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Posts Tagged ‘psychopaths’


In light of the upcoming election (and numerous debates connected to Covid-19) I decided it was time to read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. I will break up my review into 3 parts corresponding to the three parts of the book. As a result, I won’t go into great detail but will focus on what stands out to me.

Haidt writes well. While he is discussing developments in philosophy and psychology, particularly moral psychology, it is not boring. It is largely his story as he entered the field at a critical time and made significant contributions to the discipline. I think he strikes a good balance between enough detail to be meaningful and not so much that it becomes incomprehensible to “laypeople” in that field. He does a good job of defining terms so the uninitiated can follow the argument sufficiently.

What is interesting to me is how often he talks about evolution. Haidt comes from a materialist worldview. He recognizes the place of religion in the life of individuals and cultures but ties all that in to morality as an evolutionary process. I think his conclusions still have validity, despite his evolutionary presuppositions. He holds to some innate ideas and morality, but posits them in evolution instead of the imago dei. There is also a place for nurture in moral development. We are not tabula rasa, nor are we fully programmed and unchangeable. In light of his commitment to evolution it is ironic to me to see him say we are “born to be righteous.” His worldview doesn’t really explain why we aren’t actually righteous. He assigns his conclusion to evolution, not sinfulness. From my perspective he’s observing the darkened and futile mind of Romans 1 at work. He thinks we created gods to order our societies, not to explain the universe (pp. 13). I see Genesis 1 a bit differently.

“But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.”

He wrote this book in 2012, and compares the news about politics to the riots after the Rodney King riots- helicopters showing us disturbance and trauma. In the intervening years, the polarization has only increased. We’ve seen 3 summers of riots since he wrote this.

Chidi struggled to teach Eleanor moral philosophy

His goal is to take us on a tour of human nature and history through the lens of moral philosophy. He will also show us why our attempts to discuss politics and religion often produce vexation instead of unity. “Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral philosophy” as he notes. He is essentially writing three interrelated books that address three principles of moral philosophy, as he sees it.

The first section develops the first moral principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. In light of this principle he offers a metaphor with intuition as an elephant and reason as the rider. In his metaphor, the rider is a servant to the elephant rather than controlling the elephant, using it to serve his goals.

I think the metaphor breaks down in that respect. Someone rides an elephant to make it his or her servant, not to serve it. I get his point, and will try to explain it, but he sees that the rider (reason) evolved to serve the interests of the elephant. I will admit that while I’ve ridden on an elephant years ago, I’m not sure how much you actually control said elephant. It is rather like Chidi attempting to help Eleanor become a more moral person. He’s serving her but can’t control her. And if these people aren’t familiar to you, you may want to watch The Good Place.

He begins by asking where morality comes from. He takes the reader through a short history of ideas on this subject. There of course is nature (nativist) either through creation or evolution (he mentions both) and nurture (empiricism). So there is discussion of John Locke, and Jean Piaget who had a “self-constructed morality”. Both came from a rationalistic perspective. He summaries this in terms of not instructing children about morality but letting them play to discover it. He puts it this way:

“And if you want your kids to learn about the social world, let them play with other kids and resolve disputes; don’t lecture them about the Ten Commandments. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t force them to obey God or their teachers or you. This will only freeze them at the conventional level.”

Fear not, he’s only discussing implications of other theorists and not his own conclusion. You are on a tour thru history, remember. He continues with Kohlberg and Elliot Turiel’s development. They discovered that as they age children can discern between moral rules and social conventions. The former prevent harm. Not all rules are treated the same way. But this did not satisfy a young Haidt. He decided to check this across cultures and classes after studying some cultural psychology.

“This was my first hint that morality often involves tension within the group linked to competition between different groups.”

He delves into the differences between sociocentric societies and individualistic societies. This is the question of whether the group or the individual matter more. Western cultures, due to the Enlightenment, focus on the needs of the individual. Most other cultures place the well-being of the group as the priority, and this shaped the answers he received. Kohlberg and Turiel came from and tested individualistic societies. In sociocentric cultures, social convention can take on the force of moral rules because the group is at stake, not just the individual. In other word, Haidt learned that we often “invent victims” to justify our moral positions. The moral view (this is right or wrong) comes first, and then we try to justify that view based on the reason we then provide which focus on who could possibly be hurt. He concludes the first chapter this way:

“We were born to be righteous, but we have to learn, exactly, what people like us should be righteous about.”

The Rationalist Delusion

Haidt begins with Hume to explain that the emotional or intuitive dogs wags the rational tale. We sense a rightness or wrongness, and then use reason to justify our intuition. We don’t reason ourselves into moral positions. He brings Stephen Pinker (briefly) and Edward O. Wilson into the story. Antonio Demasio studied people with particular brain injuries. Those with full reasoning faculties but impaired emotions struggled to make decisions. They lacked moral judgment. Pure reason cannot make up its mind. For Haidt this showed that reason was a servant of the emotions.

Enter Harold Margolis who identified two types of reasoning processes: “see-that” and “reasoning-why”. “Seeing-that” was intuitive. We can begin to see the Intuitive-Thinking polarity in the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, though he doesn’t go there. Reasoning-why only happens in creatures with higher functions requiring language. But intuition kicks the whole thing off. Emotions, therefore, are a form of reasoning.

