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Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

Acceptance of the predatory state seems to be lodged like a parasitic worm in the popular imagination. Haidt believes evolution has built moral intuitions in our minds.  Libertarians must to make a moral case for liberty.  


Acceptance of the predatory state seems to be lodged like a parasitic worm in the popular imagination. Haidt believes evolution has built moral intuitions in our minds.  Libertarians must to make a moral case for liberty.  


In one of the many great David Attenborough wild life documentaries there appears a parasitic worm that lives in the heads of some spiders.  When the time comes the worm directs the poor spider to use its web building abilities to create a web of the parasite’s design.  The result is a cocoon for the undeserving worm, and another ex-spider. 

How can it be that something lodged in your brain can make you do things that are far from being in your best interests?  The spider must be pretty dumb. Well not necessarily.  Humans do the same every day when they let themselves be parasitised by ‘The State’ in its various beguiling but noxious avatars.  Human minds, which are otherwise so alert to ‘cheats’ and ‘takers’ in daily life, can’t seem to recognise government as the scam it really is. 


The bizarre mind worm in most heads is the assumption that there should be people who can bully you, and extort resources from you, with legal impunity.  Indeed such privilegd folk are deemed to improve life for the people they are permitted to abuse.  This is, after all, pretty weird when you stop to think about it.  Just as weird as building a nice comfy cocoon for a worm that is killing you. 


In a just society, everybody who deliberately, negligently or even accidentally threatens, injures or damages other persons or their justly acquired property should be held to account.  Fair is fair. There is no justification for any legally privileged exceptions.  


So how does the state mindworm achieve its remarkable success?  How does the modern state’s incessant propaganda and indoctrination hoodwink human minds that are hard wired precisely to spot the bad guys?  The more we understand about the human mind, the easier libertarians may find it to unmask the criminal association we believe the state to be.


I have been reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book ‘The Righteous Mind’ with great interest.   It sheds light on how would-be political persuaders, including libertarians, should make their cases.  It also helps us to understand how our enemy achieves its psychological hold on the citizenry by manipulating inbuilt, genetic moral philosophy modules inside our minds. 


Let me set out what I think Haidt is saying.  First of all, he is no libertarian, nor is this book mainly about libertarianism. I would certainly not claim that he agrees with me on anything, other than perhaps a certain reading of human evolution and the mind.

Haidt is an American academic who describes himself as a Progressive or Liberal. In European terms he would be somewhere in the left wing, socialist camp.  He began with an interest in how political campaigns resonate with the electorate.  He wanted to understand why conservative candidates in the USA so frequently win elections.


Here is Haidt’s underlying idea.  Human beings aren’t rational creatures who sometimes frame their arguments in terms of morality or moral philosophy.  They are instead creatures of moral philosophy – the reasoning bits are just, literally, superficial rationalisations of stances based on each person’s pre-existing moral intuition.  Humans have subconscious minds comprising a handful of distinguishable moral philosophy modules. 


In Haidt’s analogy the subconscious mind’s moral modules comprise the Elephant which makes the decisions.  The Elephant is who you need to persuade and he responds to moral prompting rather than ‘rational’ argument’.  The conscious, would-be rational mind is the Rider (in Haidt’s terms).  He is the idiot on the Elephant’s back charged with cooking up rational explanations for what the Elephant already decided on moral grounds.


Persuasion therefore depends on working out whose Elephant is already leaning towards what you have to say. The others are not worth approaching, yet.  Then you must tick as many of the Elephant’s moral module boxes as possible.


The left’s problem, and Haidt thinks that libertarians have a similar issue, is that its messages appear to tick fewer of these moral module boxes than do conservative messages.


The moral modules are old.  They evolved to solve problems faced by human beings and their predecessors over millions of years of evolution.  Larger human societies only began to appear 10,000 years ago at the beginning of the current warm climate interglacial period.  We are still, therefore, mostly the way millions of years of living in small bands has made us.


Frans de Waal’s book ‘Chimpanzee Politics’ provides a starting point for understanding not just chimpanzees but ourselves. Our hunter gatherer forefathers must have developed their moral modules from basically similar moral modules in the minds of chimpanzees (or more precisely our common ancestor with chimpanzees). That’s because they mostly behaved just like our alarmingly close evolutionary relatives, chimps, behave.  To the distress of the more romantic researchers, chimpanzees have also turned out to be brutal, genocidal and political - just like us.


