The Righteous Mind – The Origins of Morality

This is “Live Blogging The Righteous Mind” Part 2.  Here is Part 1.

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

– David Hume

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

– Jon Haidt

The Righteous Mind - By Jon HaidtJon used the elephant/rider metaphor before in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis.  The elephant is our ancient, emotionally driven limbic system.  It is a deep part of our evolutionary past, but still very much a part of who we are in the present day.  The rider is a newcomer on the scene, the pre-frontal cortex in the brain.  Full of grand plans and bright ideas but most of the time very much unaware that it is controlled and manipulated by the lumbering beast down below.  The elephant does what it wants, when it wants, and the rider, strapped on the beast and unable to climb off, rationalizes, confabulates, and groans in frustration when the elephant once again disobeys its commands.  When the elephant is ambivalent the rider can gain a measure of control, but when the elephant has a strong desire, the rider is just a simple passenger who’s along for the ride.

Understanding the simple fact that morality differs around the world, and even within societies, is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.

Jon takes us through a winding history of morality in the West.  The nativists who prize nature, the empiricists who prize nurture and the rationalists who believe that children figure out morality for themselves.  Children grow into rationality as caterpillars grow into butterflies.  Piaget and Kohlberg were both famous psychologists who championed rationalism.  Kohlberg came up with the famous idea of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional stages of morality that children go through on the way to adulthood.  Rationalism valued self-discovery and authority figures were ultimately just a roadblock in the way of natural development.  This thinking eventually led to a liberal consensus that morality is mainly about justice.  It’s about harm and fairness and NOT about loyalty, respect, duty, piety, patriotism, or tradition.

But anthropologists have a very different perspective.  Through the study of anthropology we find clues that morality often involves tension within the group structure that relates to competition between groups.  At the group level, morality is influenced from within and without.  And are the seemingly bizarre rules that we find in other societies just social conventions or a complex and differing morality?  Again and again the evidence points toward morality.  It turns out that in most “non-Western” societies the social order IS the moral order.  Haidt calls these two different types of societies sociocentric and individualistic.

When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned.  If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified.  It’s just a social convention.

And then, in running his own cross-cultural experiments Haidt unexpectedly discovers that the effect of social class on moral thinking is larger than the effect of the country or city.  But, when controlling for intuitions about harm and fairness, vast cultural differences re-appear.  His ultimate conclusion is that there are various sources of moral knowledge including cultural learning  and innate moral intuitions about disgust and disrespect.  And one fascinating thing that happens over and over is the tendency for people to confabulate reasons to support their emotional reactions.

I had found evidence for Hume’s claim.  I had found that moral reasoning was often a servant of moral emotions, and this was a challenge to the rationalist approach that dominated moral psychology.

In conclusion, Hume is one of my favorite philosopher’s and I think his quote at the beginning of this post is very true, but perhaps a bit overstated.  Again and again in my life I see myself and others rationalizing the decisions that our emotions have made for us, just as Jon Haidt saw it in his studies.  As we move forward in the book I’m hoping that Jon will lay out ways in which we can slowly but surely prod and bend the elephant of emotion to the will of the rational rider.  And how do we deal with these moral intuitions and frameworks that seem to differ across class and culture?  Stay tuned for part 3.

Posted on March 22, 2012, in Books, Morality, Philosophy, Psychology, Social Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I tend to agree with you that people spend a fair bit of time thinking of ways to justify their emotional brains. I understand that it has been proven that we actually make quite poor decisions if we don’t engage that emotional brain (I think this was in ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’).
    I’m not totally convinced that all children will automatically grow into rationalism though – I suspect that they need some prompting to think deeply about issues, and to qusetion what they hear.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post! 🙂

  2. Jonathan Haidt’s new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Duel of the dual.” Here are four paragraphs from it:

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned.”

    The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

  1. Pingback: Live Blogging The Righteous Mind « Scientific Awakening

  2. Pingback: The Righteous Mind – The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail « Scientific Awakening

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