Category: contemporary

Book Review: The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

Is it better to be truly just, or merely to seem so? This is the question put to Socrates by Glaucon in The Republic. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, “The Righteous Mind”, counts Glaucon among the cynics for putting this challenge to Socrates. But Haidt is missing a subtle and very powerful nuance in Plato’s story. Socrates had just finished embarrassing Thrasymachus for his weak defense of cynical egoism. Glaucon and Adeimantus were certainly entertained, but they were not satisfied with Socrates. They sought much stronger reasons for accepting the conclusion that true justice is preferable to appearance, because they did not want to merely seem to agree with Socrates. They really wanted to believe that genuine justice was better, and giving Socrates the strongest possible objection that could be mustered is the only way an honest man (if he is honest with himself) can do this.

Socrates’ initial response to Glaucon was not the description of the ideal state that the story has become famous for. Rather, it was a likening of the soul to the body. Repeated abuses and illnesses corrupt and degrade the health of the body over time, until at some point it is no longer possible to experience vigor and vitality. Likewise, says Socrates, repeated vices and injustices committed in pursuit of wealth or power or honor will eventually render the soul so degraded and corrupt that it will no longer be capable of achieving eudaemonia (aka ‘contentment’, ‘happiness’, or ‘flourishing’). This is the fate of the man who pursues a life of politics, without first tending to his soul.

Haidt seems almost proud of his “Glauconian cynicism” – a socio-biological view in which he believes he can show that, regardless of which is better, seeming just is what we humans actually seek. Haidt claims explicitly and confidently not to be offering an argument for what ought to be, only what is. But the enthusiasm with which he reports this supposed scientific fact suggests that he also thinks that what is, just is what ought to be. But this is precisely the challenge posed to Socrates by Glaucon: it certainly is true that many people (perhaps even most) are cynical and self-serving. So, why oughtn’t they be? Haidt’s response to this recurring implicit question seems to be to just keep reasserting the fact, in ever more sophisticated and complex ways.

Near the end of the book, in spite of already offering an explicit refusal to address the problem of normative ethics, Haidt tosses off a flippant endorsement of Utilitarianism as if this view has already settled the normative question, or simply to signal to the reader that the question just isn’t interesting enough to bother investigating. But this has profound implications for how seriously one can take some of the claims he makes in this book. The tension between what is and what ought to be plagues this book, and any reader eager for insight into the gap between descriptive and normative ethics will find it profoundly frustrating.

The Basic Theory, and It’s Problems

Haidt’s basic theory of the “Righteous Mind” comes down to two hypotheses. First, that the human brain has evolved for both “tribal” and “hive” social structures. To put it in his terms, “we are 90% chimp, and 10% bee”, and a special “hive switch” in the brain is flipped, when conditions are ideal, that suppress our self-interested “groups” psychology, and make us more altruistically “hive-ish”. It’s not quite clear what sort of mechanism this “switch” is, what causes it to flip, and how it gets reset. But he offers a lot of anecdotes from his research that describe evidence suggesting its presence.

The second, and much more complex portion of the theory, is his six-dimensional model of moral psychology. His system is powerfully reminiscent of David Hume’s own four-pole system of moral emotions (Pride-vs-Humility / Love-vs-Hate). But there is one extremely significant difference. Hume’s theory was one meant to describe morality as a system of “passions” (special kinds of emotions). These passions derive from a natural propensity for pleasure, and a natural aversion to pain (he presages the Utilitarians in this respect). What’s more, moral judgments are not reasoned, but felt. Morality, for Hume, just is emotions expressed. Haidt’s theory, on the other hand, describes six dimensions of values, not emotions: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Haidt says that all human beings have this six-dimensional system built-in as a consequence of thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. He argues that the “sensitivity level” at which each of these is not permanently fixed, but is set to “defaults” at birth, and adjusted over a lifespan by experience. How, precisely, this happens and by what mechanism, is a bit murky, but again, he offers loads of anecdotal examples (and data from his studies) to show how each of these dimensions is expressed by individuals.