Chimpanzee bands comprise parallel male and female hierarchies dominated overall by a few males. The leading male’s position is based on his ability as a political fixer and coalition builder rather than on brute force – although there must be plenty of that too.  He and his associates beget most of the babies in the group.  So that works for him, and them. Until the leader is ousted, and often killed.  A new ruling coalition appears. That is clearly similar to the equivalent human arrangements, as depicted in ‘Game of Thrones’.  

Chimpanzee males make sorties into the territories of neighbouring groups seeking to ambush and kill isolated chimpanzees.  Over time, this low level attritional warfare means some groups get basically wiped out.  The successful chimp bands expand into the newly ‘ethnically cleansed’ territory. Winning and expanding your territory results in leaving more descendants. That is the definition of evolutionary success. Which means the most successful groupist mindset prevails and spreads with the genes of winning groups.  


But eventually group numbers exceed the level that chimp social and political smarts can handle.  Then the groups break up and separate.


Reading Nicolas Wade (‘Before the Dawn’) and others, it is clear that hunter gatherer humans were just like chimpanzees both in their politically complicated dominance hierarchies and in their exterminatory competition with neighbouring groups. Only we evolved to form bigger more dangerous groups.  


(As an aside, our sexual system has almost wholly altered towards a basically monogamous system.  Read Richard Wrangham’s ‘Catching Fire’ on how the early invention of fire and cooking may have let us redirect energy from digesting raw stuff to powering bigger brains.  It could have led to the pair-bonded human couple, based on the ‘I hunt it and you stay home and cook it’ deal.)           

    

So back to Jonathan Haidt’ book.  He considers, quite reasonably as we have seen, that humans have been disproportionately subject to evolution on the basis of ‘group selection’.  Group selection means that behaviour and the minds that generate it evolved to make the best contribution to group success.  Given that defeat for a human group mainly also meant death for its members, that also makes sense.    


So, what are these overlapping moral modules that evolved to power successful human hunter gatherer groups?  Haidt identified them in terms of how people of different views, initially progressive (‘Democrat’) or conservative (‘Republican’), but also libertarians, responded to questions involving these modules:


1)    Care versus Harm

In the original human bands caring for those who needed care, mainly infants and juveniles, but also adults, including injured or ill warriors or mothers, makes perfect sense even for unrelated individuals.  Anything that increased the size of the group by heading off death or disability would make the group more likely to avoid extermination by neighbouring groups.  Small groups would be defeated groups. 


The caring impulse was certainly present in prehistory. We have found the remains of disabled individuals who could only have survived if cared for by others.


2)    Fairness versus Cheating

The benefits of belonging to a larger band are clear, including to ‘free riders’ or cheats.  Humans have this ‘who hasn’t paid for his round of drinks yet’ module.  It identifies, deters and eventually expels people who are ‘takers’ or ‘cheats’ rather than ‘givers’ in their dealings within the group, and presumably with partners too.


As we have seen expulsion from a hunter gatherer band is a serious sanction.  It is likely to lead to death. But it is also a last resort as it weakens the group’s numbers. Much better to shame cheats into conformity.  Shame is the emotion you get when your Elephant has messed up and transgressed against any of the moral modules.


Fairness is however quite tricky.  First of all, does it mean everyone gets to be exactly equal?  That would mean that relatively unproductive people get constantly bailed out by more industrious, conscientious or lucky group members.  Or does it mean that people should be treated according to how much they contribute?  So that means people who don’t help much get a much smaller slice of the band’s cake. 


3)    Loyalty versus Betrayal

This module looks like a variation on ‘Fairness versus Cheating’ above but may be more about promoting group harmony.  Harmony is important because what brings an end to a successful band’s career of displacing other bands is internal bickering.  That can lead to breaking up the group into smaller, less effective bands, who will then fight each other too. 


There is a number, the Dunbar number, which is believed to be the most informal human relationships one person can hold in their head.  Above this number, assumed to be 150, holding a group together is beyond human social smarts.  But if you evolve a Loyalty versus Betrayal module then you can grow your numbers.  It helps having members whose loyalty causes them to fight for the group even if they cannot remember everyone’s names anymore.  Anything that keeps a bigger group in being as long as possible gave a key edge in incessant inter-band warfare.


