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Morality binds and blinds

6 pages
From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 10 issue 4 : 714-719.
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Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net2012. 10(4): 714719
Book Review
Morality Binds and Blinds A review of Jonathan Haidt,Mind: Why Good People are Divided byThe Righteous Politics and Religion. Pantheon Books: New York, 2012, 448 pp., US$28.95, ISBN # 978 0307377906 (hardcover). John Klasios, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Email:jhosaoi.nlkmocmg@s.lia
Every so often a book is published which helps to connect the dots and provide a synoptic overview of some topic of inquiry, whereby what was once understood in a disjointed fashion suddenly becomes a coherent and intuitively understood wholeas if by experiencing a sudden Gestalt switch. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’sThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religionis one such book. Stylistically and pedagogically, the approach taken in the book by Haidt parallels some of its main messages. Haidt points to the evidence within social psychology and reasoning psychology which demonstrates that humans possess a rueful knack for being more than a bit impervious to reason and evidence that aims to convince them that they hold false or inaccurate beliefs. Among the evidence adduced along the way is the confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Perhaps the lesserknown of the two, motivated reasoning occurs whenever individuals deploy their reasoning either to concoct a justification in favor of some belief they possess, or to counter an assertion or argument presented against one of those very beliefs. In connection with these findings from the literature, Haidt draws attention to the provocative thesis recently advanced by Mercier and Sperber (2011), wherein they argue that the best explanation of the collective findings within the social and reasoning psychology literatures is that human reasoning, as deployed in social contexts, evolved not so much as a means of ascertaining truthful propositions, but rather as a way of winning argumentsway of persuading others. Perhaps relatedly, the character of Glauconas a from Plato’sepRliubc used to convey a fundamental motive of humans in the moral is sphere: toappear and virtuous in the eyes of others, without necessarily actually moral beingvirtuous. Both the Glauconian thesis and the one advanced by Mercier andmoral and Sperber will perhaps not be too surprising to those of an especially evolutionarybent reading Haidt’s book.Given this rather bleak picture of human reasoning, the author declares his intention to first attempt at persuading the reader by speaking directly to his or hertnahepel, the
Morality binds and blinds
metaphorical standin which he uses to refer to the intuitive and affective aspects of our cognitive makeup. It is also these aspects which he thinks are ultimately what exert the predominant influence on us so far as our moral psychology is concerned. Haidt con cedes, rather pessimistically, that if his tactics of persuasion cannot succeed at this level then the followup arguments are quite likely to fall on proverbial deaf ears. Indeed, Haidt seems to believe it when he says that humans are primarily guided by their intuitions in the fixation of their beliefs. Lest Haidt’sview sounds like it paints too bleak a picture of human reasoning, it should be noted that he does believe that processes of rational deliberation can play a role in belief fixation, as well as reasonedinput from others in one’s social milieu. One of his more optimistic messages, therefore, is that the pursuit of truth is within our capacity, but only insofar as a community of reasoners is able to recursively vet each other’s reasoning a condition which is seemingly best exemplified by scientific communities. The central views bestriding the field of moral psychology throughout the latter part of last century are briefly sketched by Haidt near the outset of the book, namely the Piagetian and Kohlbergian views. But rather than giving a dry, extended technical overview of these paradigms, Haidt weaves the explication of their central tenets around his own explorations of moral psychology, beginning with his days as a graduate student. His exposure to the ethnographic work of Richard Shweder had lead him to eventually research the moral psychology of individuals living in India, an experience which would ultimately leave an indelible mark both on how Haidt came to see our moral psychology and on himself personally. The rest of Haidt’s personal story leads to the central argument that the rationalist view of humans’ moral psychology—Plato and as developed in thewith roots in field of moral psychology by Kohlberg and his proponentsis radically incomplete. In its place, Haidt makes the case for hismoral foundations theory. According to this view, which is a keystone piece around which many of the other themes running throughout the book revolve, morality is more than what rationalists like Plato and Kohlberg have made it out to be. Rather, Haidt argues that the rationalist picture of moral psychology generally only picks out two broad foundations of a larger complex which features at least threeand probably fourothers. These six moral foundations are given the names care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. For instance, the liberty/oppression foundation, as its nomenclature suggests, is sensitive to moral transgressions which curtail or oppress the liberty of some individual or group, whereas placing more weight on the welfare of individuals in a foreign nation is likely to activate the loyalty/betrayal foundationthe latter foundation being one that conservatives score much higher on than liberals. Indeed, one of Haidt’s central contentions in the book, backed up by the empirical evidence he and colleagues have gathered, is that liberals primarily make use of only three of these moral foundationscare/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppressionwhereas conservatives utilize all six. Moreover, the crossnational data gathered by Haidt and his colleagues show that this patterned divide between liberals and conservatives remains consistent no matter which country one looks at. Along these lines, earlier work by Haidt found that upperclass individuals in Brazilian cities distinguished moral violations from conventional violations/taboos more like upperclass individuals in Philadelphia, whereas