A few questions and objections arose for me, about these two hypotheses, as I read through the book, that never seemed to get a satisfactory answer. First, on the six aspects: are they like adjuster knobs on a sound board? Or, are they merely barometer needles reporting varying pressure levels set by environmental impacts on a biological system? If the former, then surely there are “optimal” positions for each of these knobs (even if only circumstantially optimal)? In that case, then there is indeed an opening for a normative ethical theory, describing these optimums. However, if the latter is true, then it is hard to understand how there could be any such thing as an “ought” at all, much less a system prescribing them. Haidt is constantly nudging up to the edge of this Humean is-ought cliff, and retreating from it just when things start to get interesting.

Second, Haidt never quite explicitly acknowledges that he’s describing a system of values, rather than a moral psychology. One might object that a system of values could be said to be a variety of moral psychology, but I would reply that by the time we get to values, we’re already one layer above fundamental psychology. Why these six, and not others? Indeed, in the book, Haidt explicitly acknowledges that some early reviewers of the book objected to the lack of “equality” as a value on his list of “aspects”. If “liberty” counts as a foundational psychological value, then why not “equality”? It has just as long a history, after all. More importantly, to talk of values at all, you’re once again in flirting in the realm of the normative. I would have to look more closely at the research he used to back this section of the book, but how do we know he didn’t just happen to find the set of six values that he and his team were particularly focused on already? That is a normative selection process: “these values are more important than those”.

Third, returning to the “hive switch”, Haidt emphasizes the “dangers” of too much hive-ishness or too much groupishness. But he never quite explains how there could be any such thing as a “right amount” of either, in the absence of a normative theory. Without any idea of what an ideal amount of either would look like, why would the horror of the Hobbesian anarchy or Stalinist oppression even count as “bad”? Lower primates seem perfectly satisfied with brutal inter-tribal conflict, and ants are obliviously willing to destroy themselves en masse for the sake of colony and queen. What’s worse, is that there’s no clear explanation for how the “hive switch” and the six-dimensional moral psychology fit together. Do certain knob settings produce hives instead of tribes? Do others produce tribes instead of hives? What are the right tension levels between the two modes? If the knob settings do influence this, how do we know what those should be? None of this is discussed in the book, except in passionate warnings to beware of extremes. A laudable sentiment, but so what?

Lastly, while Frans de Waal is largely an asset to Haidt’s book, there is one key notion from de Waal that highlights the primary problem with Haidt’s “Glauconian moral matrix”; de Waal captured it in a rather pithy phrase: Veneer Theory. In his book, “Primates and Philosophers”, de Waal uses the phrase to criticize Huxley and Dawkins for uncritically accepting a view of human nature that is Hobbesian without providing an explanation for how a self-serving egoist gets to altruism all on his own. Haidt’s book suffers from a similar problem. Though he does a great job of bridging the gap between egoist and “group-altruist”, what he fails to do is explain how the “Glauconian cynic” becomes a genuinely caring being. Haidt has concocted his own variety of Veneer Theory by redefining it as a complex inter-subjective social delusion that we all agree to participate in. He takes this as an answer to the problem of a “veneer” layer. But it only makes his own set of theories seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. Haidt makes a strong case for the biological and psychological reality of moral experience as a genuine phenomenon. But this works directly against the idea that we merely wish to appear to care, or to be virtuous. Why layer a “moral matrix” on top of a perfectly reasonable explanation of genuine moral emotions? More to the point, why would evolution tolerate such an expensive and convoluted cognitive load, such as layers of delusion, on top of the already demanding task of navigating the social world in real time? Even more curiously, why would we count the primitive primate morality of chimps and bonobos as “actual” or “genuine”, while regarding our own as a mere matrix-like delusion?

