Rant against The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, I got to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I was disappointed by the general quality of the book, the style of reasoning and the somewhat surprising conclusions the author draws from them.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, he discusses the type of people he thinks are more susceptible to liberal ideas. As examples he takes great thinkers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume and John Stuart Mill.

He says in the book that the liberal thinkers among them tended to be recluses with some anti-social tendencies.
In order to support this somewhat strange point of his he talks about how these people had few friends, had odd routines and about their dysfunctional or somewhat abnormal personal relations.

He then goes on to analyse the liberal thinkers'(John S Mill and Kant) personalities in light of his interesting Moral Foundations Theory that posits that the human moral system is founded on a few basic concepts that supposedly have their roots in basic human psychology.

According to this theory, these foundations are :-

  1. Care/Harm foundation
  2. Justice/Fairness
  3. Sanctity/Purity
  4. Loyalty
  5. Respect of authority

He thinks that conservatives and conservative thinkers depend on all these foundations “evenly”(whatever that is supposed to mean!) to make moral decisions. Whereas, liberals depend overwhelmingly on the first two to make their moral choices.

At this point the book starts to get really weird. He says that the moral foundations are like taste buds and that moral systems exhibit so much diversity because of the infinite ways in which these “tastes” can be combined to create “cuisines”.

Then, he jumps from this to his follow-on conclusion that because liberals depend on fewer “tastes” to stimulate their moral sensibilities they are less broad-minded than conservatives!! (WTF moment!) Please read the above sentence once more. I wanted to make it all caps. Because, that is how it appeared to me when I read it. It was like a giant big flashing red sign telling me that somewhere something went horribly wrong….

Hmmm…. So, turns out conservatives are more broad-minded when compared to liberals because they crave for and appreciate a more “varied (moral) diet”.

So, the liberal thinkers who made such astounding and paradigm changing contributions to human welfare by suggesting ways of removing fundamental blocks to it in our law, social and political organization and personal behavior and who have had a fundamental impact on our collective well- being in addition to providing the basic concepts that underpin the most sophisticated, peaceful and developed social systems in the world are apparently narrow-minded people because they don’t have as many moral taste-buds!! hahaha

He bolsters his case by talking about how Kant was such a loner and a strange character. He then comes up with a clever experiment. He rates people on a spectrum of qualities at the far end of which lies characteristics that indicate possible autism. He then measures the degree to which their attitudes are liberal and discovers that people who tend more towards autistic qualities are more liberal than the “normal” people.

There is a hidden implication here. The overall point of all these specious arguments, cherry-picking of facts and flawed experiments is to somehow justify his apparent “enlightenment”(more on that later) and awakening to the value of conservatism and his unstated conclusion that liberal attitudes don’t fit with “human-nature”(TM).

This is wrong on so many levels that one feels a little pity for this dude for having spent so much time on confusing himself so thoroughly. It might be true that loners who don’t spend as much time partying and hanging out with friends are more liberal. But, did he ask why? Is it because there are some neurological differences in their brains that make them susceptible to moral deviances and deficiencies or is there something about the typical lifestyle of such a person that causes them to dump conservatism?

Isn’t it likely that people with a scholarly personality will be reading a lot more stuff, spending more time thinking about things and observing others from a distance? Isn’t it possible that the consequent higher level of intellectual development and detached perspective is what causes them to realize that the purpose of human morals is human well-being and not “tasty moral cuisines”(hahaha, what a stupid fucking idea!!) and causes them to be economical with moral principles that make them more judgmental?

Extending this line of reasoning, isn’t it possible that the differences in attitudes of “normal” people and liberals might not be caused primarily by their personalities. That might be only a distal cause. The proximal cause might be the kind of universalist thinking and hunger for other perspectives that reading and thinking can generate in a person. So, if “normal” people with 10s of girlfriends and 1000s of Facebook friends and a party schedule that is limited by his/her liver capacity were somehow encouraged to read and think a lot what would happen?

He never asks these kinds of questions. Instead he just says that Kant and Mill were probably a little weird. But, he is careful to point out that he doesn’t hold that against their conclusions. That would be an ad-hominem attack. And that would be wrong(tut-tut). But… you get the idea! If you are a liberal, you are probably an odd-ball who doesn’t have many friends and is going to get divorced.

Again, he doesn’t fully explore this line of thinking. He just casts aspersions on some great thinkers, makes a half-hearted attempt at ameliorating the rape of logic and then leaves it at that, leaving the reader to fume and rage over it. So, let us examine the conservative thinkers then!

Let us look at the Popes, all the amazing Pastors, God-men, catholic-priests, saints, religious thinkers and conservative philosophers. Let us look at how successful their marriages were and how many friends they had and how few children they abused and how few women they have tortured and killed and how well they can dance the Salsa! Let us do that and see how they stack up against Kant and Mill. If you do that you will also conclude that what the author had was probably not an “enlightenment”.

Equivalence of moral systems

Since all moral systems are basically just a random combination of his moral foundations, all of them are according to him about equivalent. He never makes an attempt to see if the moral systems are tied to social conditions, economic and technological development and average levels of violence and strife in the society. He never tries to discern the overall drift of all moral systems and in which direction they are all headed.

He fails to appreciate the fact that the greatest advances in human happiness were caused by the abolition of slavery, feminism, recognition of child rights, secularism, democracy, rise of individualism and science – all of which are liberal concepts. These are also things that are spreading the world-over and which most societies are striving-for with higher levels of economic development acting as a symbiotic agent. What is happening here is not the rejection of 3/5ths of human morality(as the author would have us believe).

It is a growing realization that the first two moral foundations have the veto over the other ones.

You should not respect authority that asks you to rape and kill.

You should not be loyal to your teammates to the point that you don’t mind their cruelty to others.

You should not be so obedient that you will go out and kill someone if your dad asks you to.

You should not beat your kids because your religious text asks you to.

You should not abuse your spouse because he/she is not traditional or obedient.

Our moral feelings have a survival value. But, they are also open to exploitation and erroneous firing. The only way to protect ourselves against our own survival instincts is by recognizing the primacy of reason and justice.

He talks about how in India, the unit of social organization is the family and community and how that is so prevalent in most parts of the world(he doesn’t mention that most of those parts are also seriously underdeveloped) as compared to western individualism which is sort of rare(but kind of common in all the developed countries). He doesn’t write much about how women and children suffer under these social systems, how the country has been crippled by casteism and communal thinking and how the idea of sanctity and tradition has atrophied the intellectual growth and cultural renewal of our country.

He doesn’t make a single attempt at trying to answer one critical question. What is the fucking purpose of morals!!?? In your mind you are always thinking, “Please, please answer that!” If you read his book the idea you get is that morals are supposed to be complex and tasty and that liberal morals are just plain boring.

Morality as an end in itself

The author claims that he was a liberal who was suddenly “enlightened” and came to the realization that he was superior to both liberals and conservatives. He gives his acceptance of the moral equivalence of both attitudes as a proof for it.

But, does he say anything to convince us of this equivalence. He narrates some anecdotal incidents which alternately show the folly of both liberal and conservative solutions for particular problems. So, he goes like, “Yeah, so, you see, both liberals and conservatives are occasionally wrong and here I am like a wise old grand-dad watching the little kids squabble over gay-rights and freedom-of-speech. Tch-tch, if only they just sat back and enjoyed each other’s moral cuisines!”. And you feel like punching him in his face for being such a pretentious little prick.

Liberals are only 2/5ths as moral as conservatives

What he fails to analyse in detail is the relative priority of the foundations. Liberals don’t let the last 3 foundations effect their judgement if it contradicts the first 2. This does not mean that they are disloyal, indecent or disrespectful. It simply means that they appreciate that things are not black and white and that at times they will need to go against authority, appear indecent and break away from their groups if that is what is required to be just and compassionate. In short, their morals might be more subtle and complex than it is given credit for in the book.

It is not like liberals don’t like football or other such team sports which are so enjoyable mainly because of the team-spirit and cohesion it creates in the players.

It does not mean that they randomly break laws. Science is considered to be one of the most disciplined professions.

It does not mean that they are incapable of learning from the past or respecting tradition. After all, the most famous liberals are also some of the most erudite people.

So, when he says that conservatives are broad-minded because they consider all foundations on an equal footing, I think that he has got it ass-side-up.

Science and reason fail to appreciate the moral complexity of humans?

He routinely drops lines like, “yeah, so scientists have failed” and “rationality has failed at grasping human nature” etc. etc.. And you are like, “How did this guy get a PhD!?”.

The fundamental idea of science is that humans are fallible and that their individual judgements are of limited value when trying to ascertain facts and truths and coming up with theories to account for them. Science is precisely the solution to the vagaries of human cognition. And whatever our failings, we have to give ourselves credit for coming up with something that has worked so well!

Now, here is this guy saying that science, logic and reason doesn’t work for clarifying moral dilemmas because people just “know” that some things are wrong! They can’t give reasons for it. Obviously, you too think that they are wrong! And you can’t give reasons for it. So, hence we can prove that reasons are useless when it comes to morals.

He fails to appreciate that you can find somethings distasteful but don’t see the need for it to be banned for others or for it to be made an offense that is punishable. What you like or don’t like is different from what you consider to be morally wrong.

Liberals have a ready standard for separating what is wrong from what is merely distasteful. For example, if I were asked his “trick” question,” Is it ok to have sex with your dead chicken before eating it?”. I would probably be shocked for a second thinking why anyone would want to do that. Then, I would instantly say no. Then I would think about it for a bit more and then say, “Hey, I can’t see why you would want to do it. But, I don’t think it is a wrong thing. So, no one should stop you from doing it.”

Now, he says that some people would just say no to it. It is easy to see why. It is obviously a disgusting thing for some people, myself included. So, I can be forgiven if I just say no to it. If I think like that I am probably a conservative. But, nothing has been proved here, mind you. Reason has not been defeated here. What has been proved here is that some people don’t want to follow the lines of reasoning to their logical conclusion and are quite satisfied with giving an answer from their gut.

What he is hoping for here is that people will get confused by his own muddled thinking and conclude that reason is useless when it comes to deciding what is morally wrong and what isn’t.

If he thinks that people just know some things to be wrong regardless of their conditioning or social or intellectual background, then maybe he should have asked this question to jews and muslims.

“Hey, what do you think of me cutting-off a piece of my newborn baby’s penis(circumcision)?”. They would say, “Great Idea! Do you want me to do it?”. But, a mother who has never heard of this practice will probably take a shotgun and take off your head with it if you went anywhere near her baby’s penis with a knife.

So, as you can see, exposure and culture are strong factors in deciding what people consider right and wrong. This might not be anything innate. And it certainly doesn’t prove that reason can’t help refine social practices. For example, circumcision is just plain silliness. Female circumcision is nothing short of a crime against an innocent child. Yet, many conservatives intuitively “know” it to be the right thing to do. People who refuse to consider justice and harm to an innocent child over tradition, sanctity and deference to authority cannot be placed on a level with people who consider fairness and compassion to be of primary importance.

More on his “experiments with disgusting questions”

His experiments with these questions are just plain retarded. If I were asked whether I would want to eat the shit of a particular civet which has been fed coffee beans(Kopi Luwak), I would say no to it. Because, I am not used to it. Now, there are people who pay thousands of dollars for this thing because it is a delicacy.

So, you can see that I don’t want to consume it. But, if it were safe for human consumption, I wouldn’t support any motion to get it banned.

Just like that some actions might not be agreeable to me. But, I will not have them banned for everyone.

