The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics

In his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt argues that our political and religious preferences — a perennial source of divisiveness and conflict — are an expression of our underlying moral psychology, and he anticipates that an understanding of our moral psychology may help to bring people together, offer them a new perspective on ongoing conflicts, and possibly facilitate conflict resolution.  His goal is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of political and religious debate and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity.  Arguably, a core question for Haidt is what type of understanding will truly help people to resolve conflicts?  While awe, wonder, and curiosity may be a useful starting point for the development of a perspective on conflict, some form of functional, applied understanding is needed to resolve political and religious conflicts.  A profound modesty permeates Haidt’s view — a view informed by a scientific understanding of the deeply emotional, intuitive, selfish, and groupish nature of our moral psychology.  However, in focusing on the subtle and possibly dominant nature of emotion and intuition in shaping our moral judgement and action, Haidt may have intuitively set a limit on the value of collective reasoning and applied systems science.  

The Righteous Mind and our intuitive, subtle, differentiated moral landscape

Scientific understanding of moral psychology has undergone some significant changes over the past 50 years.  In the 1960s and 1970s, moral psychology was dominated by rationalism, a view exemplified in the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg.  Piaget viewed moral development in children as one strand of their more general cognitive development.  Piaget focused squarely on cognition and mental models of right and wrong, good and bad.  For Piaget, increasingly adequate models of fairness and justice emerge in tandem with an orderly, cumulative, and directional sequence of increasingly higher-order, rational and adequate mental models of the world - models that help the child adapt to their environment.  Kohlberg elaborated this rationalist tradition by examining the changes in the nature of deliberation that children and young adults engage in when faced with hypothetical dilemmas (e.g., should Heinz steal the drugs he needs to help his dying wife?).   Kohlberg found that reasoning tended to develop from a lower-order focus on authority, the rule of law, and conformity to a higher-order focus on justice and the variable and subtle conditions under which it might be acceptable to violate the rule of law and thus pursue higher goods.  The emerging view, shaped largely by western cultural ideals, was that higher levels of moral development tend toward a focus on treating individuals well — avoiding harm and promoting fairness.  As such, transcending a lower level of moral development characterized by a more conventional focus on loyalty, respect, duty, patriotism, or tradition is a key feature of moral development.

One problem with this view of moral belief and behavior is that it does not reflect the dominant moral systems of non-Western cultures, some of which focus strongly on principles of respect, duty, loyalty, authority, and purity.  In India, for example, a child would not address his father by his first name and thus risk violating moral principles of respect and authority.  Conversely, in the U.S., addressing an elder by their first name may violate a social convention, under certain circumstances, but the average student in an American University would not perceive this act as a violation of a universal moral principle.  Similarly, principles of purity or sanctity may be raised to the status of universal moral principles in some cultures (e.g.,  it is universally unacceptable to eat your dog if it is accidentally killed by a car), but in cultures where the moral compass is exclusively centered on the principle of harm and well-being, eating your dead dog may be considered disgusting, but if one can reasonably conclude that it does not harm anyone, then one may accept the conclusion that it is ok do it, as the act of not eating dead dogs is simply a social convention.

As such, an important observation for Haidt is that different groups of people value different moral principles, including principles of Sanctity, Authority, Loyalty, Fairness, Liberty, and Care.  Even within the U.S. there is significant cultural variation across the democratic (liberal) and republican (conservative) political divide.  Conservatives endorse loyalty, authority, and sanctity as core moral principles.  But conservatives also endorse the moral principles of care, liberty, and fairness, and thus Haidt notes that conservatives draw upon a broad moral foundation.   Liberals, on the other hand, are more exclusive in their emphasis on principles of care, liberty, and fairness, with care for victims of oppression being the most prominent and salient moral principle in their moral matrix.  Liberals do not endorse loyalty, authority, and sanctity to the same degree as conservatives.