Final Thoughts

Anyone who has read the entirety of The Republic has to come to terms with a powerful dissonance in Plato’s tale. Either Socrates truly misunderstood human nature (perhaps he confused it with his own psychological projections), or he didn’t actually believe what he was saying. Some philosophers argue for the latter theory: that the ideal state was ideal intentionally. Socrates was never going to convince the Athenians to drive all the old folks out of the city in order to start afresh, or convince the educated classes to surrender their private property holdings to the commons, or convince them to put their women and children into a breeding commune to be tended by specially bred and trained guardians. He must have known that. What was really going on here? Remember that the tale was written by Plato, long after Socrates’ execution. Plato was engaging in his own bit of cynical rhetoric, grounded in bitterness. He wanted to demonstrate the utter impossibility of the larger task: convincing men to love virtue for its own sake; to be just, rather than simply to appear just. He had given up on the possibility, and the Republic was his way of showing this. It is hard to blame him, on one level. He’d watched these people destroy his master and teacher; a man for whom Plato had given up a promising life as a poet, in order to follow him in philosophy. Haidt, on the other hand, embraces his cynicism with zeal, because he believes the data tells him he must, and he refuses to even entertain the possibility that we might just be better than that. In effect, he takes Plato’s implicit condemnation of man and turns it into a simple matter-of-fact. But recasting the condemnation as mere description doesn’t change the moral reality; it just hides it behind a veil of cynicism.

ISP Launch Event: Three Talks On Three Philosophers

This weekend I attended the launch event for the International School of Philosophy here in London. Three Talks on Three Philosophers was intended to showcase the kind of thought one could expect from the new school, as well as provide an opportunity for philosophical learning to the local community (greater Islington, mainly). Sam Freemantle, the founder of the new independent school, provided the first of the three lectures, in the form of an overview of his Phd thesis, “Reconstructing Rawls”. Following Sam, Adrian Brockless offered a passionate argument for a more thoughtful kind of education grounded in Socratic questioning. Lastly, Professor Ken Gemes of the University of London treated us with an extended version of his talk on Nietzsche’s Death of God.

Serendipitously, I also listened this weekend to a new reading of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (a book I read years ago). I say “serendipitously”, because it turns out to be a powerful lens through which to interpret the messages coming out of Saturday’s lectures. In particular, the lectures of Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless, which were laden with themes that could easily have been attributed to Bloom. The erosion of truth and goodness as absolute values (both in society and in the academy), the corruption of the academy to purposes other than the pursuit of the good life, the need for a renewal of these core values, the seemingly intractable challenge of re-establishing them in an educational environment so democratized and demoralized that even the hint of such an effort will raise accusations of elitism. All of these were core concerns of Allan Bloom, and his voice was clearly resonating in the words of both Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless. Though, I suspect neither of them would agree.

For Professor Gemes the worry is societal, and spans generations. He began his talk with the story of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which illustrates the central problem for Nietzsche, as Gemes sees it: absent the catalyzing mythology of christianity, why would we continue to cling to it’s core values of truth and goodness? Given that the values of honor and glory held by civilization before Christianity seem more seductive, why wouldn’t we return to these, and abandon truth and goodness, in the absence of a dogma that focused us on them? According to Professor Gemes, Nietzsche believed we were clinging to truth as a value, by way of some sort of “hangover” from Christianity, and he wanted to know why. I think Nietzsche may have been disadvantaged by his proximity to the downfall of Christianity in the west. Over a century on now, in the “post-truth” era, it appears we have indeed begun to abandon truth and goodness as ultimate values, and have indeed begun replacing them with honor and glory once again.

Nowhere is this shift more clearly and startlingly present, than in the academy. Mr. Brockless highlighted this inadvertently, I believe, in his lecture. Using the Socrates of Gorgias and The Republic as a mentor, Brockless crisply argued for a conception of higher education that differentiates itself from the contemporary academy, by focusing on the pursuit of truth through “authentic” learning that exposes students to “meaning and understanding of the human condition”, rather than on the career advancement goals and academic advantages of its students. This plea explicitly demands that truth be reseated in our minds as an absolute value, pursued for its own sake. Although Mr. Brockless’ lecture came before Professor Gemes, his is a direct response to Nietzsche, in the form of a resounding and explicit affirmation of truth and goodness, above honor and glory, at least as far as the academy is concerned. To that end, Brockless counseled a return to the ancient classics, and glowed with a reverence for the Socratic dialogues themselves, even recommending them as a starting point for students.

