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Understanding WEIRD people and more

We are living in an increasingly polarised society. Any book that helps people to understand each other a little more has its uses. This is one such book.


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Why good people are divided over politics and
By Jonathan Haidt
Penguin, 500 pages, £10.99
ISBN 978 0 141 039 169

It is definitely not a Christian book and yet it contains a great deal that Christians will be pleased to see. I hope it might even be a ray of light heralding the dawn of a rethink for Western attitudes so benighted by crass liberalism, reactionary conservatism and deadening political correctness.

Jonathan Haidt, the author, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, is a moral psychologist who, through his research, has experienced a ‘conversion’ from being a boring card-carrying liberal academic to someone who sees that we ought to appreciate points of view other than our own and not be so quick to rubbish them. He swallows whole everything that the theory of evolution teaches and his approach is to try to explain where human morality comes from and how it works purely in Darwinian terms. This has been tried before. His book divides into three sections.

The rationalist delusion

The first part he summarises by saying that to understand human beings you need to realize that intuitions take priority over reasoning. This is a direct challenge to what he calls the ‘rational delusion’ of independent, neutral thought processes beloved by popular ‘science.’ We all come at things with our own baggage and our intuitions are often coloured by our desires.

He cites the philosopher David Hume as championing this position and the character Glaucon (from Plato’s Republic) for providing the insight that our rationalising will be guided by the overriding importance of such things as reputation and how we look to others. (Scripture, of course, says that we sinners are very keen to justify ourselves and our positions). Our strategic thinking is full of post hoc argumentation.

Haidt uses a striking image. He tells us to imagine a small rider on a large elephant. The elephant represents our intuitions, the rider our thought processes. If the elephant sways, the rider will always inevitably act to correct it to keep upright. That’s how we operate. This should make us question ourselves and our logic before we dismiss that of others (I had a definite sense of planks, sawdust and Matthew 7.3-5 here).

Moral foundations

The second section introduces us to Haidt’s radical rethink of his previous liberal outlook. He summarises this part by saying ‘There’s more to morality than fairness.’ He describes how research has uncovered what he believes are six moral foundations which have become part of what we are as human beings. He uses a number of tenuous ‘Just So Stories’ endemic in evolutionary theory to explain how these arose. These six foundations he labels as: care/harm; liberty/oppres-sion; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion and sanctity/degrada-tion. As human beings we care about issues which involve these pairs of ideas.

As a liberal, he previously constructed his personal morality on just the first two or three of these foundations, but while on a research trip to India, he was welcomed and shown generous hospitality by a culture very different from that of the secular USA and his mind was opened to acknowledging the value of the rest of the pairs. (As Christians we would say that in the light of the Ten Commandments and God’s great laws of love we would embrace all six).

The peculiarity of what he describes as WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) is that, influenced by the prevailing ethos of philosophical materialism, liberalism often denies the value or even the validity of the last three foundational pairs of moral concepts (hence the culture wars). Liberals prioritise personal freedom and ‘fairness’ over all else whereas conservatives tend to be more broadly based across all six and see the social capital derived from proper authority and an acknowledgment of the sanctity of human life.

The intellectual heroes in this part of the book are Richard Shweder, whose work planted Haidt more firmly in the broader moral domain, and Emile Durkheim who showed how such things as loyalty, authority and sanctity can bind a society together to everyone’s advantage. (This latter point shines great light on the problems of our fragmenting culture).

Here Haidt plumps for a moral pluralism and is suspicious of all absolute moralities. However, I’m not sure how logical this is, given that he feels that his six moral foundations are actualities any of which we neglect to our peril, since (on his scheme of things) they are the products of the tried and tested evolutionary process. One suspects he has his own baggage here and his (Glauconian) reputation to keep intact among his fellow academics. He must remain descriptive rather than become – perish the thought – prescriptive.

Homo duplex

The last part of the book introduces Homo duplex. Evolutionary theory, the author says, has made us with not just one outlook but two. We are 90% chimp (individualistic) and 10% bee (group-ish). He quotes monkey expert Michael Tomasello: ‘It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.’ Whereas, of course, bees work together in the hive. As Christians we would recognize this duality. Though God has made us individuals he has also made us in his image (that of the Triune God) and so made for relationship. Our behaviour has both an individual aspect and a group-ish inclination too.

At this point in the book he discusses both religion and politics – why certain people tend to the Left and others to the Right may be ultimately down to brain chemistry!

For en let’s just comment on the religion angle. For me his take on religion is both interesting and disappointing. He explains that, despite the derogatory protestations of the New Atheists, religion has actually played a crucial role in humanity’s evolutionary development. It has been vital in both creating and sustaining broader community life. He backs this up, for example, with research that shows the durability of communes that embrace a supernatural/faith aspect, compared with those which are purely secular.

He believes that religion was probably an accident. We came to believe in supernatural agents as a by-product of a hypersensitive detection system against anything threatening – basically seeing things that aren’t there. But this is a pretty disappointing ‘Just So Story’ – why would chimps not be religious too? Also disappointing is his description of what a religion is. Describing it as a ‘moral community’ is very far from what most Christians (and others) recognise as their faith. Such things as arguments for God’s existence and the historical evidence for Jesus and the resurrection are ignored – but of course as an evolutionary social scientist the author’s approach is very one-dimensional.

Facing reality

His thesis about the origins of morality, I think (by his own admission) fails to explain both the extremes of love (sacrificial love of your enemies – Matthew 5.44) and the extremes of depravity (e.g., consensual cannibalism in the horrific case of German computer scientist Armin Meiwes in 2001). The Bible’s explanation of humanity made glorious in the image of God, but fallen into the slavery of depravity through rebellion against our Maker makes better sense of reality. It’s a challenging read, but well written.

There was one paragraph where his common sense did get the better of him, which made me smile. Discussing politics and a nation’s economics he writes: ‘I find it ironic that liberals generally embrace Darwin and reject “intelligent design” as the explanation for design and adaptation in the natural world, but they don’t embrace Adam Smith [free market] as the explanation for the design and adaptation in the economic world. They prefer the “intelligent design” of socialist economies [state intervention], which often ends in disaster from a utilitarian point of view.’