Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind (Penguin, 2012) ***½

American cultural and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" has become a standard in moral and political psychology. Haidt describes how - in the context of politcal thought and morality - judgments are made intuitively, with reason serving as the rationale to describe our judgment 'a posteriori', and not the other way round. We only appear to be rational beings when judging, in reality our judgment is made on the basis of a number of personal, emotional and group influences.

He gives a lot of examples of psychological tests in which the participants gave justifications for their behaviour afterwards, not based on reason. He explains that our social world is "Glauconian", named after the brother of Plato, who argued that people behave morally or just, only because they are kept in check by the social group to which they belong, by appearances and reputation.

Haidt guides us through the implications of cultural bias to assess morality, and he explains how we need to expand our typically liberal view of morality with the broader moral base that many cultures across the world have.

He breaks them down into five categories
  1. the Care/Harm foundation
  2. the Faith/Cheating foundation
  3. the Loyalty/Betrayal foundation
  4. the Authority/Subversion foundation
  5. the Sanctity/Degradation foundation

... in which the first two are typically the strongest among liberal voters and the latter three more dominant among conservative voters. If you want to know where you are positioned, you can do the test yourself on his website.

Here are my test results, high scores on care and fairness, low scores on loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.

But of course that's not the point of the book, even if every participant adds new data to his survey. Haidt's insights and approach shed some light on how our world functions today. Indeed, the question of moral choices is one of everyday politics and debates. Understanding why choices are made, and understanding the dynamics behind them are critical. What he does not do in the book is to dig a level deeper, namely to assess the psychology of the people who make these moral choices. Are there any common traits among these five foundations (insecurity, fear, dominance, control, ...).

One aspect of Haidt's approach is that it predicted the chances of Trump to win the presidential election. For the simple reason that all democrats always have a discourse that is focused on care and fairness, yet it totally ignores the three other foundational elements. The Republican party has invested more in topics such as loyalty to "our country", to "our religion", to "our sexual ethics", etc.

Food for thought ...

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