Interestingly, a popular new voice has also converged on this question. I’ve recently seen a lecture by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, in which he suggests that a “new schism” ought to take place in the modern university, involving the realignment of ultimate values. In his view, these divergent ultimate values are “truth” versus “justice” (actually, “social justice”, which he contends is unjust at times). But rather than pressing for the conquest of truth over social justice, Haidt advocates for an amicable divorce. Haidt centers his lecture on a vision of education very similar to Brockless, in which universities that adopt truth as a core value dedicate themselves firmly to free expression, and open dialogue and debate in which no idea is off the table. In other words, the Socratic tradition. The same tradition Brockless described during the question and answer period of his lecture.

Allan Bloom’s book was a vanguard in this discussion, I think. Some might suggest that perhaps there really is no problem, and this is all just varying degrees of predictable conservatism occasionally surfacing above the white noise. After all, these sorts of complaints have been around for almost 50 years, and yet the generations leaving university then and now don’t seem to be too much different from each other. But are they really so much the same? Bloom (and proteges like E. D. Hirsch) would point to the degradation of “dead white males” in the academy, and their gradual replacement with relativist and anti-absolutist dogmas (in addition to the impulse toward radical activism) — and the pervasive cultural ignorance and growing hostility to truth of new students — as certain indicators. I’m not sure that Haidt, Brockless, or even Gemes would necessarily agree with that. But one thing that all of these voices seem to agree on, regardless of the reasons grounding it, is the loss of truth and goodness as guiding star values in our overall culture, and most profoundly, in the academy.

The question is what, if anything, should we do about it? Brockless and Haidt have slightly divergent opinions on this. One suggests lobbying to reestablish the traditional mission of all higher education, the other recommends a more “free market” answer (if I can call it that), by bifurcating the institution into two competing organizations, one focused on truth, the other on justice. Neither of these speakers’ solutions are entirely satisfying to me. I think this problem is bigger than all of us, and may be inevitable. I wonder if Nietzsche thought so, too.

Philosopher Kings And SmartPhones

”When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion” Herbert Spencer

Today, I attended a lecture by Derek Bates hosted by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, in London. I call it a lecture perhaps too generously. You’ll see why in a moment. The event was billed as one man’s attempt to provide a reasoned defense for the efficacy of a more direct democracy, and to propose a technological solution to the logistical problems inherent within it:

Derek Bates will argue that we should be able to properly engage with our elected representatives using modern communication and internet technology, have a “live” influence on our futures and express our opinions – effectively crowd-sourcing innovative policy and direction… A million brains could just be a whole lot better than one!

Given the nature of this topic, I am always immediately somewhat skeptical. Futurists have been falling all over themselves since the 1980’s, to explain how computers and networks would ultimately dissolve all of the logistical barriers of having large, diverse, geographically dispersed populations weigh in on a steady diet of public policy matters from the small (like when to repave the street in front of my house), to the large (such as whether or not to allow Iran’s government to engage in nuclear research). But a very rare few of them have been willing to address the founding principles behind such changes, even at a basic level like the problem of two wolves and a sheep.

So, eager to engage, I packed up my intellectual suitcase with every scrap of skepticism and critical thought on the subject I’ve ever collected, and I headed off to the hall expecting to be schooled by someone far older and far wiser than myself. I could not possibly have been more misinformed, or more disabused of my mismatched expectations, than by Derek himself.

It’s Not About What It’s About

Originally, I wanted this post to be about the problems of direct democracy, and about our continuing love affair with it, as a concept. I wanted to engage the content of Derek’s arguments as an example of this phenomenon. But I can’t do that, now, in good conscience.

