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.