Wednesday 17 October 2012

Fixed opinions?

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane, 2012)

Nature and nurture have long been sparring partners in the intellectual boxing ring where battles over the formulation of religious, social and political ideas are fought. Do the arguments in this book give any clear, irrefutable guidance as to how we should place our bets in the contest between them?

Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist who has been on the faculty of the University of Virginia since 1995, and is currently a visiting professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He believes that the clue as to why people hold their particular beliefs - and why other people disagree with them - is because our minds are designed to be moral. Morality influences all aspects of our behaviour, and human beings are hard-wired to be moralistic, judgemental and self-righteous. Human nature is neither selfish nor altruistic: instead, our tribal nature draws us into moral communities, and our intrinsic morality explains why some are conservative, others liberal. Haidt then goes on to examine how morality evolves, and why we are predisposed to believe certain things. He examines the effect of our surroundings on morality, and argues that moral values are not only about justice and fairness but also authority, sanctity and loyalty.

For reasons of convenience — if for no other — Haidt’s arguments seem attractive, a significant, and simplifying, key to the formation of beliefs and why they cause conflict, with the seeming virulence of contemporary culture wars adding an extra impulse to adopt them. However, there are problems with his analysis.

First, Haidt believes that morality is a matter of gut feelings, with reason being used to justify instinctive moral judgements. But is this always the case? Probably no-one would deny that moral judgements can be used in support of — or be formed by— prejudices. (For instance, some critics of modern architecture have tried to justify their views by linking the building of high-rise council estates with the onset of social breakdown, conveniently forgetting that low-rise ones have not exactly been problem-free nirvanas: such critics have lacked the courage to criticise modern architecture on the ground of it being visually unattractive, so have adopted morality as a smokescreen for their views.) But other than saying that neither nature nor nurture can be held entirely responsible for human actions and beliefs it is, arguably, precipitate —to put it mildly — to assert that there will ever be a final answer in this necessary, on-going quest about which of the n-factors is the decisive one. (This is not to assert that the quest for a final answer is futile, only to suggest that most conclusions on the matter will be provisional, based on a balance of probabilities.) Could it be instead that we are hard-wired for belief in something, with morality stemming from our beliefs? Additionally, Haidt is in danger of being hoist on his own petard, with his arguments being seen as merely formulated to back-up his prejudices rather than proceeding from an objective inductive process.

Second, Haidt believes that the moral mind has equivalents of the human tongue’s taste receptors, and that there are more conservative receptors that liberal ones. People who have been brought-up in societies which are Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic (WEIRD, for short) are more individualistic and will adopt left-wing morality, whereas in other societies, or within religious groupings, there will be a wider range of moral receptors which will find conservative morality more attractive. But this raises the question as to how, if this is the case, WElRDness ever became established in the first place against the pull of traditional beliefs and lifestyles. The answer would seem to be that reason trumped instinct, knocking away —at least partially — Haidt’s assertions about gut feeling and morality.

Third, Haidt supports Durkheim’s view that the function of religious beliefs and practices is to create a sense of belonging. But is Durkheim right? If any old belief system will do as a comfort-blanket of community-based, group-strengthening morality, why do people go to the trouble of undertaking any form of religious conversion, with all the problems this can cause? In the nineteenth century, during the early years of the Oxford Movement, Newman underwent agonies - scarcely comprehensible to the modern mind — as to whether Anglicanism came negatively under Augustine’s judgement about church disunity that ‘Wherefore, the entire world judges with security that they are not good who separate themselves from the entire world’. Intellectual conviction that it did led to Newman transferring his allegiance from Canterbury for Rome, but at an excruciating emotional cost. But, in his decision, intellectual force came before emotion. Yes, one could say that he was simply choosing between two sets of powerful emotions but that is, arguably, stretching the point beyond the bounds of elasticity. When it comes to a change of religion or politics, the words — and power — of Keynes’ alleged comment ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ hover with merciless insistence.

But these criticisms do not detract from the book’s positive aspects. In describing his research methodology, Haidt adopts a style that seems over-detailed and almost breathless, combining a plodding, ‘What I did in my holidays’ school-pupil essay mode with the perky informality of a prime-time television chat show host. However, this over-egging of the evidential pudding is understandable: he wishes to outgun any opponents with as much factual ammunition as possible because he doubtless knows that to even consider, let alone write, the view that conservative morality has a certain validity, is to risk ostracism from a powerful section of the academic community (and few people want to consider that the origins of their cherished beliefs could reduced to the same instinctual level as basic human impulses). In stating his beliefs, Haidt gives an impressive demonstration of intellectual courage.

But it is the concluding part of the book - where Haidt examines what the adherents of the left and of the right can bring to the common table of beliefs that can help society - function effectively - that contains its most important conclusions. The former believe governments should stand up for the public interests against corporations that distort markets and impose themselves on people who are least able to assert themselves, and tht some problems can be solved by government regulation. On the right, libertarians maintain the need for freedom against an over-powerful state, while conservatives recognize a need for tradition and boundaries to give society a sense of order without which it can descend into chaos. Here - doubtless conscious of the danger that he could be seen as advocating an intellectual free-for-all - Haidt is careful to disassociate his views from any support for relativism. He quotes Sir Isaiah Berlin’s rejection of the relativist position and endorses the philosopher’s aspiration that, within a plurality of views, he would wish to understand why a person who holds differing values from his own does so.

And this leads to Haidt’s final - and arguably, most valuable - point. The increasing Manichaeism of American politics encourages him to seek ways of clarifying, and thus civilising, the political and social debates taking place in his country today. He wants his readers to understand - in the sense of comprehend (rather than empathise with) - moral, social and political views that differ from theirs. But this aspiration has a wider application than the field of American politics, and stating it is the main value of the book. There can be no effective debate without comprehending an opponent’s point of view, an illumination of the ideas behind the conflicts fought by the ‘ignorant armies’ of Arnold’s Dover Beach. A simple, and some might say obvious, point to make. But it’s what makes the book worth reading - along with it prompting us to consider its themes even if some of our conclusions differ from those of its author.


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