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their workingclass compatriots tended to make n o such distinctionthat is, saw outright moral violations as on a par with violations of a conventional sort. Thus, distinguishing moral violations from taboos appears to crosscut cultures, at least in the case of the upper class subjects examined in Haidt’s work.Comprising one of the central themes of the book, Haidt makes the case that moral psychology has come to reveal human moralizing as primarily driven by intuitive processesa picture which mirrors the verdict with respect to our reasoning more generally. According to thesocial intuitionist modeldeveloped by Haidt, intuitive cognitive processes precede the more overt, conscious deliberations that are traditionally held to be the hallmark of moral reasoning. Before formally introducing this model, however, Haidt begins by tracing out how his own thinking gradually evolved into the model as it is presented in the book. Three contrasting views of the relation between moral reasoning, on the one hand, and intuitions and emotions, on the other, are presented: the Platonic/rationalist view, the Humean sentimentalist view, and the Jeffersonian dual process view. Although Haidt at one stage acceded to the Jeffersonian dualprocess view, he ultimately came to abandon it in favor of Hume’s view.Evidence is marshalled to support the view that, rather than human moral psychology being directed by cool, calculated, offline deliberation via the higher rational facultiesthe Platonic viewand contra it being shaped conjunctively by both reason and the passionsthe Jeffersonian viewit rather appears, according to Haidt, that we start with moral judgments infused by intuitive flashes, with which our controlled reasoning then proceeds to concoct ex post facto rationalizations for. Undergirding Haidt’s mfoundations theory is an explicit endorsement oforal evolutionary psychology’s modularity—specifically the construal proffered by Sperber and Hirschfeld (2004). In conjunction with this construal of modularity, Haidt also cites the treatment of developmental neurogenetics presented by Marcus (2004), utilizingMarcus’ terse definition of nativism as organized in advance of experience. Broadly speaking, Haidt takes the view that the six moral foundations are modules inhering within our cognitive architecture. These broadly construed modules are simultaneously taken to be malleable in response to a wide array of cultural, social, and other factors, yet malleable in relatively specific, constrained, systematic, and organized waysways which presumably have been adaptively crafted by natural selection. Of course, this review is not the place to partake in an extended and indepth analysis of Haidt’s modular framework, or cognitive modularity more generally, but his corpus of work on moral foundations theory and other topics is definitely evolutionarypsychological in character, and unashamedly so. The final part of the book looks at the groupish psychology of humans more generally, and religion more specifically. The principle underlying this part of the book is thatmorality binds and blinds. Roughly speaking, Haidt takes human groupishness and moral psychology to have evolved chiefly to bind humans into ingroups. And it is within these ingroups that rituals, norms, and customsinter aliafacilitate group cohesion and solidarity for the purposes of competing with rival outgroups. As has been pointed out by others (e.g., de Waal, 2006) one of our most noble psychological dimensions, namely morality, has its provenance in an evolutionary history of intergroup conflict. That said, however, one should be cautious before necessarily conflating the underlying evolved
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psychological aspects of our moral impulses with morality as it perhaps ought to be defined as (Kitcher, 2006). It is also at this point of the book where arguably the most controversial of Haidt’s theses makes its entrance, namely that humans have been shaped to some nonnegligible extent by group selection, and that religion may possibly be an adaptation (perhaps, for instance, an adaptation characterized by cultural complexes interfacing with an underlying cognitive basis, forged jointly by geneculture coevolutionary processes). It is important to take note, however, that Haidt is simply raising the possibility and not reaching any definitive conclusions. Relatedly, his contention that humans are, metaphorically speaking, 90 percent chimp and 10 percent beethat is, have been shaped partly by group selectionbe viewed skeptically by many. That said, whether humans havewill obviously or have not been shaped by group selectionso, the extent to which they haveand if beenremains an empirical question. At a minimum, much of the controversy at the theoretical level has seemingly overlooked the fact that gene selection/inclusive fitness and group selection/multilevel selection are equivalent formulations (e.g., Sterelny and Griffiths, 1999, pp. 151179; Wilson, 2012a, 