At this point I struggled with the circular reasoning (from my perspective). If “reasoning-why” requires higher functioning dependent on language, how can language develop apart from the existence of higher functioning. It is a question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. A person with higher functioning can create a new language, but it corresponds to an existing language they already know. This is similar to a Science Friday discussion about how human brains burn up so much energy. We need to cook food to get enough nutrients to support higher function, yet without said higher function how can we decide/discover to cook food? Why are we the only creature to cook food? This is where I stumble over evolutionary presuppositions.

Haidt did develop a model that I think, at this point, is helpful. Haidt notes that we generally reason after forming a judgment based on intuition. We also try to reason with people instead of actually connecting to their intuitions, as if they were rational which they aren’t.

This sounds quite presuppositional to me. In moral discussions we want to “trigger” new intuitions. For instance (my example, and so maybe I’m wrong) pro-life people need to consistently affirm concern for the health and well-being of the mother. We want to add the well-being and safety of the child as a person to the pro-choice person’s intuition. If we focus on the safety of the child we simply have conflicting intuitions that lead to vexation. We need to talk to the elephant, not the rider!

In this context, he thinks Dale Carnagie got it right. “Pastors” like Joel Osteen influence so many because they are generally likeable, appealing to your intuition (greed is good- not). Unfortunately they (in my opinion) influence so many in the wrong way. Peer pressure works because it addresses intuition indirectly: I want to be liked and if I don’t change my view I won’t be liked.

He then explains why elephants rule beginning with a study he did with Thalia Wheatley. She used hypnosis to implant code words into subjects. When their code word was in the story they got a flash of negativity. They asked the subjects to write a sentence to explain their answer. “These subjects made up absurd answers to justify judgments that they had made on the basis of gut feelings- feelings Thalia had implanted with hypnosis.” Our brains are constantly evaluating information and forming judgments.

“The second process- thinking- is an evolutionary newer ability, rooted in language and not closely related to motivation.”

Other studies including politically loaded words indicate that “part of what it means to be partisan is that you have acquired the right set of intuitive reactions to hundreds of words and phrased.” Your elephant leans a particular way so that you affirm concepts associate with your tribe, and deny that which is associated with the other tribe. For instance, two politicians or public figures can say essentially the same thing and you’ll affirm what the guy on “your side” says, and reject what the other guys says. This explains what some talk radio people have called Bush (or Trump) Derangement System. And your response is your elephant leaning left or right when you read that.

“The bottom line is that human minds, like animal minds, are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive and basing their responses on those reactions.”

Psychopaths are people who lack a moral compass. They lack a moral compass because they lack particular emotions. They “live in a world of objects.” They are unmoved by the needs of others, and the only concerned for self. Babies on the other hand feel but don’t reason, yet exhibit the beginnings of morality.

“Elephants rule, but they are neither dumb nor despotic. Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie or news story.”

Vote for Me

Politics is basically the appeal to people’s elephants. They reach people’s intuition through emotions. This is why they often sell fear, as does the media. Haidt brings us to Plato’s Republic where Glaucon implies people are good because they are afraid of getting caught. Sounds a bit like the Devil in Job. Where there is cooperation in a city between the divisions of labor, people work for the common good, and suffer when one segment suffers. Socrates takes this to justify the rule by the philosophers since they alone will seek what is good. Plug in elites and you have America. If only people like us would listen to the experts, all would be well. Or so the argument goes.

When people are accountable they generally do what is right. When they think they are above accountability, or can get away with it, they will do wrong. Haidt depends on Phil Tetlock here. People, particularly politicians, maintain an image. Reality isn’t quite as important. People vote (or won’t vote) for your public image, not who you really are.

Tetlock also broke our rationalizations down into “exploratory thought” and “confirmatory thought”. The former considers alternative points of view. The latter is an attempt to rationalize our point of view. We only engage in exploratory thought when we are forced to. Most of the time we engage in confirmatory thought. We are like politicians looking for votes. Our reason is our press secretary justifying all our actions. Schools, these days, don’t teach people to think but just select the ones best able to make the best arguments based on a higher IQ.

Into this he brings Tom Gilovich who differentiated between “Can I believe it?” and “Must I believe it?”. When we want to believe something we ask the first question. When we don’t want to believe something we ask the second. But then we tend to search for contrary rather than positive evidence.

“If people can literally see what they want to see- give a bit of ambiguity- is it any wonder that scientific studies often fail to persuade the general public?”

It isn’t so much that people are making decisions based on self-interest. Haidt notes that people care about their groups, their tribes. Your group can be racial, regional, religious or political but you will tend to see things in their favor. Our political opinions tend to function like membership badges. We vote to prosper those in our most-favored group status. Partisan people find stimulus in affirming the groups views, and negative reinforcement if they think outside the box. We can become like rats on dopamine- we become addicted to politics, and political views. We should question our ability to reason, especially when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.

“Our politics is groupish, not selfish.”

Intellectual and ideological diversity are incredibly important as a result. This is increasingly absent from college campuses. The refusal of political parties to work together means that public policy suffers from ideological extremes. But our elephants seek their group, and avoid the other tribe to the detriment of the whole.

What he doesn’t account for in this first section is the power of cognitive dissonance. Some people end up changing their views because the dissonance gets to be too great. It drives them to exploratory thought, and all bets are off.

Obviously he doesn’t think people never change their minds. Plenty of kids go to college and change them plenty. Some people shift political views as they enter their 40s or 50s. We’ll see how he approaches these in the sections to come.

 

 

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