The Righteous Mind

The first half of this post is was originally on my goodreads blog, here: Chris Maden’s review of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion | Goodreads, but some time between then and now, I realised that I’d only thought through half of it.

The Righteous Mind was written in 2012 and sums up the research Jonathan Haidt pursued during his career. He makes the case that moral psychology develops around six cardinal axes (rather reminiscent of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, of which Haidt seems unaware), that everyone agrees on three of them, but that those on the right tend to rank the other three higher than those on the left.

As a theory of descriptive morality (what we actually do), it’s as good as any I’ve read and better than most. However, as a book of prescriptive morality (what we ought to do), the book falls short on one critical dimension: religion.

In the chapter “Religion is a Team Sport,” Haidt outlines a theory of the way in which beliefs in god could develop. We have evolved in such a way, he says, that various stimuli trigger fight-or-flight responses. These responses are hair-trigger responses, subliminal, and produced an evolutionary advantage: leaping away from a snake-like object before assessing whether the object is indeed a snake reduces the chances of getting bitten.

Because of this, we are predisposed to “see faces in clouds, but never clouds in faces,” and thus we start attributing agency where there is none. These accounts of agency contribute to group – tribe – cohesiveness, where groups are in competition: as a social species, humans working in concert can better resist other artificial and natural onslaughts than humans working on their own.

These supernatural accounts of agency become sanctified, which puts them beyond question. Rather than agreeing to disagree, we agree to agree: there is but one God, etc. And, indeed, there is a direct, observed correlation between cultures in which sacrifice is sanctified and cultures that cohere; in secular cultures, the sacrifice is not sanctified so becomes the subject of a cost-benefit analysis by individuals, who tend to reject it, and so the culture doesn’t cohere.

As genetic evolution can happen quite quickly, and as religion provides a group cohesiveness that in turn provides a competitive advantage to that one group over other groups, we have evolved for religion: it’s programmed into our DNA.

Given that Haidt’s entire book has the higher purpose of finding common ground between the left (who tend to be secular) and the right (who tend to be religious), there is a glaring lacuna in Haidt’s account: the possibility that God does in fact exist. And the fact that he fails to even mention this possibility also suggests that the project is doomed.

[Goodreads stopped here]

The religion chapter in Haidt’s work stops short of tying things up, so I’ll do that for him. Haidt;s six axes of moral psychology are: Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation. Everyone rates the first three, though the liberal definitions tend to differ from the conservatives’ (which is can be seen as a polite way of saying that the liberals and conservatives do not agree). However, liberals attribute little importance to the last three, while conservatives tend to rate all six evenly. Or, to put it the other way around, liberals tend not to attribute any great importance to Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity, while conservatives do regard those as being of equal importance to Care, Liberty and Fairness.

Where Haidt doesn’t join the dots is that whereas Care, Liberty and Fairness are universal, and Loyalty falls somewhere in the middle, Authority and Sanctity are specifically religious virtues. Sanctity, in Haidt’s account, starts out with the deep taboos that all groups have about certain things: asking a Brahmin why excrement is dirty, or a Muslim why pork is haram, is a non-question: whatever account liberal social scientists may come up with is irrelevant because the result has already become reified. Equally, some things are quite simply sacred; there is no “why?” You can joke with a Buddhist about karmic cause and effect, but you cannot question whether karma exists.

This sanctity is, I believe, an enabler for authority. Although Haidt doesn’t say so, there are two sources of authority in human affairs. The first comes out of the barrel of a gun. We can hide it behind symbols such as police uniforms, judge’s gowns and the like, but it comes down to the threat of force. This type of authority is, however, fragile. If enough people rise up against it, it will crumble. Far better the authority that is consensual, or what we could think of as moral authority: I accede to your demands because I accept that doing so will further some shared value.

In tribal societies, I assume that shared value is the continued existence of the tribe. Be that as it may, whether it be a tribe’s shaman or the Pope, sanctity results in certain people having a position of moral authority. This is not only far more stable that the threat of force, but also means that individuals are willing – as Haidt says – to make sacrifices for the group.

Now, to me, this raises a question. If, as Haidt says, we have evolved to favour religion, then why did secular people survive? In other words, if groups that are religious have a better chance in the genetic lottery than groups who are not, why did non-religious groups make it through? Or could it be that, as secular groups clearly have made it through, there are circumstances under which secular groups have the advantage?

I rather suspect that the answer has a lot to do with urbanisation. We evolved for groups that, by today’s standards, are quite small: a tribal group of a couple of hundred in which everyone knows everyone else, in which social and moral norms are easily enforced, and which face the vicissitudes of man and nature together. Under these circumstances, loyalty is paramount because you can only attack if you trust the person who has your back; authority is vital because, in a crisis, someone needs to take charge. As to sanctity, it underpins that authority.

That’s an advantage if your tribe is roaming its territory, on the one hand exploiting and husbanding its resources while on the other protecting it from incursion by neighbouring tribes. However, in a modern urban setting, warfare is the exception rather than the rule, so loyalty is of much more limited value. While there are social hierarchies of wealth and influence, authority in the sense of commanding people to achieve certain shared goals doesn’t make very much sense, and, as authority is not very useful, sanctity isn’t needed to prop it up.

In fact, I’d go further. I’d say that loyalty, authority and sanctity are disadvantages in a modern city. Our social lives are not constrained to a single group of friends but, to the contrary, we tend to have multiple, overlapping groups of friends – work friends, sports friends, parents-of-other-kids-at-my-kid’s-school friends – and loyalty to any one group costs us the others. Loyalty is a zero-sum game because we only have so much to give. Similarly, where a tribe protecting its land has the single, unifying purpose of protecting that land, a city has no such purpose: we have different careers, social lives and leisure activities, and the idea is that these all co-exist. Without that singularity of purpose, authority becomes moot. Yes, we may have situations at work or on the sports field, where authority comes into play, but its value is instrumental, not existential.

And, without authority, sanctity finds itself rather orphaned.

The thing is, cities are only going to get bigger, and whatever adaptations we once made to survive as tribes in the wild are only going to become less useful to we homo urbis. And, to use Haidt’s labels, but to contradict his result, this gives liberals the long-term advantage. In another couple of generations, we will all live in cities. There will still be space for loyalty to friends and groups, there will always be authority and there may still be sanctity. But, as political aims, their demise seems all but inevitable.