Table of Contents:
- a. The Care/Harm Module
- b. The Fairness/Cheating Module
- c. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module
- d. The Authority/Subversion Module
- e. The Liberty/Oppression Module
- f. The Sanctity Module
- a. Leftist and Rightist Personality Traits
- b. Leftist and Rightist Views of Human Nature
The old saying goes that we are never to discuss religion or politics in polite company. These topics are singled out of course because they tend to be the two that people are most passionate about, and which therefore have the greatest potential to cause enmity and strife. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the fact that we disagree over politics and religion is not necessarily such a bad thing. For him, though, the current wrangling between political and religious (and non-religious) factions has gotten rather out of hand, as it has recently reached such a pitch in the West (and particularly in America where Haidt resides) as to be threatening the very fabric of our nations.
Now, according to Haidt, at least some of the enmity and strife between people of different political and religious stripes is caused by a failure to understand precisely where these beliefs ultimately come from—as well as a failure to understand how one’s opponents understand their own beliefs. In an effort to remedy this situation, and to bring a degree of civility back into the ongoing debate, Haidt sets out to supply just these understandings in his new book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’.
According to Haidt, understanding political and religious beliefs begins with an understanding of the human moral sense as it was laid down by evolution over the past several million years. For Haidt, the moral sense actually consists of (at least) six moral modules, each of which evolved to answer a specific challenge that our ancestors faced in the environment in which our species evolved. Briefly, the six moral modules are 1. The Care/Harm Module; 2. The Fairness/Cheating Module; 3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module; 4. The Authority/Subversion Module; 5. The Sanctity/Degradation Module; and 6. The Liberty/Oppression Module.
While all of us come prewired with the six moral modules, each of them stands to be either amplified or quieted as well as somewhat modified by a host of internal and external factors. The internal factors include our personality and its development, while the external factors include the environment in which we are raised (including our cultural milieu), and the particular experiences that we have—the latter of which help to shape, among other things, our view of human nature, which itself influences our view of what a good society consists in. It is these internal and external factors—which differ for all of us—that explain the plurality of moral and political views and ideologies across cultures, as well as within the same culture across individuals.
In addition to the six moral modules, Haidt maintains that human beings have also evolved an overlay of group-oriented sentiment or ‘groupishness’ sometime in the past 140,000 years, and as recently as in the past 10,000 years. This ‘groupishness’, Haidt claims, not only explains some of our moral and political sentiments, but also helps explain our attraction to religion, and other group-oriented pursuits, such as our fondness for teams, clubs and other such organizations. While our groupishness is particularly adept at binding us to the organizations of which we are a part, it also sets us against those who are a part of opposing groups, and makes it especially difficult for us to identify with them and to appreciate their point of view. The end result is that people not only have opposing viewpoints when it comes to morality, politics and religion, but they are often even unable to appreciate (or truly understand) the viewpoints of their rivals—hence why politics and religion are such flashpoint topics.
For Haidt, though, once we come to understand where our political and religious views are ultimately coming from, it should be easier for us to appreciate the views of our opponents, which should help us to see that they may in fact have something to offer to the debate. And indeed, when it comes to politics, Haidt maintains that both the left and the right do have something to contribute to the matter, and that the best solution to the political problem requires borrowing insights from both sides.
What follows is a full executive summary of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.
According to Haidt, understanding politics and religion must begin with an understanding of the human moral sense. As a first step in this direction Haidt provides the following definition of moral systems: “moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interests and make cooperative societies possible” (loc. 4752). As you will recognize, this is a functionalist definition of moral systems, in that it focuses in on the role, or function that moral systems play in society. Any society must tackle the issue of how disparate individuals with separate (and often conflicting) goals can live together, and cooperate in such a way as to allow everyone the opportunity to satisfy their needs, and moral values and systems are just the tools that we use in order to achieve this.
Now, when it comes to human behaviour (including our moral behaviour), social scientists for much of the twentieth century thought that it is entirely a matter of nurture (that is, learning and enculturation), and that our nature (our genetic heritage) really has nothing to do with it. As Haidt explains it, “the prevailing view among anthropologists had long been that evolution got our species to the point of becoming bipedal, tool-using, large-brained creatures, but once we developed the capacity for culture, biological evolution stopped, or at least became irrelevant. Culture is so powerful that it can cause humans to behave in ways that override whatever ancient instincts we share with other primates” (loc. 2247). In the latter half of the twentieith century, though, and particularly in the past 20 years, this blank-slate view of human nature has largely been discredited, as the body of evidence has continued to build in favour of the idea that our genes do in fact have much to say about our behaviour. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of social scientists now appreciate that both nature and nurture have a role to play in shaping our behaviour.
Haidt (borrowing an analogy supplied by the neuroscientist Gary Marcus) describes the situation thus: “the brain”, out of which behaviour stems, “is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter—be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality—consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words” (loc. 2389). Elsewhere, the author writes that “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience’” (loc. 2392).
Of course, when it comes to any given behavioural phenomenon, the presence and nature of the prewiring cannot simply be taken for granted. Rather, it must be firmly and scientifically established. When it comes to our moral sense, there are several bits of evidence that help demonstrate that it does in fact have a basis in our biology, and that also help us to recreate the precise nature of this biological backing.
One of the biggest hints that our moral sense does in fact have a biological backing is the fact that our moral judgments are largely a matter of intuition, rather than conscious reasoning. Indeed, Haidt spends the entire first part of his book guiding the reader through the large body of evidence in support of this rather counter-intuitive notion. There, Haidt argues that we are constantly evaluating information as it filters into our brains, and that this evaluation process is driven by ancient psychological mechanisms that function automatically, unconsciously, and in the blink of an eye (loc. 1178). Our moral judgements, like our judgments of virtually all things, are largely guided by these evaluative mechanisms (loc. 932-41).
Here is a ‘Dateline’ segment on how these evaluative mechanisms play into a very controversial issue: racism.
The Implicit Association Test is not only used to measure unconscious perceptions with regards to race, but a whole host of other issues as well. To take the IAT test with regards to any of these issues (including race) visit the following website: http://projectimplicit.org/index.html
The rational stories that we tell ourselves and others about why we find certain things and actions objectionable do not drive our moral judgements. Rather, they are largely post hoc (after-the-fact) fabrications meant to make sense of our intuitions, and to convince others to think like we do: “we do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment” (loc. 918). This was a skill that became particularly important to us when we developed language and started gossiping about one another (loc. 955), which at least partly explains why our capacity to reason evolved in the first place (loc. 947-52).
*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles