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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Righteous Mind and The Great Divide

Just finished Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Good read with a purpose to civilize our political discourse and behavior--which is one of my purposes in my Ethics of Integrity.

The Great Divide in American politics is now Right and Left represented by the two parties.  In earlier days, we had checks and balances among the various branches of government and even within the parties themselves. Now, even within the branches of government, it is Liberals and Progressives represented by the Democratic Party against Conservatives and Libertarians represented by the Republican Party. While factions were accepted and provided for by the Founders of the Republic, parties as separate and separating clubs were not. Politics was identified as public space where various factions interact to come up through negotiation with common policies for the common welfare, not where two enemies square off for one to win and the other to lose.

Haidt explains the divide through evolutionary psychology as a step to solving the problem that the divide causes to our body politic. He, like all thinkers since Plato and Aristotle, indicates the link between ethics and politics and how our political activity is shaped by our morality.

First, he demonstrates as did many before him that intuition (e.g. emotion, passion) comes first and then reason (logic, argument) comes after. Pretty much the same as Michael Gazzaniga demonstrates in his books on the modular brain. Reason justifies a position already taken as prepared by one's genetic and cultural orientation. In Haidt's metaphor, reason is just the rider on the elephant which takes its own route.

Second, he demonstrates (mainly to liberals) that morality is a lot more than care over harm and fairness over cheating. Here I think is his most creative and challenging (to me) contribution on the six foundations of morality: 1) care over harm, 2) fairness over cheating, 3) liberation over oppression, 4) loyalty over betrayal, 5) authority over subversion, 6) purity over degradation. These foundations are testable evolutionary adaptations with characteristic pre-reasonable emotions and identifiable relevant virtues. He calls this Moral Foundations Theory and associates it less with the mathematical model of Bentham utilitarianism (pleasure principle) and the logic model of Kantian deontology (reason principle) than the sentiment model of Hume's empiricism (no one principle). He also claims that while liberals use the first three foundations for their politics, conservatives use all six which gives them an advantage in presenting their political narrative and gaining adherents.

Third, he pretty much covers the ground that Edward Wilson (The Social Conquest of the Earth) covered in demonstrating multi level natural selection, i.e. individual and group selection. Many of our evolutionary traits are because of the advantage they give us individually (e.g. selfish genes and memes) and many are because of the advantage they give us a members of a group or society (e.g. groupish genes and memes).  His metaphor is that we are 90% chimp and 10% bee. So our genetic predisposition and then our adoption into a moral matrix pretty much shapes the way we think, act, and vote. This makes it pretty difficult  to win people from the other gang into ours and so the fight is for people who do not identify with either gang (e.g. independents).

Okay, good stuff, Jonathan.  But I want to take you on a bit and also deal with the challenge you present to me and my ethical theory. Next time.

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