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Do the right thing

April 10, 2012 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

The RSA was delighted today to host a talk by the social psychologist and public intellectual Jonathan Haidt. I loved Jonathan first big book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ and I wasn’t disappointed by his new creation ’The Righteous Mind – Why good people are divided by politics and religion’. I strongly encourage my readers to buy the book or failing that download the video or podcast of the event from the RSA website in a few days’ time.

But in the meantime here are Jonathan’s three core arguments, and for each a specific highlight of the case which stood out for me plus a question I think the argument raises:

Argument: Because the elephant of intuition is more powerful than the rider of deliberation, moral judgements are firstly and mostly intuitive and only subsequently and occasionally reasoned

Highlight: Experiments which test subjects’ reactions to stories involving abnormal but not strictly harmful behaviour find that, instead of reasoning leading to response, the subjects react first and then develop – often rather contrived – rationales for their reactions

Question: As people in general become more reflexive (more inclined to think about their life and their values) and indeed more neurologically reflexive (aware of their own cognitive frailties) will the power of judgement start to shift from elephant to rider?

Argument: We have six moral ‘taste receptors’: these are care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. The liberal left has a message which stimulates the first three but is much less relevant to the last three. While the conservative right may not be as credible on care/harm, still, it has a message which stimulates all six receptors.

Highlight: (actually two) in most people the fairness/cheating receptor is more about proportionality (rewards for hard work and punishments for misdemeanours) than  ideas of social equality. Put another way, we care more about procedural than distributional justice. And, conservatives tend to be more accurate in describing the views of people on the left than people on the liberal left are in describing what conservatives believe.

Question: While the conservative right may appeal to a greater array of moral instincts, doesn’t this also mean conservatives have to contend with more internal contradictions; most obviously between social conservatism and libertarianism?

Argument: Human beings are 90% chimp (self-interested individuals) and 10% bee (group oriented social animals). Sacred beliefs (by which we usually mean religion) have an evolutionary purpose at the level of group selection in relation to promoting solidarity and sacrifice and discouraging free riding

Highlight: Richard Sosis’ study of two hundred communes in 19th century America found that the more sacrifices that were demanded of members (as part of a religious creed) the more likely by far they were to survive.

Question: How can and should the ‘hive’ instinct evolve in the twenty first century? How do we reconcile the benefits in well-being and pro-sociality of powerful group bonds based on common beliefs and characteristics with the benefits to organisations and societies of diversity and the sheer facts of a shrinking world of moving, connected people?

I do hope that whets your appetite for the book and the podcast. And, by the way, if these are the kinds of questions which interest and motivate you maybe you might want to find out more about applying to be a Fellow of the RSA.  Given the antics of a certain Trenton Oldfield on Saturday  we may soon have a space to fill

PS Much to my discomfort, and by sheer co-incidence, to illustrate teamwork Jonathan’s first slide today featured two rowing boats!



  • Dan

    I am generally a fan of Haidt’s work, in particular his efforts to identify the basis for different political inclinations, but I hope you are paraphrasing him unfairly here.

    Human beings are not ‘90% chimp’ – for one thing we are just as similar genetically to Bonobos, who are very different behaviourally from chimps, and not at all purely self interested in the commonly understood way (see Frans de Waal’s work).

    In any case, you could just as easily say we are ‘89% daffodil’ or some such meaningless statistic, but these sort of numbers are most often brought out as part of the worryingly common attempts to justify particular political opinions by inaccurately doing down humanity, rather than by serious thinkers like Haidt. I await the podcast with interest – as I say, I hope you’ve got him wrong.

  • Carl Allen

    The notions of the three arguments are in competition with the effect of accumulated memories that pass on to, let us use the age group 14-16 at random, and their own experiences and observations.

    And if Trenton is an example of Fellowship action, then he is to be left alone as all sorts of Fellowship in action are desirable all other things being equal.

  • Rahul Kamath FRSA

    Trenton was a fellow? I guess the RSA is a big tent.

  • Livy

    If I get Haidt’s new book…. will it help me understand what’s going on when I see a guy throw a cigarette butt out of the window of his hybrid Prius that dons a ‘Meat is Murder’ bumper sticker?

  • Erica Blair

    Human beings are 90% chimp (self-interested individuals)

    Chimps aren’t self-interested individuals, they’re social animals. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a specious argument. I would assess Jonathan Haidt as 90% chump.

  • Matthew Mezey

    Hi Matthew,

    Like you, I really enjoyed Jonathan’s new book, and his talk.

    So much so that I’ve written a… long response/review of The Righteous Mind here:

    (Do watch the video everyone! I need to do that too, as I was frantically tweeting during his lecture etc, so kind of missed half of what was going on!!).

    I think my broad hypothesis would be that people who have gone through the two turning-points that Haidt tells us he’s gone through and reached a more open, pragmatic and post-partisan way of thinking are vital to the health of democracy and to innovative policy-making in the future.

    We need to find out how many people have been through these turning-points, what these people are up to, how we can help them when they are involved in pro-social activities. IMHO these are RSA people! ;-)

    (I ran out of time and didn’t actually include those conclusions in what I wrote, I don’t think).

    A Ken Wilber-derived ‘Integral Politics’ is the seed of one kind of attempt to develop a post-partisan politics, that takes into account the multiplicity that Haidt talks about. The Campaign Company/Pat Dade use of ‘Values Modes’ might, arguably, be a route to another such post-partisan politics.

    I’ve just started reading Prof Jack Crittenden’s ‘Wide as the World: Cosmopolitan Identity, Integral Politics, and Democratic Dialogue’ – hopefully it will present a step towards a post-partisan politics (of multiplicity) that Haidt would enjoy. (Shame it’s so pricy!).

    My piece about Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ is titled:

    ‘Beyond ‘The Righteous Mind': helping Jonathan Haidt understand his own turning-points’

    Though I love the book, I came up with 10 criticisms (areas I’d love Jonathan to pay more attention to at some point):

    1 Haidt’s model cannot explain his own two turning points/awakenings
    2. Move over Richard Shweder: “Ken Wilber is our Neo”, says Larry Wachowski
    3. Haidt’s world without ‘reflective thinkers’
    4. Does ‘Hiving’ decoupled from moral development open up the risk of Nazi-like conformism?
    5. Haidt’s misleading generalisations about ‘WEIRD’ western individualistic psychology
    6. Haidt seems to have forgotten that ‘Meditation tames and calms the elephant’ (Haidt, the Happiness Hypothesis 2006)
    7. No-one steers by their own compass
    8. Haidt’s multiplicity… leaves out multiplicity!
    9. How to flip the Hive switch
    10 Dan McAdams – stripping his contribution of its developmentalist core

    Do have a read here: (which is on the social community site. You’ll need to join it, if you want to actually add a comment yourself).

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts on Haidt :-)

    Apologies that it’s all a bit rough and ready and rushed.

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Senior Networks Manager – Online & International)

  • Margaret Bowker

    When the Healthcare Act was being challenged in the US Supreme Court recently, the first two moral taste receptors: care/harm and liberty/oppression were putting their cases forward. It was demanding balancing them against each other, trying to be reasonably neutral. Universal access to healthcare is a human right my instincts told me and surely, not seeing it purely as a commercial, sometimes unaffordable, product doesn’t threaten liberty, but I suggested in my comment some form of compromise to ease what I hoped would be an upholding the act decision. I intuitively came down on the liberal side, and found a report of conservative evidence that is not an inherent national responsibility to care for unknown others, the analogy was apparently drawn of not having to push an unknown blind person from the path of a car, rather disturbing. How would Jonathan Haidt rationalise it?