A Good Read

(Originally written 29th November, 2013)

I’ve made various references recently to this book,

and meant to write something more directly about it. The main problem is that there is so much interesting stuff in it, that it’s hard to know where to start, let alone end. I might add, also, that I have some fairly serious reservations about it too; one of the positions criticised in it is what he calls ‘the rationalist delusion’. That’s me, folks, but here I don’t mean to go into why it’s not a delusion, and why I’m right, and Jonathan Haidt is wrong.

Much better anyone interested should go and buy a copy of the book, not least because it is well written, and cleverly too. Haidt started off as – and I think still is – a proper scientist, a psychologist who studies morality, but with controlled experiments, and reference to what scans can say about what is happening in our brains when we experience moral feelings. As such, he understands very well how to persuade, and says in the book that he is going to use what he has learned in the book. The main points of each chapter are also set out clearly, and summarised at the end; he really does know how to teach, as well as do research.

The first main message is that the rational and instinctual parts of our brains are distinct, with the instinctual being far more important. He uses a metaphor of the elephant and its rider, with the elephant, very large, but also with a lot of knowledge and memory, so far from dumb, being the instinctual, while the rider is the relatively puny rational mind, which will sometimes guide the elephant, but most of the time just goes with it. In this schema, our morality is elephantine, and the ‘rationalist delusion’ is to think that we can get to what’s right and wrong by abstract reasoning. And this he knows from seeing how key parts of the brain light up when presented with moral issues.

Another message is the variety of moral impulses, and how they differ between what he, as an American, calls liberals and conservatives. Liberals focus on a reduced number of moral impulses – compassion and fairness – while conservatives have better developed feelings about loyalty, sanctity and authority, while also being able to understand compassion and fairness. So liberals systematically fail to understand what makes conservatives tick, but not vice versa.

This is the starting point for an element of personal history in the book. Haidt describes himself as originally a rather dogmatic liberal, but with the insights his research had given him, became frustrated at the needless mistakes John Kerry was making when running against George Bush. In the course of the book he also describes spending some time in India, being initially appalled by aspects of the Hindu tradition, but after a while finding himself able to feel they were as legitimate as his own cultural position. Having finally landing a position at the University of Virginia, he also found himself coming to admire the rituals associated with college football games – alumni coming in from all over the States, happily getting drunk on generous supplies of beer, and roaring their team on. The narrative of becoming more conservative, but also more understanding, as someone gets older is hardly new, but I’ve never read it told along with the associated neuro-science.

There’s also a persuasive attack on what I think, following reading this book, is one of the weak points of what he would consider the dogma of the ‘New Atheism“. This is the doctrine, which may seem abstruse, that there cannot be ‘group selection’ in human evolution. In doing so, he is positioning himself against one of the arguments of Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”, which is that the only sort of altruism which could have emerged is kin selection, one summarised by the aphorism that it’s only worth laying down your life to save two brothers or eight cousins. Instead, Haidt argues that, while still being “90% chimpanzee”, we are also “groupish”, so perhaps 10% bee. To make the case, he has to argue also that human evolution did not stop suddenly when all the things which seem to make us human developed, and allowed us to co-operate in large social groups – e.g. the language, use of fire to cook, and he would argue, the emergence of morality hard wired into our genes. My mention of cooking here does not come from Haidt’s book, but this I read a while back “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“, where the impact of the cultural practice of cooking on how our guts and jaws have evolved seems unavoidable. So I find I can accept that what Haidt has studied, which any reasonable person would call morality, is a natural phenomenon, rather than having a purely rational basis.

That’s about as much as I want to say at this point. The subtitle for the book is also revealing “Why good people are divided by politics and religion”. Haidt is appalled by the partisan politics which have developed in the US, and wants more than anything else to help people overcome this behaviour. It’s why I think of all the people on the Forum, it will appeal most to Lee, which is why I’ve ordered a copy for him, and am about to pick it up from Kirkdale Bookshop. Sorry my generosity will extend no further, but I seriously recommend this as a good read to everyone else.

Post theist Christians

I’ve self identified as a post theist Christian for years, but back to back reading of a couple of contrasting books by authors who are also prompts this blog.

The books are ‘Humankind’ by Rutger Bregman, and ‘Dominion’ by Tom Holland. Both authors are atheists, but both able to acknowledge the Christian origins of their ethics. They are also both historians, although Tom Holland was never an academic one. Of the two, Tom Holland’s ethics could be said to be more Christian, since he only gives history, by which he will mean largely his account of Christian history, as a source for humanist values – from p. 522

and by rejecting the idea that morality also has roots in a scientific understanding of human nature he puts himself at odds with Bregman. Bregman is much more interested in the science, of evolutionary psychology, and the prehistory of what happened to human society when the neolithic drove us to live in large social units. Tom Holland’s history begins later, in the Ancient world, and tells of how its brutality was transformed into our more modern civilisation by ideas such as St. Paul’s.

Although interested in evolutionary psychology and prehistory, Bregman still comes to it as a historian, devastatingly when he does some archival research to challenge the myth put forward by Jared Diamond about the collapse of Easter Island’s society. Humans may well cause severe damage to our environment, but that is not what caused societal breakdown on Easter Island. Rather it was the historical processes of colonial exploitation.

As a historian, Bregman touches on but doesn’t get directly involved in theoretical biological and philosophical arguments. This is the domain of the so called ‘New Atheists’ – Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. At one level there is not that big a gap between these and ‘Post theist Christians’. All are atheists, but while Harris, to take an example, (Chapter 2, ‘The Moral Landscape’) argues that our ability to judge is something we bring to religion, it therefore cannot come from it, Tom Holland’s account of Christianity is a pretty good demonstration that somewhere there is a flaw in this logic. In the same way Bregman, looking at historical facts, makes it clear there is a flaw somewhere in Jared Diamond’s extrapolation of his natural science approach to a specific historical case.

Instead Bregman highlights biologists whose research suggest that humans might be, by nature, something like what we, as moderns, see as good. Not completely, because he admits that while with people we know we may be co-operative and egalitarian, xenophobia may also be in our nature. Tom Holland’s ‘Dominion’ can be seen as a historical account of how that xenophobia developed and was controlled over the last two millennia, but that is not Bregman’s focus. Similarly, Tom Holland’s focus is not on natural sources of our morality, although he does enjoy highlighting the Christian origins of the idea of natural rights.

Will either Tom Holland or Rutger Bregman be engaging with each other one day? I do hope so – it would be well worth attending if they do.

For reference, reviews of both books here from the Guardian, so not paywalled

Humankind by Rutger Bregman review – why we are all deep-down decent

Dominion by Tom Holland review – the legacy of Christianity