Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’- a review

When I met my friend Nitin Pai in July in his office at Takshashila Institution on a Sunday evening, at the end of the conversation, he recommended the book, ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt who teaches at the New York University (NYU). I read some reviews. Ordered it on Kindle then and finished it recently. I am glad I read it. I am thankful to Nitin for recommending it. He has done a very good job. I wrote an article based on the book for MINT last Tuesday. You can find it here. This blog post is largely based on that.

Why are the Indians still supportive of the decision of the Indian government’s decision to demonetize currency notes without replacement as Prof. Indira Rajaraman had called it, despite their inconvenience and hardship?

Why is it likely that Ms. Merkel’s decision to contest for an unprecedented fourth term after her liberal decision on refugees could turn out to be a crowning failure on her illustrious career?

Why is ‘unity in diversity’ not a slogan that has only one conventional interpretation that diversity is to be celebrated, unquestioningly? Put differently, why the case for federalism and devolution in a country as large and diverse as India from a governance perspective has its limits too?

If you want answers to these questions and more, the best place to start would be Jonathan Haidt’ book, ‘The Righteous Mind’.  The book is an important read for many, especially those who believe that they are liberals and are open-minded. But, that is an oxymoron.

That is what the author, a self-confessed lifelong liberal, atheist and scientist, establishes. He had equated conservatism with orthodoxy, religion, faith and rejection of science. But, he sees things somewhat differently now. His open mind and the spirit of inquiry disqualifies him from being admitted to the ranks of modern-day ‘Liberal’.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part shows that reason is not the one that drives intuition but it is the other way around. That portion must sound familiar to those who have read the works of behavioural science researchers such as Professor Daniel Kahneman, for example. Without the heart, the head drops dead. Jonathan Haidt writes:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.

The belief in the infallibility and the primacy of reason – in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Kohlberg – leads to the primacy of the individual over groups. All human beings are capable of reason and hence all are equal. Anything that harms the individual or is unfair to the individual is not acceptable; is immoral. There is no morality beyond harm or inequality. Social norms and groups do not matter.

The second part of the book prepares the ground for the third part that exposes the limitations and the societal consequences of the mindless application of the above ‘liberal’ principles or concerns. There is more to fairness than equality. The theory of karma is about fairness as proportionality, rewards and consequences consistent with efforts and actions or the lack thereof. Emphasis on equality encourages free riders and severs the link between effort and reward. Sustained over time, it causes societies and economies to weaken and eventually collapse. Thus, what is happening in Indian school education systems across States has dangerous portents. The link between effort and reward must be restored.

Similarly, there is more to morality than merely not causing harm. With the demonetisation move, clearly some people have been caused hardship or harmed. That has raised many a liberal’s hackle. But, even those who are affected are still supportive because they place the immorality of black money above the harm and hardship caused to them. Of course, there are thresholds and trade-offs beyond which the prioritisation can shift. For now, it is possible to explain this dichotomy using Haidt’s framework.

Groups that are cohesive easily defeat those that are not and are fragmented. Group rituals that are dismissed as irrational and inefficient bind members of the group. Think of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. It demands a 45-day preparation from the devotees. It demands abstinence from meat, alcohol and other physical comforts. The more sacrifices that a group demands of its members, the longer the group lasts and better it coheres. That is why externally imposed interference in group norms and rituals are guaranteed to destroy group coherence and identity.

Haidt channels Emile Durkheim to warn that “societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.”

Recognising and respecting differences is, in general, the right thing to do. But, it is a fine line. In principle, federalism is desirable and is effective. But, there are lines in the sand that cannot be crossed and nor should the principle of federalism be invoked to promote differences in all and sundry aspects. Then, unity would slowly unravel. “The process of converting Pluribus (diverse people) into Unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.”

The question is whether Germany has abruptly halted that miracle with its policy on refugees, not to mention the veritable mess that it has created in international politics too. “In a paper revealingly titled “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.” Vielen dank, Frau Merkel.

Jonathan Haidt is walking the talk. With likeminded professors, he has now set up the Heterodox Academy with the goal of promoting viewpoint diversity in the academy, primarily in the United States. He is clearly striving to be open minded. Something that most liberals lack. Indeed, certitude is the hallmark of self-styled ‘liberals’. In my view, there is something inherently contradictory about a liberal’s certitudes.

Some important quotes from the book:

The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated those expectations, the first moral matrix was born. 57 (Remember that a matrix is a consensual hallucination.) That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing.

Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song “Imagine.” Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would “be as one.” It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something.

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