Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beyond The Happiness Hypothesis: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

In monitoring the hits this blog gets I’ve noticed that my review of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom has been getting the most visitors, particularly in the most recent couple of months. While I’m not sure why this is happening I’m glad that it is. I have found Haidt’s book interesting and thought-provoking. He is working on his next book: The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. It is scheduled to be published in 2011 by Pantheon Books.

To give you an idea of what it will cover here is a part of the book proposal.

This book will be a friendly slap in the face to liberals and atheists, delivered by a liberal atheist who desperately wants his peers to wise up, drop their self-righteousness, and understand the moralities of conservatives and of religious groups. The central idea of the book is simple but its implications are far-reaching:

Liberals and atheists generally do not understand the breadth of human morality. They think morality is about decreasing harm and increasing justice and autonomy. But for most of the world, morality is primarily about binding people into cohesive communities with strong institutions and collective goals.

The book is based upon my empirical research in moral psychology. I have discovered that there are five innate psychological systems upon which cultures build their moral systems. The first two are Harm/care (involving compassion and nurturance), and Fairness/reciprocity (involving concepts of justice, which generate rights and autonomy). These two psychological systems account for nearly all research in moral psychology, and they provide most of the psychology needed to explain the long history of liberal moral theory in which society is a human creation, a social contract entered into by individuals for their mutual benefit and protection.

But there are three other foundations of morality used by conservative and religious communities, foundations that liberals generally reject as causes of immorality. One is the Ingroup/loyalty foundation, which gives people the strong feeling that being a committed and trustworthy group member is more important than maximizing overall utility. When conservatives say “my country, right or wrong,” liberals say “dissent is patriotic.” Another is the Authority/respect foundation, which motivates conservatives to defend hierarchical social structures in which authorities (such as teachers, parents, and the police) have a duty to establish the order and stability that is necessary for everyone’s benefit. Liberals, in contrast, instinctively “question authority” and often equate it with oppression. The last of the five foundations is Purity/sanctity, which underlies religious conceptions of persons as having a divine soul housed in a body that is disturbingly animal-like. Moral systems built on this foundation urge people to cultivate their higher, spiritual nature and to shun carnal pleasures and petty concerns. Many Christians believe that their bodies are temples, on loan from God. But for secular liberals, people have full deed and title to their own bodies and can adorn them, pierce them, drug them, and stimulate them however they please. Most culture-war issues are really battles over the legitimacy of the Ingroup, Authority, and Purity foundations.

Objectivists probably would disagree with Haidt’s discussion of and homage to conservative moral foundations and would agree more with the liberal advocacy of autonomy. After all autonomy is at the individualist root of Objectivist philosophy. Nonetheless, I believe Objectivists would benefit by seriously considering Haidt’s thoughts on this. Personally, I’m looking forward to the release of his The Righteous Mind.

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