Julyan Davey
Musings on Life, Philosophy and Technology

Notes on 'The Righteous Mind'

Here’s some more book notes where Jonathan Haidt attempts to explain our moral, religious and political intuitions.

The Righteous Mind Cover

Part 1: Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second

Central Metaphor: The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant.

The rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

Chapter 1: Where Does Morality Come From?

Nativist Answer - Morality is innate.

Empiricist Answer - Morality comes from childhood learning.

The Rationalist Answer - Morality is self-constructed by children on the basis of their experiences with harm.

Kids know that harm is wrong because they hate to be harmed, and they gradually come to see that it is therefore wrong to harm others, which leads them to understand fairness and eventually justice.

Concludes that instead:

  • Moral domain varies by culture.

  • People have gut feelings - particularly about disgust and disrespect- that drive their reasoning.

  • Moral reasoning is sometimes a post hock fabrication.

  • Morality can’t be entirely self-constructed by children based on their growing understanding of harm.

  • Cultural learning or guidance must play a larger role than rationalist theories had given it.

Morality can be innate (as a set of evolved intuitions) and learned (as children learn to apply those intuitions within a particular culture)

We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.

Chapter 2: The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail

People reason and people have moral intuitions but what is the relationship among these processes?

Plato - Reason could and should be the master.

Jefferson - Two processes equal partners.

Head and Heart ruling a divided empire.

Hume - Reason the servant of the passions.

Haidt things that that Hume is right.

  • Mind divided into two parts: rider (controlled processes) and an elephant (automatic processes)
    • The Rider evolved to serve the elephant.
  • Rider serving elephant can be seen when people are morally dumbfounded.
    • Strong gut feelings but struggle to construct post hoc justifications for feelings.
  • Social Intuitionist Model - Starts with Hume’s model but makes it more social.
    • Moral Reasoning is part of our life-long struggle to win friends and influence people.
    • Moral Reasoning not done alone. And not to figure out the truth.

If you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue. Talk to the elephant first.

Chapter 3: Elephants Rule

Evidence to Support: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

  • Brains evaluate instantly and constantly (Wundt and Zajonc).

  • Social and political judgements depend heavily on quick intuitive flashes.

  • Our bodily states sometimes influence our moral judgements. Bad smells and tastes can make people more judgemental.

  • Psychopaths reason but don’t feel (and are severely morally deficient).

  • Babies feel but don’t reason (and have the beginnings of morality).

  • Affective reactions are in the right place at the right time in the brain.

Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning. Especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie or news story.

When we see or hear things other people do, the elephant beings to lean immediately. The rider, who is always trying to anticipate the elephant’s next move, begins looking around for a way to support such a move.

Haidt’s Example:

  1. Wife reprimanded him for leaving dirty dishes on the counter.
  2. Honestly believed that he was innocent.
  3. Immediately sent reasoning forth to defend him.
  4. It came back with an effective legal brief in 3 seconds.

Chapter 4: Vote for Me (Here’s Why)

Moral thinking is more like a candidate searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.

  • We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us, although much of the concern is unconscious and invisible to us.

  • Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.

  • With the help of our press secretary, we are able to lie and cheat often, and then cover it up so effectively that we convince even ourselves.

  • Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach.

  • In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish.

  • We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team.

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 doesn’t exist.

Urges a more intuitionist approach to morality and moral education.

  • Be more humble about the abilities of individuals.

  • More attuned to the context and social systems that enable people to think and act well. (e.g. science)

Part 2: There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness

Central Metaphor: The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.

Chapter 5: Beyond WEIRD Morality

People who grow up in Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies are statistical outliers.

The WEIRDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects rather than relationships.

Moral pluralism is true descriptively. The moral domain varies across cultures.

Moral domain unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures. Where it is limited to ethics of autonomy (i.e. individuals oppressing each other)

Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices.

A small set of innate and universal moral foundations can be used to construct a great variety of moral matrices.

Chapter 6: Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind

Morality is like taste in many ways.

Deontology and utilitarianism are “one-receptor” moralities that are likely to appeal most strongly to people who are high on systematizing and low on empathizing.

Hume’s pluralist, sentimentalist and naturalist approach to ethics.

Five good candidates for taste receptors:

  1. Care
  2. Fairness
  3. Loyalty
  4. Authority
  5. Sanctity

Chapter 7: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Defines innateness as “organized in advance of experience” - like the first draft of a book. Revised as individuals grow up within diverse cultures.

The Care/harm foundation

  • Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children.

  • Makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need. It makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.

Fairness/cheating foundation

  • Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of co-operation without being exploited.

  • Makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good/bad partner for collaboration or reciprocal altruism.

  • Makes us want to punish or shun cheaters.

Loyalty/betrayal foundation

  • Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions.

  • Makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player.

  • We trust and reward such people. But want to hurt those who betray us or our group.

Sanctity/degradation foundation

  • Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma.

  • Then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites.

The left relies primarily on care and fairness foundations. Whereas the right uses all five.

Chapter 8: The Conservative Advantage

Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats. Republicans speak more directly to the elephant.

