The Pain of Being Right

by | Mar 8, 2023 | Mind Management | 0 comments

We are social creatures: our survival depends upon the reliability of our partners. Unfortunately, “reliability” is a contingent quality. Every display of support for us is an advertisement. Some onlookers might offer a greater reward, others might seize by force. “Morality,” in many circles, is thus concerned with creating fences to preserve our community.

In ancient Athens, those “fences” were literally walls that ensured that a wife bore her husband’s children. A husband catching her inflagrante dilecto was permitted to impose summary capital punishment. In modern America, the walls are often more porous, but defended by military assault weapons that deter even the police. In both cases, fear is the anchor of social stability.

Moral philosophy (which includes theology) recognizes a contrary impulse: helping others feels good, even when no tangible reward is received. Religious, commercial, and public service are environments that bridge the boundaries of class and tradition, facilitating opportunities for help to be sought and received.

Given this framing, rational moral dialog would seem to have compelling advantages. Lean into caring, and fear dissolves. In practice, however, modern America is dissolving into hostile camps. Illuminating the psychology that drives the process is the goal of Jonathon Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.”

Haidt’s work is erudite, full of references to moral and social philosophers. While Haidt is a liberal, the competing perspectives are presented with care and respect. He does not pick sides. Haidt’s goal, rather, is to reconcile theory with how people think and behave. The evidence, to be blunt, is that most of our moral reasoning is not concerned with problem solving, but with justifying the belief that we are reliable partners. In other words, we seek to maximize social opportunities for ourselves, rather than to serve others.

Given this natural tendency and the value of reliable partnership, social creatures are all confronted with the need to police their community to eliminate free-loaders. Here Haidt turns to evolutionary psychology, describing the signals and responses that lead groups to reject members. These arose first in species without language. Humanity developed moral theory, Haidt suggests, to identify and manage these urges for our benefit.

Behavior is complex, and any categorization of evolutionary pressures must simplify. In that simplification, the categories can be fuzzy if not arbitrary. Familiar with the excesses of scapegoating, Haidt has the wisdom to limit anecdotes as a foundation for categorization. His program began with analysis of moral dialog in the public sphere. Then he and his peers created a survey site that allows participants to respond to abstract moral dilemmas.

Through analysis of the data, they discovered six broad categories of moral judgment: fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and collaboration. That conclusion was not reached directly. Haidt shares that the original theory had five categories. Two were refined and the sixth added to resolve contradictions in responses to dilemmas that were designed to elicit similar judgments.

Haidt then turns to our political discourse, asserting that progressives use a more limited moral palette than conservatives. He turns his attention to certain litmus tests for progressive and libertarian camps. The central issue will be familiar to anyone who has considered seriously Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism. Organisms are selfish, and corporations are superorganisms. Smith held that we benefit individually from the competitions between corporations, but governments must restrain corporations to protect personal wealth. Haidt then asserts that libertarian philosophy explains how inefficiencies in our health care system arise from insurance and government regulation.

In summing up, Haidt attempts to explain how our competing political camps arose. Our genetic inheritance controls the sensitivity of our minds to stimulus, and this predisposes some of us to seek variety while others seek stability. These innate traits lead us into experiences that reinforce our natural tendencies – recognizing that a serious trauma can overwhelm . Finally, we do not react to circumstances as they are, but interpret them as part of a larger life narrative. These factors combine to make us resistant as adults to alternative interpretations of experience. The progressive and libertarian not only cannot agree, they find it hard to understand each other.

Still, Haidt reaches for some unifying principle to motivate a rapprochement, offering this definition:

[Moral capital is] the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of value, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolve psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

This is comprehensive, but also opaque. I also judge it as a negative proposition: the “psychological mechanisms” that Haidt cites are mechanisms of other-judgment. They protect us from being taken advantage of.

To contrast, in 2005 I proposed a positive definition of morality as a meta-value:

Morality is found in any system of values that expands the domain in which love is expressed.

What Haidt, mired in the perspective of evolutionary genetics, fails to grasp is that the capacity to love (to act for another’s benefit without consideration for our own) is uniquely human. From Darwin’s perspective, to love is the most unnatural and perverse capacity imaginable. Fortunately, a loving relationship is a profound catalyst to intellectual and emotional growth. In response, we seize opportunities to realize such relationships. Through that experience, new networks evolve. We are not capable of mature love until our late twenties.

The validation that we find in loving (in “Existential Psychotherapy,” Yalom asserts that loving is the only antidote to personal meaningless) is why we teach our children. They respond to those conditions not as reasoning beings, but to secure survival through primitive conditioning. They just do what works. Exposed to different social priorities, the natural response is as though physically threatened. It is only through critical and moral dialog that we can overcome that tendency, and fully accept difference as an opportunity to choose for ourselves. To love another – a devotion grounded to seeing them as they are – is essential to learning from their experience. Our personal growth is tied to our capacity to love.

To conclude, Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” explains our political division as arising naturally from socialization of the strategies for managing free loaders in communities of animals. He proposes a definition of moral capital to guide us away from conflict toward constructive dialog. Ultimately, though, I believe that his framing ignores the most important difference between animals and humans: our ability to love.

Recognizing moral intelligence as the final frontier in personal development (after practical in emotional intelligence), my therapeutic practices are all grounded in awakening and strengthening the capacity to love. To learn more, reach out.


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