You see, Derek didn’t actually have any arguments. What he did have, was a long list of banal, pedestrian complaints, and demands for more “training” of elected officials (whatever that means). His entire presentation had quite literally all intellectual depth and sophistication of a bad pub rant. And sadly, due to Derek’s unfortunate lack of podium presence, it was devoid any of the redeeming entertainment value usually found in such rants. The whole of the argument over the first hour literally boiled down to: “Politicians are ignorant and corrupt; someone needs to train them.” I honestly felt embarrassed for the man, alongside my own disgust and anger at having wasted two hours on a gorgeously sunny Sunday morning.

Derek did inspire me, however. I realized something, watching this train wreck of a slide deck: Derek is the problem. Allow me to explain.

The Hubris Of Politics

In his professional life, Derek has the scientific method on his side. He’s clearly used that to good effect, as a welding engineer and a materials scientist, in the petrochemicals industry and elsewhere. It’s highly likely that he’s actually solved quite a few very complex and very difficult problems with this training. I certainly wouldn’t dare attempt to challenge him in that realm.

Somewhere along the line, Derek has decided that his mastery of materials engineering, and the good it has brought the world, somehow now qualifies him as an expert in any number of other disciplines, including Philosophy, Sociology, Politics, Ecology, and Agriculture. Derek has become so enamored by the voluptuous beauty of his own intellect that he’s enthusiastically unshackled it from the ugly, sweaty rigors of any actual research, reading, or formal argumentation. Worse, he’s replaced those uncomfortable constraints with nothing but fantasy and a will to power.

In short, Derek is becoming a politician. But lacking the professional discipline and manipulative cunning of a career politician (or technological bureaucrat, or public policy “expert”) he’s relegated to making his one-man pitch to local ethical societies on Sunday mornings.

The War Of All Against All

But this isn’t just about Derek. It’s about all of us, and about the nature of democracy itself. Derek just happens to be a really good example of how dysfunctional we all are. Every time we step into a voting booth, or answer a political survey taker, or listen to a political speech, we’re thinking about ourselves: what gets me what I want; who do I like; how do I want to live; what makes me happy; what can someone else do for me.

This is the true nature of the pub rant. It is an expression of a broken psychology; one crying out in despair at the lack of something essential to itself, and bemoaning the inability to achieve enough mastery over the physical world to attain that desire. It rarely has anything at all to do with the external target of the verbal diarrhea, except that the target may fit some emotional template for the ranter. In a nutshell: I am owed something, and justice demands that someone be obligated to give it to me.

This is an angry child crying out for a parent. And, really, the state itself is nothing more than a collective expression of this dysfunction. Only, as adults, we have real power to do real harm in the process. Democracies of all forms and styles – in fact, monolithic institutions of power of all kinds – are fundamentally two things: Firstly, a weapon. But more importantly: the implicit social approval to use that weapon to threaten or harm others to get what you want. Political philosophers of all stripes have recognized this fact for eons, actually.

They’ve also identified another fundamental problem with the State as a form of social organization: How do you decide who gets what they want? Developmental psychologists will also point out that this is a common subterranean struggle within families, as well. Children are constantly vying for their parents’ attentions. And it’s not uncommon for siblings to attempt to manipulate parents to gain advantage over each other. Thus, it is with the State as well.

Knowing When To Quit

I don’t have an answer to this problem. How could I be expected to? I’m a 25 year veteran of the I.T. and software industries, not a political philosopher. But, then again, I don’t go around offering lectures claiming that I do have that answer.

And this is where I come back to Derek. It’s not impossible for a scientist to have something useful to say about political philosophy, just as it’s not impossible for a political philosopher to have something useful to say about science. After all, Herbert Spencer (for example) was able to bring both to heel fairly effectively, during his own lifetime.

But if you’re going to make this kind of professional leap, you really need to do it from a position of humility and curiosity — that is, if you’re not simply trying to get what you want at others’ expense. And, really, when was the last time you exhibited a politician behaving with the humility and curiosity of a scientist? Yet, this is precisely what Derek is expecting, in his demands for “better training” of politicians. Which, it seems to me, marks Derek as a pretty typical politician, himself: naive, untrained, and driven by egotistical fantasies about philosopher kings and smartphone apps.