But, conservatives don’t want anyone to do the things they think are wrong and the things they consider to be wrong are determined more by dogma and tradition than by reason. And this is where the problem lies. He doesn’t address this issue at all in the book.

In fact, he goes one step further and aggravates the problem further by seeking to justify this kind of insular thinking by attributing such feelings to certain moral foundations. He says, “See this is why people think that way. It is human nature.”.

“Yeah, so what? “. Racism is human nature too. Violence is human nature. Rape is human nature. Murder is human nature. Theft is human nature. Stupidity is human nature. What exactly does that prove? These tendencies might have evolved in response to certain factors in the pre-historic environment of our ancestors. But, that doesn’t justify anything. And, we are certainly capable of recognising these tendencies for what they are. Unacceptable manifestations of primal instincts that need to controlled at any cost. Except maybe murder which is ok during war( I am not sure, actually, about this).

The moral foundations theory doesn’t make social conservatism appealing. It merely explains it in a slightly different and I must add, dumbed-down/scientifically shallow way.

Polarization of political debates

This is the only part that you can read without getting a headache. But, this idea has been dealt with by many other authors and I didn’t think that this book’s treatment of the problem of growing polarization and partisanship in politics was in any way extraordinary.

His ideas on how common ground can be found between people of opposing view points and on the art of convincing people are interesting, but they are neither original nor exceptionally well-presented.

There is a very strong correlation between liberalism and factors like scientific aptitude, awareness and erudition. Social conservatism thrives in an environment that dulls the above factors. What this book has done is merely explain what is already known about this phenomenon in terms of fundamental human tendencies along with claiming that social conservatism is fine because it is human nature.

Well, the real question that one is left with after reading the book is……..

“Am I a narrow-minded liberal or a broad-minded conservative!?”

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Religions and morals

A lot of people harbor a deep suspicion of atheism and atheists. I was recently reminded of this while reading an article on how admitting that one is an atheist would badly effect his/her chances when running for a public office.

This has always struck me as a rather strange phenomenon and I have often wondered why someone would fear/doubt an atheist more than a guy who believes in God. Religious institutions have done a very good job of convincing a lot of people that all the morals required for a person to participate peacefully in the process that society is comes solely from them.

The business of giving advice

It is definitely an easy thing to do. The various institutions which exist in the name of religion and spirituality are more than happy to tell you that everything there is to know and understand about human morality has already been made clear to them through the word of God. Moreover they are willing to interpret these words in the light of the various dogmas they bandy about to tell you what you should do. In return for a sufficient amount of money of course.

But, are they doing a good job of it? I mean, when you pay them to tell you what you should do with your lives you are certainly not acting like an adult. But, at the very least you have the right to expect some value for your money. Right? Maybe a more important and perhaps basic question is whether they really are capable of doing the job they claim belongs to them, well.

Is the business based on a sound product?

I have tried a lot to put aside my very profound disagreement with religion, the kind of philosophy that drives it and the conclusions it arrives at. Most of my problems with it stem from the fact that I have a very strong passion for truth and a belief that it has some intrinsic value which is worth significant sacrifices. Not a lot of people nowadays claim that the religious texts are literally true simply because they look more and more ridiculous with the passage of time. The defense of religion nowadays finds its material in the problem of the source of human morality and the need for psychological comfort and support in times of distress and depression.

If you are going to claim that you already have with you everything required to make an informed decision about such a complex and subtle problem as morals then will you be open to asking deeper questions and critically looking at your own suggestions?

Secondly, given the fact that almost every religious book is full of contradictions, how do you go about choosing which directions to follow, which stories to take in their literal sense, which ones are metaphorical etc. etc.. People in the know say that you have to use your “common sense” or if you feel like you are not up to it leave the questions to the people “qualified” to do it. If it is possible to twist the sometimes incoherent and ambiguous texts into something that YOU THINK sounds right, then what really is the role of the text? Can’t you arrive at the same conclusions by yourself or better still through a wider consultation among people with different perspectives? Going one step further, aren’t these texts of dubious sources and doubtful intentions a force constraining when it comes to reasoning out deep and confusing questions?