The Elephant looks out for signs that group members, especially men, are going desert the group, perhaps by switching to another group before a fight or by running away during one.  Such actions by even a few warriors could cause critical defeats and put the whole group on the road to extinction.  


4)    Authority versus Subversion

This is the hierarchy module.  Jordan Peterson famously pointed out that hierarchy is hard-wired into the nervous systems of creatures as distant from each other as us and lobsters.  Lobsters minimize conflict over the best feeding territory by giving way to bigger lobsters.  They also give way to lobsters whose brain chemistry makes them behave as though they won their last fight - because they did win it.  Then their minds rewired themselves as a result.  Hundreds of millions of years of evolution separate our species.  So that is one ancient hard-wired hierarchy module. 


We have, I imagine, other more recent layers in our modules relating to hierarchies within groups.  In a chimp band and its wild human equivalent the group shares and defends the feeding territory.  But some individuals have more political (i.e. hierarchical) power and consequently better feeding and sexual deals within the group. 


Like lobsters, people avoid endless fights over positions in the hierarchy by establishing ‘pecking orders’ based on relative strength, and to some extent ‘charisma’.  Otherwise too many people will get injured or killed.  Eventually the group could collapse if the tensions caused fundamentally by ‘scarcity’, the limited supply of resources, were allowed to lead to endless bloodletting.  This is a power hierarchy.  Chimps and Humans have evolved behavioural and hormonal mechanisms to make power hierarchies work.


On top of this there is the possibility of a competence hierarchy (to use the phrase popularized by Jordan Peterson).  Human beings are very bright and capable.  They can conceive of alternative possible future situations, formulate sequential plans for dealing with several possibilities, make decisions about which plan is best and communicate them to other band members.  Chimps can’t do this. 


Among humans, some people are better at this decision making than others, either because they are older and more experienced, or because they are brighter.  So humans have hierarchies of competence as well as the older chimp and lobster hierarchies of power.


We have used this competence to expand everywhere into many new, demanding geographical or ecological niches.  It has got us to the present where brains attuned to groups of 150 are really struggling to cope with groups of many millions or even billions.


To recap, the Elephant is looking for a willingness to recognize and conform to some sort of hierarchy in the world.  It may accept information about whether things may be right or wrong, or true or false according to whether the speaker is deemed to have authority.  It may confuse messages from members of incompetent and predatory power hierarchies with information from valid competence hierarchies.


5)    Sanctity versus Degradation

It was not a good idea to care for offspring and others in a place where there is a lot of disgusting stuff.  The world had to wait until the 19th century to find out why.  We then we found out all about microscopic disease organisms.  But evolution had already supplied us with a disgust reaction which deters people from eating, or from allowing children near, dead or dying people or animals, rotten stuff, excrement or vomit etc. 

Women evidently have stronger disgust responses than men.  Most visits to the men’s restrooms of an English pub or bar will confirm this.  And it makes evolutionary sense.  Women were more involved in looking after children where cleanliness and therefore avoiding infection is important.  Men had to suppress their disgust reactions from time to time to get on with the very disgusting task of butchering members of neighbouring bands.


Haidt links cleanliness with sanctity, and uncleanliness with degradation.  As with so much of this material, this seems instinctively correct.  That is precisely because the Elephant’s moral modules actually are our own inbuilt instincts.  They are us. 


It’s not just the Victorian view that cleanliness is next to godliness, or the observation in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that one can tell who the king is because he is the only one not covered in s***.  The Bible often refers to unbelievers and sinners as unclean, abominations or even diseased, for example as ‘lepers’.     


There seems to be a connection between religion and terrifying because inexplicable infectious disease.  It is not, I hope, too much of a stretch to suggest that the sanctity versus degradation module formed the basis for human beings’ sense of the mystic or religious. The module would promote respect and reverence for wise (i.e. experienced and competent) older group members, for their and everyone else’s ancestral spirits when they died, and by extension for other spirits and gods.


The classic Indo-European tri-partite division between priests, warriors and herder/farmers, and the medieval role of the Church and Nobles, spring to mind.  In any case, any and all mystical motivations to rally round your group would once again enable larger groups to hold together.  Human evolution has always been on the side of the big battalions.        


6)    Liberty versus Oppression?

