19 Nov 2018                     home

More from Jonathan Haidt

I've looked again at Jonathan Haidt to understand better the author of the Righteous Mind, a book that I described couple of days ago. Haidt is a social psychologist and has a lecture on YouTube titled "The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives" — a TED lecture. (TED posts talks online under the slogan "ideas worth spreading.")

Haidt says the worst idea in all of psychology is that our mind at birth is a blank slate. He claims that biological evolution (genetics) has programmed our brain to some extent with empathy, the inclination to reciprocate and to feel in-group loyalty — in other words, mental formations "not depend that much on experience." But the programming doesn't stamp out these characteristics in uniform amounts. And, of course, experiences after birth are of some influence. Differences emerge between peoples of different cultures. (All this I suppose we can say is the fruit of energies of neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists and their interviews. I didn't include genetics because the basic subject is politics and I don't know of any connections scientists have made between genetics and political choice. The best they can do is associate certain chemicals acting on the brain with some kind of change in behavior). But I appreciate that Haidt's work is at least basically empirical. Social scientists do the best they can, and we can be thankful when they don't overreach.

Jonathan Haidt's spoke with wit. The YouTube presentation is only about a fifteen minutes long, and its light. His audience laughs a lot.

Regarding in-group loyalty, Haidt speakings of humans joining together in large groups – groups that have fought other groups (outsiders). And within the large group that makes up our social world are liberals and conservatives who tend to differ regarding openness or lack of it. Liberals tend to be more open-minded. They are more inclined to celebrate diversity. Conservatives tend to be more closed, more into following established rules or norms, more into purity (not just about female sexuality). The political right may moralize more about sex while the political left is showing more concerned about purity regarding food.

Liberals are more concerned with fairness. That, if I may interject, is because of the unfairness that came with the industrial revolution and the liberal challenge to authority. Liberals, says Haidt, do not connect authority with morality so much as conservatives do. Conservatives tend to be more obsessed with loyalty.

Liberals want authorities to "Keep [their] laws off [their] body." Traditional authority and traditional morality they think can be quite repressive. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.

Conservatives, on the other hand, "speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom." Haidt adds that "The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It's really precious, and it's really easy to lose."

Haidt seems to be on the side of optimism — traditionally the side of the liberals and socialists as opposed to the pessimism of the authority-oriented conservative Thomas Hobbes (1588-1675). Haidt wants everybody to get along (unlike Karl Marx, who was optimistic but favored class warfare.) Haidt says that "liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute." This seems to be the message of his book "The Righteous Mind." He would like both sides spending their talent and energy in their "passonate commitment to the truth" and trying to make "a better future for us all."

A "passionate commitment to truth" is expecting much, would you not say? However good many of us are and however much we may want social and material progress, I wonder whether we should expect rationalization and fantasy to continue as dominant force.

On YouTube, Haidt's speech can be found here.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.