Righteous Mind Seeks Integrated Perspective

Reason is the slave of the passions.

David Hume

I wrote the title of this post in the style of a personals ad not (only) to showcase my bottomless wit, but because, like a good personals ad, it suggests there’s a match which, once made, makes the world just a bit happier and more fulfilled.

And like any good match, the eventual partners are unaware that their ideal mate is out there.

Integrated perspective is well known to us as one of the four Habits of Mind that make up Plymouth State’s Gen Ed program, but to what does Righteous Mind refer? The phrase belongs to professor Jonathan Haidt and is the title of his 2012 book.

Side note: Haidt (Stern School of Business, New York University) is a social psychologist whose ideas I’ve followed with interest for some time. His 2016 talk at Duke University, Two incompatible sacred values in American universities, is a provocative critique of what Haidt sees as academic orthodoxy.

The Rationalist Delusion

Haidt’s primary research is in moral psychology, the biological underpinnings of human ethical development within societies and cultures. His is among a growing body of scholarship that describes our minds’ surprising and innate tendencies (although Haidt is quick to say innateness is not destiny).

Work like Haidt’s fascinates me because it contradicts common assumptions of what our minds must be like. The popular misconception is that our brains are computing organs, rationally weighing our self-interest against the interests of others. It’s also tempting to believe that our internal states follow external states—that our feelings are responses to conditions in the world. On this rationalist view, the right choices are merely the outcome of the right information. Or, as Plato put it:

To know the good is to do the good.

Plato

Haidt calls this the “rationalist delusion.” In reality, our decisions and actions are buffeted by temperamental undercurrents created by ancient forces of natural selection.

In experiments, subjects are asked to judge the rightness or wrongness of hypothetical scenarios. Then the experimenters gently interrogate the respondents’ reasoning. Time after time, subjects exhibit moral dumbfounding—standing by their judgments even when all their stated reasons are shown to be irrelevant.

Example and explanation of moral dumbfounding

In other words, when pressed to explain why they believe what they believe, people will essentially concede I don’t know; I just do.

Moral dumbfounding is a sign that we reach conclusions viscerally, then subconsciously send our reason on a fact-finding mission to support these conclusions. Hence, this phrase repeated like a mantra throughout the book:

Intuition comes first, reason second.

Jonathan Haidt

Thus, Haidt seeks to replace the rationalist delusion with an intuitionist model. Just as Plato was the forerunner of the rationalists, David Hume presaged intuitionism when he said reason is the slave of the passions.

This gets to the book’s title: The Righteous Mind. The pretension of reasonableness is held by us all when, in fact, intuition is the tail that wags the dog. So when people’s views clash, each one wrongly believes the other will accede to their superior reason, and none does.

But how could evolution have imbued us with such a fallacy? What adaptive purpose is served by making brains that harbor this logical conceit?

The musings of biologist JBS Haldane come to mind: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

JBS Haldane. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. 1927.

Whether there is yet a convincing explanation for the rationalist delusion, it seems to be a fact of human psychology. Which is why I think our students should become acquainted with it in order to begin practicing the self-awareness and perspective-seeking at the heart of integrated perspective.

Moral Foundations Theory

Haidt, together with fellow psychologists Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham, developed Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) to offer an intuitionist account of moral psychology. MFT is a purported antidote to the rationalist delusion.

Five Innate Modules

MFT posits five moral dimensions, each one corresponding to an innate module—an evolved tendency inscribed in our psyches. They’re innate because they are “organized in advance of experience.” These innate features can be encouraged, suppressed, and channeled by one’s environment, which includes a person’s culture and upbringing. Haidt and his colleagues allow that dimensions may be added or modified as the theory incorporates new evidence.

Differences between individuals and across cultures emphasize certain dimensions over others, and invoke them in different ways. The dimensions, in other words, are universal but not uniform.

Each dimension is a pair of opposites. For each pair, preference for the first and aversion to the second is found throughout humanity.

Care/Harm

In contrast to reptiles and other mammals, Homo sapiens invest extraordinary resources into care for their young. That is the basis for the care module.

Our proclivity for caring extends well beyond child rearing, however. This module moves people to protect kin, classmates, and compatriots.

Fairness/Cheating

Humans are a social species: probably the most social species. As survival came to depend on cooperation with non-relatives, we developed an aversion to cheating to combat the free-rider problem.

This module explains why societies punish theft and look down on laziness. It’s why we admire Robin Hood and despise Bernie Madoff.

Loyalty/Betrayal

Societies old and new thrive on trade, which depends on cooperation. The loyalty module is akin to fairness in that it counters the free-rider problem, but, unlike fairness, loyalty sustains relationships through time.

People who abandon their families or strike off to join new tribes do not foster viable, long-term societies. Today, the loyalty module adheres nations and religions comprised of hundreds of millions of people who have never met.

Authority/Subversion

Every human society contains a division of labor. Whereas the loyalty module maintains relationships, authority establishes order, hierarchy, and duty.

The authority module accounts for our deference for law enforcement, our adulation for statesmen, and our stopping for red lights when there are no other cars on the road.

Sanctity/Degradation

Our capacity for disgust evolved to keep us safe from pathogens and parasites. Unclean or degraded things generate a sense of revulsion. That is the sanctity, or purity, module at work.

But sanctity can be repurposed for metaphorical uses, as when we tend a loved one’s grave site or hold sacred a creed or flag. It can also be turned against society’s perceived enemies: when dissidents, immigrants, communists, or capitalists, eg., are assailed as decadent or insidious.

Understanding our Moral Foundations

Humans are capable of a vast spectrum of kindness and cruelty, selfishness and generosity. Haidt’s research reveals that our praise and blame for virtue and vice—our moral psychology—is driven not by reason, but by intuition.

The moral foundations theory says that we are all in some measure irrational. Moreover, it suggests that our disagreements arise not from factual differences, but from divergent intuitions, of which we may not even be aware.

This prescribes a dose of humility. When in conflict with a partner, colleague, or Internet commenter, we ought consider the moral foundations behind the other point of view.

For as long as we cling to the rationalist delusion, we burnish the fallacy that we’re objective, fact-driven creatures even though the opposite is true.

Haidt, Graham, and Joseph designed the website yourmorals.org to gather data and give participants a sense of their moral foundations. The site contains numerous surveys, but I encourage TWP teachers to have their students take the moral foundations questionnaire. The questionnaire will show students where they are on each of the moral dimensions.

I also encourage teachers to show their students Haidt’s TED Talk that explores the differences between the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives.

If our students get a basic grasp of the MFT, and see themselves within it, they will almost certainly grow in their integrated perspective. Particularly:

  • Listen to other perspectives when collaborating
  • Recognize the interconnectedness between and within natural and social systems
  • Acknowledge the limitations of a singular perspective
  • Understand various perspectives and how they came to be

I close by returning to the title: Righteous Mind Seeks Integrated Perspective. This is a match worth making, and one that will make the world just a little bit happier and more fulfilled.

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