conservatives. I am sort of a libertarian and none of them annoy me, which annoys both my conservative and liberal friends.

Page 356: I enjoy Haidt’s sarcasm beginning at the end of the section:

Summary from a Libertarian Perspective

Haidt tries to avoid a prescriptive perspective. He addresses liberals to help them understand the conservative perspective. But he can not avoid here and there presenting an explicit conservative perspective or indeed some times a liberal perspective. I.e. it subtly sounds like a prescription of where our society should move in the long run. Hence we must not accuse Haidt either of these two sorts of prescriptions. I respond to them nonetheless.

I like neither. The stages of evolution wherein the super-organism would replace the organism as the unit of selection would seem to some to suggest that human clans were slowly becoming the new evolutionary unit. Clans tend to solve the free-rider problem and a few more problems too. So does money and money indeed does a far better job. I doubt that evolution via DNA is our destiny, but we will probably not escape Darwin’s evolution. I find no more particular predictions about the future convincing.