Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" research and Civics

 I read Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind last summer, and it's stuck with me. It's an ambitious book which connects many different kinds of social/cognitive psychology findings with many different areas of our social lives.

One of those areas is politics, specifically the "Liberal/Conservative" continuum (and I think it makes this connection in a very respectful, open-minded way). Whenever I hear news about the presidential campaign, I think about Haidt's research, and I wish someone would go to the work on connecting the dots for me. Does Haidt's research predict or explain anything about the current campaign rhetoric and reactions? And if so, how?

Yesterday, I discovered that my wish got fulfilled! The New York Times article is a fascinating read: Haidt's research shows that people along the "Liberal/Conservative" continuum respond to and focus differently to different aspects of moral decisions, and those differences might explain some of the polarization we see in the presidential campaign, and our reactions to the campaign. (Note: the article is about much more than one candidate, promise!)

posted by Rob McEntarffer


Jerry O'Keefe said...

Of course, if Haidt is correct, most readers will react to your post (and the NYT article) in an intuitive, perhaps heuristic, way. For example, I approach the NYT with a preconceived notion, looking for material that supports that notion - at least in the first read. Putting aside the inferences (racism, fascism, etc.) in the article, I think it misses the point. It wants to describe the playing field as a spectrum of values, but I believe we don't operate on a conscious values level while engaged in the initial intuitive or heuristic stage of decision-making, except as a point-in-time summation. Rushworth Kidder's "Institute for Global Ethics" demonstrated this phenomenon years ago in their workshops. Nor do I think the article's placement of values (e.g., fairness) on the liberal/conservative spectrum is accurate (or fair). Try asking your class for a definition of "fairness." Lavoie's "FAT City," for example, advocates that fairness means that "everyone gets what he/she needs." I'm not fond of that definition and wonder what the NYT - or anyone playing the "fairness" card - means by "fairness," especially since the article seems to suggest that conservatives are lacking in it. Thanks for posting the article and suffering my rambling.

theindependentwhig said...

In my view Haidt's work is a Rosetta Stone for gaining a wider and deeper understanding of human nature.

I think much of the rancor the flows back and forth across the political aisle can be traced directly to a LACK of such an understanding. Without that understanding we tend to characterize one another as something we're not and then vilify each other for being that something, which we're not.

That lack of understanding, I believe, is a failure of the education system.

I think correcting that failure would not require a major overhaul of the system, but really just some tweaking around the edges of the curriculum.

Imagine, say, spending some time in a high school civics or history course outlining Haidt's three principles of moral psychology and the moral foundations, and then asking the kids to write an essay that identifies the moral foundations that appear to be in play in a current or historical event or speech.

In economics, are the moral foundations behind Keynes and Hayeck different? How so?

In health class, or in psych, what are the three principles of moral psychology? Why is it so hard to convince someone else to see things your way? Why does it seem that a perfectly reasonable argument constructed from facts and logic is so ineffective?

This is exactly the program I've been recommending for years. I'm one of the three conservatives mentioned in the acknowledgements of "The Righteous Mind." I write a blog under the pseudonym of my screen name, The Independent Whig, in which I opine on this and many other topics from the perspective of my own personal moral matrix.

theindependentwhig said...

Jerry O'Keefe is on the right track. Concepts like fairness, liberty, equality, and justice have different meanings in different moral matrices. A quick example:

I play in a weekly poker game with the same people. I lose every week.

Is the game fair?

In one sense of the word fairness, if there's one set of rules that applies, and is applied, the same to every player, and every player sticks to the rules, then the game is fair.

But in another sense of the word fairness, the fact that I lose every time means that the game is inherently NOT fair. The deck is stacked, so to speak, against me.

Just as there are two types of fairness, there are also two types of freedom: Freedom from and freedom to, also known as Negative Liberty and Positive Liberty.

The logic extends similarly, in my view, to concepts of equality and justice.

Equality under the law, or equality of outcome.

Justice as a process, or justice as a result?

Here's a link to a more detailed essay I wrote on this topic:

theindependentwhig said...

One need not, and in my personal opinion should not, as a teacher, take sides on issues like these. You can take sides to your heart's content in the voting booth.

Rather, the goal should simply be to increase society's collective understanding of human nature: what makes people think and say and do the things they do.

Each student will arrive at their own conclusions about which concepts of liberty, equality, fairness, etc., resonate most deeply with them.

Partisanship is just another word for what Haidt calls "groupishness." Humans evolved to form into groups of like minded people which then compete with other groups fro political power. And since "intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second," we're very good at seeing the speck in the eye of those with whom we disagree while being blind to the log in our own. And that's a good thing. It is through that aspect of human nature that knowledge eventually emerges.

It's not partisanship, per se, that causes problems, its misinformation and incorrect assumptions about people who think differently from ourselves.

The benefit of an education program like what I've very briefly summarized here would be to dramatically increase the common ground between left and right through their mutual understanding of human nature, and what motivates the other side. Both sides would know that the is not crazy or stupid or duped by its leaders, but instead is motivated by a different mix of moral foundations.

If we could achieve that then I'm confident that the young people who emerge from our schools into adult life, some of whom will become leaders of industry, government, and thought, will have a greater empathy for one another, and will have a greater tendency to develop better social policies.

theindependentwhig said...

I notice your guest poster on 1/8/16, Michael Sandler, is a teacher at Arlington High in Massachusetts.

My alma mater!!!