The Righteous Mind: Ch. 3 Discussion

Flip the script? If we could, should we?

I almost felt Haidt breathe a sigh of relief when this chapter was over. After two and a half chapters of slowly preparing us not to dismiss his ideas out of hand, he finally laid out his theory in a series of bullet points near the end of the chapter. Since Haidt’s understanding of human moral cognition is pretty clear by this point, most of my reflections this week had to do with implications and applications.

I was caught a little by surprise by the tone of the conclusion. Even though much of the first two chapters had stressed the importance of emotion as a component of reasoning, in some ways even the engine of moral judgment, the elephant still is presented as something of a problem. It’s interesting that Haidt doesn’t conclude, “Go with your gut!” Nor does it seem as if he is going to offer strategies for getting us more in tune with our emotional-intuitive selves. Rather, it appears he’s looking for ways to overrule the gut. The rider appears embarrassed that he isn’t in better control. Maybe Taming the Elephant could be a good book title for a history of philosophy.

I imagine that as we go on in the book, Haidt will discuss some ideas for establishing healthy group dynamics that allow for us to persuade and be persuaded, and to train and retrain our moral intuitions. I’m struck by the realization that many groups of people in history have attempted this. Groups of ancient Greek and Eastern sages, medieval monks, and even until recently the university have all formed communities that had as a goal the training of the whole human person. These institutions all saw themselves as set apart from the mass of humanity that was making no effort to master their elephants. Even Plato, whose model of the self Haidt dismissed earlier, did not so much believe that reason was the master of the soul, but that it should be and could be for select people who underwent rigorous training. I wonder, then, if despite all of the neuroscience, behavioral studies, and updated terminology, there is really that sharp of a difference between Haidt’s goals and those of so many other premodern groups. Two possible differences stand out. First, Haidt wishes to address society at large rather than an elite group of acolytes. Second, Haidt is more comfortable with the “lower soul” (non-rational operations) than were some of those groups. (Christian monks and even Puritans, however, were very much engaged in a process of training rather than suppressing intuition and emotion.)

What would such a healthy community look like? The first component that comes to mind is sufficient time. I was quite intrigued by the experiments in which answers differed significantly just by giving people more time to think. Somewhere between a culture of instant judgment and one of apathetic abstaining lies a measured, multi-stage discourse. One enemy of this is our news cycle, hopping from one event (predictably labeled a crisis) to the next, allowing us a brief flash of judgment but no opportunity for follow-up. Another enemy is simply the pace of life in a technologically advanced, capitalist culture. Time is oriented around productivity, maximizing efficiency for the global marketplace. It is not ordered around human flourishing or the cultivation of a rich inner life. I know of two organizations that combat that trend. The first is the Church, or rather, liturgical churches that follow a yearly calendar. In the liturgical traditions, four weeks of Advent emphasize mourning the misery of the world and the folly of sin; there is only a hush of expectation. That’s enough time to take a little bit of the brokenness of the world into yourself and hate it. Then 12 days of Christmas follow, because trying to pack that kind of joy into just one day of celebration is like setting off an entire fireworks display in one go, more disorienting than exuberant. (I realize other religious and cultural groups also develop a sense of deep time through the calendar, but high-church Christianity is what I know the best.)

The second institution is the school, especially the university. Ideally, the university is where people come to read, among other things, great classic texts or to discuss systematically serious issues. The pace of a university course, which meets one or a few days a week over the course of several months, allows students (and professors!) to think and rethink. Current administrative focus on concrete content and application cannot explain why many students find the most life-changing courses to be things like English Lit or regional cultural studies, precisely the courses in which it’s not clear exactly what students will learn. The process itself is what trains the soul.

The other component to the healthy community is solidarity. By this I mean the inclusion of all members in the discourse of mutual persuasion. Often in a grab for power, some members of a community exclude and alienate others, silencing their voices. But this inevitably backfires. Would you listen sympathetically to a person who just told you to shut up? But solidarity is difficult to practice when the issues are moral ones. Then we feel we have a duty to label and weed out the evil among us. Those who disagree with us appear monstrous, and we’ve been conditioned by the canon of fairy tales to slay the monsters and rescue the innocent. But somehow slaying one monster never seems to keep others from spawning. I think Haidt does us a great service in revealing to us how fragile, how easily swayed, how self-serving are our moral beliefs. Those who disagree with us are in fact the only people who can rescue us from our own tendency to burrow into our beliefs to the point of lunacy. Monstrosity is sprinkled within all of us. If we will not slay ourselves, there is only one other course: to humanize the monster. The only way back to our own humanity is to uphold the human in each other, even at the moment in which we disagree most profoundly. I barely know what it would mean to humanize someone who disagrees with me on warfare or racial equality or issues of bodily autonomy; I know only that viewing others as monsters slackens my grip on my own humanity.

I don’t think Chapter 4 is going to get into these questions, but I hope it sheds some more light on just what exactly is going on in our brains when we try to reason morally.



One comment on “The Righteous Mind: Ch. 3 Discussion

  1. mramler

    Through most of the chapter, I was like, “He lost me.” And then that concluding paragraph, about what’s most important truth or reputation, grabbed me by the throat. I’m back.

    I, too, was fascinated by the delay factor highlighted on p. 81. And I was also pulled back in by the discussion of psychopaths and emotion, and/or the lack thereof.

    But my question, which may have already been answered, is this: Is Haidt conflating emotion and intuition? Are they the same thing? If not, how would we begin to parse out the difference(s)? These lower regions of the (largely) subconscious seem to me to be hopelessly entangled–in the best possible way.

    Regarding your thoughts above, I wonder if Haidt isn’t moving us towards empathy, especially given his hints earlier in the book. Interestingly, empathy entails time, shared humanity, and connection. Thus, empathy would be the thing that bridges the gap between consciousness, intuitions, bodies, experiences, and vastly different elephants.

    I second the suggestion of Taming the Elephant as title for a history of philosophy book.