Saturday, May 11, 2013

When both are right, but not all right

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, social psychology, morality

"Our God's better than your god!" That is the hidden motto of many religions. Substitute the word "candidate" for "god", and you have the basis of political parties, at least in "democratic" nations. This also demonstrates that Atheism and New Atheism are religions, with the over-individualized Self substituted for a Deity.

I have belonged to a number of clubs and groups over the years, in addition to my church. Whether it is a stamp collecting club, the Boy Scouts, or Toastmasters, every group has a similar structure, whether official or not: a large number of "members" and a small number of "leaders". Usually the "leaders" group is supported by a middling number of devotees, for whom, I have observed, the group is their "church"; they are its fanatical evangelists.

"No Man is an Island" is not just a nice poem or song. It expresses that humans are not just a "social animal". Nearly all of us are obsessively groupish. Yet we are also selfish, which leads to trouble with our groups. Biologists and psychologists don't like to admit it, but this tension must have an evolutionary basis.

Once in a while a book comes along that explains so much, it seems to explain everything. Jonathan Haidt's new book seems to come close: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Dr. Haidt's thesis is straightforward, as in the preface he states that "…an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition." (p xiii). He uses two great analogies throughout:
  • Elephant and Rider – The Elephant is our intuition or "gut reaction". The Rider is our reason. As any howdah knows, the rider serves the elephant. Thus, the first section of the book has the subtitle Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. We primarily use reason to justify our beliefs, not to determine what they ought to be.
  • Taste Buds – Through research, he and his colleagues have identified six "Moral Foundations" (more on them later) that shape our attitudes toward events, and the kinds of reactions we will have, including the kinds of groups we choose to adhere to.
The author calls Plato's idealized Philosopher-King a "rationalist delusion", and demonstrates that the notion of "Philosophers Behaving Badly" (the title of a book by Rodgers and Thompson) is well supported by both casual observation and detailed research. In PBB we find, for example, that Bertrand Russell was called "Dirty Bertie" by those who knew him, and with good reason. In The Righteous Mind, the author calls upon research that shows philosophers are really a cut below "the common man", probably because their education has made them experts at rationalization. And in truth, a foray into the "Ring of Gyges" story in The Republic shows that we value a good reputation much more than actually being good.

Late in the book Dr. Haidt makes a strong case in favor of group selection, or multi-level selection, which is disparaged by many biologists, but without it, the theory of natural selection is too weak to explain relationships among social animals (and most are!). Among primates, humans are the most social, even compared to Bonobos. We are ultrasocial (the author's synonym for eusocial, but allowing for a much broader range of expression and cognition than found in eusocial insects such as bees or termites). Even a complete psychopath cares about reputation, if only to be (initially) attractive to victims. I'll leave it to you to read his 4-pronged defense of multilevel selection and how it supports grouping behavior.

I am much more taken by the statement that we are 90% Chimp and 10% Bee. Chimpanzees are quite social, but also very selfish, to a level akin to psychopathy in humans. Not having language, their only method of resolving disputes is physical force, somewhat modified by a group's dominance hierarchy. I recall reading an account of New Guinea tribesmen meeting in the forest. They spend a few minutes discussing their relatives, to determine if perhaps they are related to each other, and thus not duty bound to fight to the death. I believe language arose to facilitate such negotiations. Those who can talk and live will outbreed those who instantly fight and thus are more likely to die.

So, OK, we can talk, we can negotiate. Favor based on relatedness is understandable from an evolutionary viewpoint. But how about a Crip meeting a Blood in downtown Los Angeles? If they negotiate at all, it is to determine if some kind of truce is there, otherwise they fight. A Crip meeting another Crip "out of uniform" (not wearing gang insignia) may chastise him, but no deadly fight ensues. Yet they are probably not related. Individual selection cannot explain this.

Dr. Haidt frequently invokes Emile Durkheim, who seems to have "got it right", that humans live on two levels. Our Chimpish selfishness rules much of our daily activity. When we are with a group we belong to, however, we are driven by the need for good reputation. But there is more. Groups all have rituals, and participating in them often triggers a "hive switch". Under its influence, we become more Beeish (hivish?), ready to propagate the group, defend the group, and possibly kill or die for it. A threat to the group can also trigger the hive switch. For many Americans, the 9/11 attacks did so. Dr. Haidt, a proud liberal, found himself wanting to wear a flag pin on his lapel (he didn't, but he wanted to).

Group activities, whether "team building" games at a company retreat or the rites of a church, trigger the hive switch and foster powerful, and very enjoyable, feelings of group unity and connectedness. Thus we read on page 257 that "…the very practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship." It is not yet proven that this is a direct product of evolution, but I suspect it will be found to be so.