Durkheimian vision of society. In which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual. And in which order, hierarchy and tradition are heavily valued.

Contrasted with the liberal Millian vision, which is more open and individualistic.

Revisions to Moral Foundations Theory to do a better job of explaining intuitions about liberty and fairness.

Adds the Liberty/oppression foundation

  • Makes people notice and resent any sign of attempted domination.

  • Triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.

  • Supports Both the egalitarianism/anti-authoritarianism of the left AND give-me-liberty conservatives.

Modifies Fairness foundation to focus more strongly on proportionality.

  • Most people have a deep intuitive concern for the law of karma.

Democrats often say that Republicans have duped these people into voting against their economic self-interest. But in fact they are voting for their moral interests.

They don’t want their nation to devote itself primarily to the care of victims and the pursuit of social justice.

Part 3: Morality Binds and Blinds

Central Metaphor - We are 90% Chimp and 10% Bee.

Chapter 9: Why are we So Groupish?

Darwin believed that morality was an adaption that evolved by natural selection operating at the individual level AND at the group level.

Tribes with more virtuous members replaced tribes with more selfish members.

But idea banished with argument that the free rider problem dooms group selection. Seemingly altruistic acts had to be explained as covert forms of selfishness.

But actually: natural selection works at multiple levels simultaneously.

Multi-level selection would go a long way to explaining why people are simultaneously so selfish and so groupish.

Four arguments:

1. Major transitions produce super organisms.
  • History of Life on Earth shows repeated examples of “major transitions”.

  • Free rider problem muted at one level of the biological hierarchy, larger and more powerful vehicles arise at the next level up.

2. Shared intentionality generates moral matrices
  • Rubicon crossing that let our ancestors function so well in groups was the ability to share intentions and other mental representations.
3. Genes and cultures co-evolve.
  • People created new customs, norms and intuitions that altered the degree to which many groupish traits were adaptive.

  • Gene-culture co-evolution gave us a set of tribal instincts: we love to mark group membership.

4. Evolution can be fast.
  • Human evolution did not stop or slow down 50,000 years ago. It sped up.

  • Gene-culture co-evolution reached a fever pitch during the last 12,000 years.

Haidt still argues that most of human nature was shaped by natural selection operating at the level of the individual. Most - but not all.

Chapter 10: The Hive Switch

When Haidt started writing The Happiness Hypothesis (his first book): he thought happiness came from within. As Buddha and the Stoic philosophers said thousands of years ago.

But by the time he had finished writing he realized that happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.

We evolved to live in groups. Our minds are designed not only to help us win the competition within our groups but also to help us unite to win competitions against other groups.

Hive hypothesis: Human beings are conditional hive creatures.

We have the ability (under certain circumstances) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves.

This ability is the Hive Switch.

Another way of stating Durkheim’s idea that we are Homo Duplex. We live most of our lives in the ordinary (profane) world, but we achieve our greatest joys in those brief moments of transit to the sacred work. In which we become “simply a part of the whole”.

Three common ways the hive switch is flipped:

  1. Awe in nature
  2. Durkheimian drugs
  3. Raves

Oxytocin and Mirror neurons are the stuff of which the hive switch is made:

  1. Oxytocin - “cuddle hormone” - bonds people to their groups.

  2. Mirror Neurons - Helps people empathise with others but particularly those that share their moral matrix.

We are not designed to love everybody. Just parochial love -love within groups- amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate and the suppression of free riders.

Chapter 11: Religion is a Team Sport

If you think about religions as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it.

You’ll see those beliefs as foolish delusions, perhaps even s parasites that exploit our brains for their own benefit.

But if you take a Durkheimian approach to religion (focusing on belonging) and a Darwinian approach to morality (involving multilevel selection), you get a very different picture.

Religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousands of years.

That binding involves some blinding when a person, book or principle is declared sacred.

Our ability to believe in supernatural agents from:

  • hypersensitive agency detection device - we find agents everywhere.

But groups that used them to construct moral communities were the ones that lasted and prospered. They used their gods to elicit sacrifice and commitment from members. Helped to suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness within the group.

Chapter 12: Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?

People don’t adopt their ideologies at random, or by soaking up whatever ideas are around them.

People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety and diversity while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals.

They tend to develop certain “characteristic adaptations” and “life narratives” that make them resonate with the left narrative.

Once people join a political team, they are ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere.

Liberals might have more difficulty understanding conservatives that the other way round because of their limited moral matrices.

Liberals often have more difficulty seeing moral capital. Which he defines as the resources that sustain a moral community.

Liberals and conservatives are like yin and yang. Both are necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.

Liberals are experts in care. They are better able to see the victims of existing social arrangements and they continually push to update those arrangements and invent new ones.

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” - Robert F. Kennedy

Liberals make two points profoundly important for the health of a society:

  1. governments can and should restrain corporate super organisms.
  2. some big problems can be solved by regulation

Libertarians are right that markets are miraculous (at least when their externalities and other failures can be addressed.)

Social conservatives are right that you don’t help the bees by destroying the hive.

Increasing Manichaeism of American political life. (More War less co-operation)

Morality binds and blinds.

It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle.

It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.