Thirdly and this where hints of my problem with religion based philosophy not regarding truth with the value it deserves starts becoming apparent. If you are going to go around saying that somehow you know better than everyone else how everyone should act, then you either be ready to battle the world with your wits or if you are too lazy for that claim the backing of some authority that everyone respects and fears.

You know what everyone fears, respects and bows to!? Yep, you guessed it right! It is the UNKNOWN! Something you are told you cannot understand, control or communicate with yet possesses total and absolute power over you. A lot of people have traced the origins of supernatural thinking to holes in man’s understanding of the world. Though it is an ever shrinking one, it will always be there and it will always have some power over our lives. But, some people have succeeded in assigning an anthropomorphic personality to it and claiming its backing for their actions and words.

The authority

Whatever you say or do has value only as long as people continue to believe in that authority. It is only then you escape from the need to provide clear reasons or results in support of your prescriptions for life decisions. So, it becomes of paramount importance that you first and foremost drive into everyone’s psyche the importance of never doubting that authority. To value faith above all else. To not question you. This is important because this is where it all starts. Built on this foundation of lies the tottering edifice of religious morality rises up in search of answers to the bigger problems. It is only when you start moving away from the stink of the foundation that you get anywhere even close to solving the problems you are interested in.

Where this gets us

Well, what is the end result of it all. More often than not it results in a kind of moral inversion. Instead of starting from the question of what one should do to leave peacefully with others you started with ensuring that whatever you say carries the weight of the truth without any need for experimentation or the difficult test of passing the critical scrutiny of society.

What does this inversion mean? Things that are really important, like honesty, integrity, civic sense, non-violence etc. become somehow less important than making the required contributions to your priests, chastity, credulity, not pissing off your God and ensuring that everyone hears about him or better still believes in him.

It is really when we get to this point that the defense of religion on the grounds that it somehow makes people more moral starts to fall apart. Good people generally speaking find justification for and enough motivation to be good to others. No matter what their religion. The reason for this is that man evolved to be a social animal. That is why the overwhelming majority of people in the world are good. But the bad ones will simply twist things to suit them. Moreover some good people, people of action and strong convictions can simply and easily be prodded into taking their religion too seriously and through that made to do grievous harm to others. The really sad thing is that the firm conviction and absolute trust that unquestioning faith creates in people can act to undermine their own consciences and abate their natural guilt.

An example

There is this funny story I know about a friend of mine. I always used to think that it illustrates the problem of misplaced priorities of faith-based morality pretty well. This friend used to regularly download porn(rather copious quantities of it) on his neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi connection. He used to tell us that watching porn was anyway a pretty bad sin that would need some serious confessing to wash away. But, it can’t be helped. He was relieved that at least he didn’t have to pay for his weakness.  This reasoning always used to make me laugh. Watching porn is something people do privately and I can’t think of anything bad that could come out of it. In fact, it might even be helping the mighty American Porn Industry. Not to mention lots of talented young guys and gals who make money from something they are passionate about and enjoy doing!(Hahaha). Plus, in our deeply repressed society it might help douse some fires and improve the collective mood a bit. But, using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission is a pretty bad thing in my book. You are exploiting a guy’s ignorance for your own benefit. It seems even worse, in light of the fact that if the friend ever ran into some trouble that guy wouldn’t mind helping him out.

When things that don’t really matter are blown up into huge crimes it blinds us to the things that actually hurt other people.

I have no problem with people even the ones who are in my life and closely associated with me being religious. But their faith should be a personal matter and it cannot be allowed to influence decisions that affect everyone. On a larger scale, I think, our society needs to consider questions of ethics, law and state powers as completely separate from questions of faith and not allows faith-based bodies to interfere with decision-making in these areas.