Haidt also highlights the powerful emotional and intuitive nature of our moral psychology.  The emotional and intuitive nature of our moral reasoning helps to explain why conservative politics, with its wider moral matrix, often has much wider public appeal, and why debates between conservatives and liberals are often dominated by anger and conflict — conflict that higher-level reasoning may do very little to help resolve, according to Haidt. One problem with higher-level reasoning is that it is slow (and often unable) to provide good reasons for deeply felt moral intuitions.  For example, although Western college students may judge that consensual sexual intercourse between a brother and sister is harmless under certain conditions (e.g., when birth control is used and when the act is done in private, and only once), they may nevertheless judge it to be wrong, even if they are morally dumbfounded and unable to provide any good reasons for their moral judgments.   

Although sanctity may not be explicitly endorsed as a moral principle by many Western ‘post-conventional’ moral agents, the emotional response of disgust may underlie many of our intuitive moral judgments.  For example, using hypnotic suggestions to make people feel a flash of disgust when they see a particular word that later appears in the description of a person’s behavior can result in study participants arriving at a more negative judgment in relation to that person’s character (Wheatley and Haidt, 2005); and asking people to wash their hands in advance of filling out a questionnaire can lead them to respond with more moralistic fervor to issues relating to moral purity (e.g., pornography and drug abuse; Zhong et al., 2010).  

More generally, our emotional and intuitive judgments are influenced in very subtle ways.  For example, repeated exposure to a stimulus may result in us growing to like that stimulus more than some novel stimulus (Zajonc, 1968); and although we may vote for a candidate if we judge them be more competent, our competence judgment may take little more than one-tenth of a second to generate and be based on very subtle facial features, even when we know little or nothing about a candidate’s policies (Todorov et al., 2005).  

Given that people often rely on their emotions and intuitions when making moral judgements, it is not surprising that they often appear dumbfounded and unable to provide justification for their judgments.  The context in which people are most likely to provide justification, and think more systematically and critically, is when they are held accountable and have to explain themselves to an audience, particularly if the audience’s views are unknown and if they believe the audience is well informed and interested in accuracy (Tetlock, 2002).  Outside of these conditions, accountability pressures simply increase confirmatory thought, that is, a one-sided attempt to rationalize a particular point of view.  As such, in the moral sphere, conscious, critical, reflective reasoning is carried out largely for the purpose of persuasion and the maintenance of our reputation and self-esteem (Leary, 2004).  Furthermore, our moral and political stance is often closely aligned with the stance of our group and what our group cares about (Kinder, 1998), and if we can get away with it in our group, we have a lazy tendency to construct self-serving, group-serving, confirmatory argument structures that support our beliefs (Kuhn, 1989). 

However, major problems arise when two groups with different intuitive moral foundations (and poorly worked out arguments) come into conflict over social decisions and actions that influence both groups, for example, how to design and fund social services, what and how to teach children in a public school setting. In a situation where there are two radically polarized political groups, both of which use different moral principles to derive different policy stances, it can be incredibly difficult to foster good political dialogue and maintain reasonable political civility.  Haidt argues that evolution is driven in part by group selection, which in turn has shaped the emergence of higher levels of cooperation and altruism but also a groupish mentality in humans whereby shared intentions and norms shape the moral matrices that guide the judgment processes of groups.  As such, competition and conflict exists between groups that is an essential driving force of evolution. However, this can also make it difficult to establish agreement and good relations between competing groups.  Group conflicts can become extreme and violent at times, as seen in the many historical and ongoing battles for power and dominance between religious and political factions. 

