Do the right thing


  • Social brain

The RSA was delighted today to host a talk by the social psychologist and public intellectual Jonathan Haidt. I loved Jonathan first big book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ and I wasn't disappointed by his new creation ’The Righteous Mind – Why good people are divided by politics and religion’. I strongly encourage my readers to buy the book or failing that download the video or podcast of the event from the RSA website in a few days’ time.

But in the meantime here are Jonathan’s three core arguments, and for each a specific highlight of the case which stood out for me plus a question I think the argument raises:

Argument: Because the elephant of intuition is more powerful than the rider of deliberation, moral judgements are firstly and mostly intuitive and only subsequently and occasionally reasoned

Highlight: Experiments which test subjects’ reactions to stories involving abnormal but not strictly harmful behaviour find that, instead of reasoning leading to response, the subjects react first and then develop – often rather contrived – rationales for their reactions

Question: As people in general become more reflexive (more inclined to think about their life and their values) and indeed more neurologically reflexive (aware of their own cognitive frailties) will the power of judgement start to shift from elephant to rider?

Argument: We have six moral ‘taste receptors’: these are care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. The liberal left has a message which stimulates the first three but is much less relevant to the last three. While the conservative right may not be as credible on care/harm, still, it has a message which stimulates all six receptors.

Highlight: (actually two) in most people the fairness/cheating receptor is more about proportionality (rewards for hard work and punishments for misdemeanours) than  ideas of social equality. Put another way, we care more about procedural than distributional justice. And, conservatives tend to be more accurate in describing the views of people on the left than people on the liberal left are in describing what conservatives believe.

Question: While the conservative right may appeal to a greater array of moral instincts, doesn't this also mean conservatives have to contend with more internal contradictions; most obviously between social conservatism and libertarianism?

Argument: Human beings are 90% chimp (self-interested individuals) and 10% bee (group oriented social animals). Sacred beliefs (by which we usually mean religion) have an evolutionary purpose at the level of group selection in relation to promoting solidarity and sacrifice and discouraging free riding

Highlight: Richard Sosis’ study of two hundred communes in 19th century America found that the more sacrifices that were demanded of members (as part of a religious creed) the more likely by far they were to survive.

Question: How can and should the ‘hive’ instinct evolve in the twenty first century? How do we reconcile the benefits in well-being and pro-sociality of powerful group bonds based on common beliefs and characteristics with the benefits to organisations and societies of diversity and the sheer facts of a shrinking world of moving, connected people?

I do hope that whets your appetite for the book and the podcast. And, by the way, if these are the kinds of questions which interest and motivate you maybe you might want to find out more about applying to be a Fellow of the RSA.  Given the antics of a certain Trenton Oldfield on Saturday  we may soon have a space to fill

PS Much to my discomfort, and by sheer co-incidence, to illustrate teamwork Jonathan's first slide today featured two rowing boats!

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