2012b; Okasha, 2008). The question of religion, too, still remains an open question. For instance, and in line with Haidt’s suggestion that it may be an adaptation, recent arguments have been advanced in favor of a framework that is both adaptationist and pluralisticincorporating explanatory elements such as spandrels and cultural group selection, inter alia (e.g., Atran and Henrich, 2010; Powell and Clarke, 2012). This third section of the book also integrates the other two main principles comprising the organizing themes of the first two sections. According to Haidt, our well documented foibles of reasoning are especially evident with respect to those beliefs which individuals take to be sacredi.e., religious, political. If one follows the sacrednessthat is, ascertains what an individual or group holds to be a sacred value, cause, precept, is likely that they will discover where an individual or group becomes blind to any reasons or counterevidence that speak against that which is sacralized. As Haidt puts it:  Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the  other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around  sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they  are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common  sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. If  you want to understand another group,follow the sacredness. (pp. 311312) Apart from the obvious relevance that the book has to human political cognition and behaviorwhich is especially apropos given the polarized nature of the current political climate in the United Statesmany of its central messages will also be applicable to academic and scientific discourse. As Haidt (2012) has made salient elsewhere, social psychologists, for instance, and social scientists more generally, may collectively as a group be inadvertently or advertently discriminating against conservative colleagues in ways which conform to the tribalistic moral psychology he has outlined. Indeed, a recent survey of social psychologists found them to be overwhelmingly socially liberal, but more
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Morality binds and blinds
to the point many openly conceded that they would likely discriminate in various ways against conservative colleagues (Inbar and Lammers, 2012). Such a finding certainly supports Haidt’s contention that social psychologyif not academia more broadlycan be a hostile climate for conservatives (the outgroup). Alarmingly, Inbar and Lammers found that more than one out of three of their respondents would discriminate against conservative colleagues when making hiring decisions, which indicates that major personnel decisions occurring within the field of social psychology are being executed in a discriminatory fashion. The pervasive manner in which individuals form tribal moral communities that sacralize certain values (e.g., egalitarianism) may also seemingly explain why certain topics and lines of investigation in the human sciences are met with such strong resistancee.g., adaptationism applied to human psychology, sex differences, race differences. These resistances may very well be the manifestations of an underlying moral psychology sculpted by natural selection, a psychology that enabled our ancestors to form moral teams that perceived the world in terms of an idiosyncratic moral matrix, and who circled around the sacred values and objects of the tribeat once delineating the ingroup and juxtaposing it against all others. Haidt’s book is an important, eyeopening work of synthesis that is as broad as it is topical, and for which it should deservingly gain a wide and interdisciplinary readership.ReferencesAtran, S., and Henrich, J. (2010). The Evolution of Religion: How cognitive byproducts, adaptive learning heuristics, ritual displays, and group competition generate deep commitments to prosocial religions.Biological Theory: Integrating Development, Evolution, and Cognition, 5(1), 1830. De Waal, F. (2006). Morally evolved: Primate social instincts, human morality, and the rise and fall of "Veneer Theory". In S. Macedo, and J. Ober (Eds.),Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved(pp. 182). Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Haidt, J. (2012, February 5). Postpartisan social psychology. Retrieved from Inbar, Y., and Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 496503. Kitcher, P. (2006). Ethics and evolution: How to get here from there. In S. Macedo, and J. Ober (Eds.),Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved(pp. 120139). Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Marcus, G. F. (2004).The birth of the mind: How a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. New York: Basic books. Mercier, H., and Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory.Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 57111. Okasha, S. (2008). Units and levels of selection. In S. Sarkar, and A. Plutynski (Eds.),A Companion to the philosophy of biology(pp. 138156).Oxford: Blackwell. Powell, R., and Clarke, S. (2012). Religion as an evolutionary byproduct: A critique of the
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standard model.British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 63(3), 457486. Sperber, D., and Hirschfeld, L. (2004). The cognitive foundations of cultural stability and diversity.Trends in Cognitive Science,8, 4046. Sterelny, K., and Griffiths, P. E. (1999).Sex and death: An introduction to philosophy of biology. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press. Wilson, D. S. (2012a, May 29). Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and the consensus of the many. Retrieved from Wilson, D. S. (2012b, July 12). Clash of paradigms. Retrieved from
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