Expanding the subtle (collective) mind

So can’t we all learn to disagree more constructively?  Can we learn to be more humble and aware of the moral matrix that binds us to our group, less ferocious in our defense of our group’s beliefs, and more aware of the good in other people and the value of their perspective?  As John Stuart Mill said in relation to conservatives and liberals, “A party of order and stability, and a party of progress and reform, are both essential elements of a healthy state of political life”.  Haidt seeks to distill some of most valuable principles expounded by liberals and conservatives and suggests that these principles may represent part of the yin and yang of a balanced, healthy state of political life.  For example, liberals may be making a valuable and valid point when they argue that governments should restrain corporate superorganisms that kill competition, distort markets, monopolize the processes that influence the cost of goods, and perpetuate practices that have a negative influence on the health and well-being of the population.  At the same time, in their zeal to help victims, liberals who tend not to value loyalty, authority, and sanctity, may push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital that are essential to our well-being, productivity, and success. For example, by empowering students to sue their teachers, a policy lead by liberals in the 1970s, commentators have bemoaned the subsequent decline in authority and moral capital in schools (Arum, 2003).  Metaphorically, Haidt suggests that conservatives are right in many situations to believe that you cannot help the bees by destroying the hive – it is the welfare of society as a whole we need to strive for. 

Haidt and colleagues are now working to develop evidence-based ideas to improve political dialogue and political civility (  Some of the proposed ideas include increasing more informal social contact between opposing political parties, using facilitators to aid in consensus-building activity, avoiding demonization in the media and promoting more humility and perspective instead, regulating the way money is used to fight political battles, and so on.  However, this is the least well-developed aspects of Haidt’s book and there is little reference to applied psychology research on conflict resolution and no reference to applied systems science work on collaborative system building. 

While Haidt advocates establishing strong social and emotional bonds prior to any effort at negotiating consensus or establishing a ‘rational’ basis for decision-making, an applied systems scientist would see the dichotomy between emotion and rationality as a false dichotomy in the first instance and would be more concerned with developing the method used to achieve a reasonable consensus.  For example, one useful methodology, Interactive Management (IM), based on John Warfield’s (1994) science of generic design, is a well-established system of facilitation and problem solving that helps groups to develop outcomes that integrate contributions from individuals with diverse views, backgrounds, and perspectives. IM has been applied in a variety of situations to accomplish many different goals, including conflict resolution for opposing political/religious groups (Broome, 2001).

In a typical IM session, a group of participants who are knowledgeable about a particular situation engage in (a) developing an understanding of the situation they face, (b) establishing a collective basis for thinking about their future, and (c) producing a framework for effective action. In the process of moving through these phases using system design principles, group members can develop a greater sense of teamwork, trust, and consensus (Hogan, Harney, & Broome, 2012).  IM utilizes a carefully selected set of methodologies, matched to the phase of group interaction and the requirements of the situation. The most common methodologies are the nominal group technique, ideawriting, interpretive structural modeling (ISM), and field and profile representations. Notably, the influence structuring work conducted with ISM can be considered an activity in “mapping perceptions” of the group members. Participants are given the opportunity to explore connections and links between ideas in ways that probably would have gone undetected without such structuring work. ISM can, thus, provide participants with useful insights into the relationships between ideas and it generates a product, a structural map of those relationships, which can guide their thinking as they design potential solutions.

Urging on the Subtle Mind

Perhaps Baruch Spinoza was wrong when he said that to understand is to be free, because from Haidt perspective we are never truly free of moralism, gossip, and judgment and the conflict resulting in part from clashing moral judgements -- nor should we be if we are to avoid chaos. Understanding may be insufficient to free us from the conflicts that our righteous minds generate, and yet Haidt clearly hopes to avoid some of the negative consequences of conflict.  Although he used to wish for world peace, all that Haidt now yearns for is “a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means” (xiii).  Although he notes that some degree of conflict among groups may be necessary to the health and development of any society, he doesn’t see his way clearly to the value of rational, cooperative, system building interaction, which through the reasonable (or rational) nature of their design may help groups to build strong emotional ties in the process of reasoning their way to a better solution to their problems.   However, the subtle mind will only see its way to system redesign for groups and ecosystems if it sees far beyond the profundity of emotions and intuitions, and even far beyond the higher moral principles to which they tend, to the profundity of everything and the simple decision as to what to do next, solving problems at each point in time with the tools available to hand.  The subtle mind, and the subtle collective mind, can achieve great things and while a reading of Haidt’s book provides insight into the profundity of many things, it leaves much for the subtle mind to consider.


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