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Jan 01 2013

Reading Jonathan Haidt

I’m reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. So far I’m finding it less annoying than other stuff of his I’ve read. I think I’m seeing a flaw, though, but maybe he gets to what I think is missing later on.

Groups are useful, so cohesion is useful. Religions foster cohesion, and are an efficient way to discourage cheaters and free riders. People behave better when they think someone is watching.

Groups can do things that individuals can’t do.

Haidt thinks modern intellectual types – people like him, people like me – overvalue individuals and undervalue groups.

I suppose that’s true of me, at least up to a point. But but but

Well for one thing, modern intellectual types do a pretty good job of managing groups that can accomplish more than individuals can. Far from perfect, but pretty good. For another thing, anti-modern anti-intellectual types who love the group more than the individual can create hells on earth.

There’s an interesting bit on pp 256-7 though, about a study by the anthropologist Richard Sosis, of 200 communes founded in the US in the 19th century. Some were religious, others were secular and mostly socialist. The religious ones survived longer. Why?

He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members.

But that worked for religious ones and not secular ones. Why?

Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.”

Pesky secular people ask why, and refuse to do it if they don’t get a good answer. Then everything falls apart. Costly sacrifice is a good solution to the problem of cooperation without kinship, and secular people are bad at it.

Interesting. Suggestive. But…

Well, what if for instance the costly sacrifices are made by just one part of the group? Like, say – oh, just wildly at random here – women? Other races? People branded “untouchable”?

Haidt can be surprisingly bad at seeing this, or at least at mentioning it. But I’ve read only a little so far (I jumped ahead to 256), so maybe in this book he does better.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    simonsays

    I wonder what these “socialist communes” were? I do know that the 19th and 20th century labor movements in the US were attacked violently, which might have a wee bit to do with their lack of survival.

  2. 2
    Sastra

    Religion doesn’t really give us different moral imperatives: it starts out by giving us different facts to work from. If you believed every fact claim that a fundamentalist believes, then you’d agreed that virtually everything they do now makes sense.

    Religions give people background facts which are special to believers. That specialness is dangerous. I hope Haidt isn’t focusing too much on the pragmatic value of positive outcomes and ignoring the arbitrariness of such outcomes — given the method.

  3. 3
    Tim Harris

    What struck me about Haidt’s book, which I did not much like,was its American parochialism – that is not meant (I being British – though I have lived in Japan for 40 years) to sound condescending (though, alas, I suspect it does), but to me the book seemed concerned almost solely with America’s ‘culture wars’, which it lazily assumed existed everywhere. Also it did not analyse why the America’s culture wars have taken the form they have: I should have thought that some serious sociological, historical and political analyses were in order. I also immensely disliked the assumption, or assertion (I read the book a long time ago), that the moral feelings of fundamentalists and chauvinists were somehow more profound or intense than those of mere liberals, and therefore somehow better: a nodding acquaintance with Montaigne would disabuse Haidt of that prejudice (I think it is one). Haidt’s story of his gingerly putting a little American flag in his car window after 9/11 made me cringe – though I remember being shocked by the feelings that came to the fore in myself during the Falklands War (a war that, despite my loathing for Thatcher, I supported – the Argentinian government was no government but a bunch of thugs, and an Argentinian friend of ours had suffered because of them); the feelings did not, however, prompt me to start displaying Union Jacks. Another matter was the dreadful, feel-good style, which seems to have become de rigueur in books of this kind.

  4. 4
    Steve Caldwell

    Ophelia wrote:

    Pesky secular people ask why, and refuse to do it if they don’t get a good answer. Then everything falls apart. Costly sacrifice is a good solution to the problem of cooperation without kinship, and secular people are bad at it.

    I think the closest thing to at creating secular communities with the trappings of religion to encourage intergroup cooperation is Unitarian Universalism. During the mid-to-late 20th century, Unitarian Universalists were heavily humanist, atheist, and/or freethinker in their demographics. Even so, they still used religious language to reinforce group norms through “covenants.”

    They still had in the past and do have today some problems with individuals who place individual concerns above group concerns.

    But their anti-oppression work around issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, physical ability, etc is pretty much what the Atheism Plus proposal was attempting to accomplish.

    The only difference is they had their religious covenant to help contain the excesses of individualism in their groups.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Tim – ah no it doesn’t sound condescending, at least not to me, because I hate that. It was one of the things I disliked most about Chris Mooney’s vendetta against vocal atheists: he kept talking in US terms as if they were universal.

    Another matter was the dreadful, feel-good style, which seems to have become de rigueur in books of this kind.

    Yes yes yes. I co-wrote a couple of books of that kind and I avoided that style like the plague. Fortunately no one objected.

  6. 6
    Stacy

    @simonsays, I know very little about them, but there were a fair number of Utopian communes in the U.S. in the 19th century. Some of them were founded on Transcendental principles. Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, founded one called Fruitlands. She wrote about a fictionalized version of Fruitlands and its collapse in a short story called Transcendental Wild Oats.

  7. 7
    Matt Penfold

    What struck me about Haidt’s book, which I did not much like,was its American parochialism – that is not meant (I being British – though I have lived in Japan for 40 years) to sound condescending (though, alas, I suspect it does), but to me the book seemed concerned almost solely with America’s ‘culture wars’, which it lazily assumed existed everywhere.

    I have not read Haidt’s book, but I have noticed that accommodationism tends to be very US-centric. I especially remember Dawkins and others being taken to task for criticizing religion because, it was argued, it would make it harder to get moderate religious people to support the fight against creationism in US schools. I did once ask Mooney why he ignored the rest of the world, and although he promised to answer he never did.

  8. 8
    Lyanna

    And why, pray tell, is it a desirable thing for these “communes” to survive at all?

    Aren’t the members of communes dissociating themselves from the wider group of society? Aren’t they turning their backs on the society they come from, the society that makes them possible?

  9. 9
    Lyanna

    I can’t stand Haidt, in case it’s not screamingly obvious. He mistakes angry bigotry for moral profundity, he persistently misses the point by failing to consider subjugated minorities as real people, and he’s smug about it. I wish I could sentence him to a life spent as the wife of an abusive husband in a fundamentalist Christian community. Then he can start making some of these “costly sacrifices.”

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    No, I can’t either, really, and I’ve posted to that effect a fair bit in the past. I’ve read enough more now (I’m sampling rather than reading straight through, so far) to find the same old Haidt with the same old blinkers on.

  11. 11
    agen bola

    top bgt… sedap pasti ni, harus dicobain ni dirumah nanti siang. thanks ya.

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