The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s the Righteous Mind, at a time that I was considering adding an extra dimension to my blog about my experiences growing up in a super conservative, evangelical family. I was partly inspired to do this by Tara Westover’s fabulous work “educated” about her experiences growing in a fundamentalist mormon family.

The Righteous mind outlines the basics of moral psychology and the differences between those who identify on the political right and those on the political left. It provides an interesting, modern critique of pure reason and society’s obsession with it.

Humans are not rational and rely on intuitions followed by post-hoc rationalisation, Haidt argues. The book goes on to provide a scaffold to potentially reducing misunderstanding and miscommunication across partisan divides. Haidt argues that there are six foundations to morality and liberals and conservatives give emphasis to different ones. This is based on the work that he and other researchers have been carrying out in this areas since the 1990s.

I found it’s defence of intuition and arguments against reason enlightening and thought provoking, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in morality, religion, politics and the division they cause. I would also strongly recommend it to anyone teaching International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge.

It reminded me of the following resources that I have used in teaching TOK:

The following are quotes from the book that I enjoyed.

Page 6 1. Where does Morality come from?

“In other words the understanding of the conservation of volume wasn’t innate, and it wasn’t learned from adults. Kids figure it out for themselves, but only when their minds are ready and  they are given the right kids of experience.” Comment – Piaget’s reasoning makes sense but his studies were only of small children. If he was right surely mankind would have figured out the laws of the universe much sooner. His model cant apply in all adult learning and is inefficient.”

” If you want kids to learn about the social world…don’t force them to obey God or their teachers or you. That will only freeze them at the conventional level.”

I felt this one above provides some clue into understanding members of my family….that’s another story.

“These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning to support their emotional reactions.”

This is a good reminder of the difference between exploratory and confirmatory reasoning. I would argue that an important part of education is concerned with trying to help others develop ways to consider arguments from multiple perspectives.

The intuitive dog and its rational tail

“The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal”.

Many christians will claim that something is wrong because God says it is wrong. Evangelicals claim supreme knowledge – they just know. I have been having arguments, with my siblings, about our faith and Brexit, that can be summed up by this quote.

“Yet moral judgements are not subjective statements; they are claims that somebody did something wrong. I can’t call for the community to punish you simply because I don’t like what you are doing. I have to point to something outside of my own preferences, and that pointing is moral reasoning”

All too often, people I regularly engage in discussion with, are making judgements and not offering anything more than their subjective preferences and they think that that is OK. Many Christians I know interpret the bible in whatever way pleases them at the time.

“The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favour, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.”

“But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephants leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments”.

“The first principle of moral psychology is intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

“If thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in these dry and easy cases, then what chance is there that people with think in an open-minded, exploratory way when self-interest, social identity and strong emotions makes them want or even need to reach a pre-ordained conclusion”

“The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.”

“As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion”.

“Expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behaviour, and it might make it worse….Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason….motivated reasoning (confirmatory reasoning vs exploratory)….depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people”.

“How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favoured view? Yet, in fact, its very hard and nobody has found a way to do it.”

“Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgements, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of an individuals ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neurone. A neurone is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire an impulse along its axon.”

“I concluded by warning that the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist.”

“The ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights”.

“The Authority foundation, as I describe it, is borrowed directly from Fiske. It is more complex that the other foundations because its modules must look in two directions – up towards superiors and down towards subordinates”

Her Haidt provides an argument in support for the traditional teacher student relationships but also for leadership.

“Emphasising differences makes many people more racist, not less”

This quote reminds me of my twitter discussion with Alom Shah. I picked up on a statement he made about “all white people” and was promptly ridiculed by several of his followers. I still think that it is unhelpful to draw such lines in discussions of race. At the very least the work of Haidt shows that it is self defeating. If you are trying to reduce racism, you need to reduce division.

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