In the second section of the book, the motto is There's more to morality than harm and fairness. Looked at in a simple way, American Liberals seem to be motivated primarily by the desire to "help the helpless" and to promote "fairness", while American Conservatives care more about tradition. A deeper look led the author to discover the six moral "taste buds", which he also calls Moral Foundations, and to consider their origin and present expression:
  • Care/Harm - evolved to motivate child care. Now it underlies the Welfare State and all kinds of "white knight syndrome".
  • Fairness/Cheating - evolved to permit coordination and cooperation and reduce exploitation. Now Liberals exhort us to "soak the rich" and overtax them (further than we already do).
  • Liberty/Oppression - evolved in response to bullying. Now underlies opposition to all kinds of societal restrictions as "oppression", and supports rebels against Authority (see below).
  • Loyalty/Betrayal - evolved to support forming coalitions. Now it is the Circle the Wagons response to every question, legitimate or not.
  • Authority/Subversion - evolved to regulate hierarchies. Now it tends toward Fascist overcontrol, or reacts into "Off the Pig" rebellion.
  • Sanctity/Degradation - evolved to prevent poisoning (chemical or bacterial). Now disgust is used to condemn everything your political faction disagrees with (but be sure to circle the wagons if "your guy" is accused of any kind of degradation).
In 1972 I went to a Republican rally for President Richard Nixon, where he spoke. We were really revved up. Everybody's hive switch clicked full on! Within two years, I was mad as hell and deeply disappointed. He betrayed us all. If Bob Woodward was correct in All the President's Men, Nixon deeply despised the law and its restrictions. Nixon had nobody to write a book in his defense, at least not right away, but his later "rehabilitation" was based on some good things he had done (like opening relations with China), and did not address the Watergate matters, so "his side" was apparently no side. He remains a betrayer in my mind…or, perhaps, actually, in my heart.

This chart was prepared rather early on, when only 5 of the 6 moral taste buds had been chosen. It is found on p 161. The political Left relies for moral guidance on Care and on Fairness, with little regard (or active contempt) for Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity. The political Right relies more equally on all the taste buds. Later the Liberty/Oppression Foundation was split out from the Fairness/Cheating Foundation. Liberty has been found to trend with Care.

Note that, as befits those of a traditionalist mindset, among Conservatives the Authority Foundation is slightly the strongest. I took the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ) found at, and found that I rely on all the Foundations about equally.

Political partisanship and religion are discussed most fully in the third section, with the motto Morality binds and blinds. It is actually in this part that the hive switch is introduced and discussed in detail. It operates to temporarily overcome the effects of our WEIRD socialization: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic as we are throughout the West. In less WEIRD societies, collective tendencies are more pronounced, and the hive switch is even more effective at eliciting group feelings. Although, it is hard to imagine a greater example of hivish activity than we see in a sports stadium. This is the Bind part.

Those who are the WEIRDest tend to see the trees and not the forest. The author was fully of this mindset until a few months in India opened his eyes to a different kind of socialization. Outside the West, relationships trump individual "self determination". They may have something there. For example, most of my friends from India have had arranged marriages, where total family compatibility is an important part of choosing marriage partners, a matter much too important to entrust to the young "eligibles". They do tend to have stable and happy marriages, more so than here.

I find it interesting that the chart above has seven gradations of Left to Right. I have noted elsewhere that such gradations tend to correspond to a statistical standard deviation, and that differences greater than 2 standard deviations (2 sigma) render people mutually incomprehensible. This is the Blind part. The Left is at best indifferent to Loyalty and Authority, and openly disdainful of Sanctity. The lesser reliance on Care, Fairness and Liberty by the Right induces the Left to disparage them as "heartless" or even "cruel". And both ends hate the Moderates in the middle, even though the central three categories describe 90% of Americans.

I think it is clear that Conservatives are in better balance. They do not neglect any of the Foundations. It is a realistic stance. I also note that this study did not result in Dr. Haidt's becoming conservative. That would be going too far! But he is now a rare Liberal, being at least somewhat sympathetic and understanding of conservative motives. He probably remains an atheist also, though he disparages the New Atheists, who are actually anti-God (only Nontheists are genuinely indifferent to whether a god may exist).

Yet he records the results of a study of communes (Sosis, R. and E. R. Bressler, 2003. "Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion." Cross-Cultural Research 37:211-239) in which it was found that 6% of secular communes had lasted 20 years or more, compared to 39 percent of religious communes. And he quotes another study (Robert Putnam and David Campbell, 2010, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us):
By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.
We can compare this with the Biblical book of Judges. Twice in the book we find, "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes", written in connection with some horrifying story of anarchy and chaos. Three other places in the Bible we find injunctions against doing "right in your own eyes."

All this just skates over the surface of a wonderful book. We are moral because morality is needed to succeed as a species. A final statement by the author sums it up: "Morality is, in large part, and evolved response to the free rider problem." (in a note on p 349)

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