Haidt’s underlying finding is that Progressives are letting themselves down in political campaigns because they only tick two of the five moral module boxes that voters’ Elephants are interested in.  They are strong on Care versus Harm and on Fairness versus Cheating but not on Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity. 


He says conservatives can tick all five boxes. The conservative stance on Fairness versus Cheating, i.e. that people should be treated reciprocally according to their merits, is at least as popular as the Left’s view that everyone should be made equal regardless of just deserts.


Libertarians Can Tick the Moral Module Boxes.

Into this interesting framework entered – unexpectedly - libertarians.  Liberty versus Oppression is a moral module which Haidt developed much later.  He decided libertarians were obsessively interested in just this one issue, but respond weakly on all the five traditional moral modules.  I think this is a misunderstanding.   Haidt’s questions take for granted state intervention as the way societies exercise moral choices. Libertarians do not.


For example, libertarians respond negatively to questions such as ‘should the state intervene to help children?’.  Haidt assumes negative answers show little interest in the Care module, or indeed ‘caring’ generally.  Actually, libertarians should answer no because the ‘caring’ state narrative is fake.  Really caring entails scrapping state privilege.   

Exposing the State, Module by Module

Care versus Harm module: State dominated media, school and university systems spend tens of billions of pounds in Britain alone on propaganda depicting the state as well intentioned, or even effective.  Without the Mainstream Media (MSM) and compulsory indoctrination (‘education’) of the young, it would be easier to expose the state’s shaky moral foundations. A key statist misrepresentation is the idea that free, small-state societies did not have ‘caring’ – healthcare, education and welfare – sectors. This is a lie, as is the implied claim that the Industrial Revolution was bad for living standards.


Fortunately. the truth is cheap and lies are expensive.  There is now enough of a record of neglect in NHS hospitals, and indifference to the abuse of children at the hands of state agencies, to suggest that the state doesn’t care really.  That is not to mention abuse at the hands of step-fathers introduced into many families by anti-family welfare policies.  


Libertarians are just much more concerned than conservatives, and certainly than socialists, by the harm being done to our unnecessarily stunted, impoverished societies by government misrule.  Many posts on this website are simply variations on this theme.

On Fairness versus Cheating, libertarians deploy a fundamentally moral attack on officialdom as populated by cheats and takers because of their legal privilege of robbing and coercing others.  A lot of the population also mistrusts the authorities as being corrupt, ineffective and dishonest, which they may be too.


Libertarians also insist that modern banking and crony capitalist big corporations as similarly tarred with the same moral brush of unfairness.  Crony capitalists, especially in the banking sector, unfairly use state regulation against consumers, smaller competitors and savers.


Libertarians are much closer to the conservative position that fairness is reciprocity.  So is the general population.  People should be rewarded according to what they contribute or produce.  It is just that the fair outcomes would naturally arise in a free society.  The left’s stance on fairness is about convincing people to support compulsory equality of outcomes.  


On Loyalty versus Betrayal, it is pretty clear that successful libertarian societies will depend on a very high degree of loyalty to the free society itself, and to the principle on which it would be based.  I believe it will depend on a general willingness to defend it by force of arms from external enemies.


There will need to be real loyalty to the ideal of a stateless society to protect it from internal opponents. The libertarian societies which might actually arise during the break up of failing Democratic Socialist states, or of their equally unviable globalist authoritarian successors, will have to protect themselves against betrayal by those who would restore the state.


The state version of group loyalty has majored on duping people into believing that ‘fighting for one’s country’ entails invading someone else’s country.  Millions have died pointlessly at the behest of warmonger politicians and profiteering arms makers.     

Authority versus Subversion for libertarians is about what amounts to the Roman distinction between Authority and Power.  The first is a moral claim to be listened to and respected based on exemplary character, competence or achievement.  These are aspects of competence hierarchies.  Without such hierarchies no society can be kept running.


Libertarians favour competence hierarchies.  Where there is no state, all hierarchies will necessarily be competence hierarchies.  Progressives appear to believe that the state can be a competence hierarchy, when it is really just a predatory gang based on Power.

Power appeals broadly to the chimp and lobster levels of this moral module.  Power is the ability to make people do what they don’t want to do.  Power is often dressed up in the glamour of uniform or of apparently age-old ceremony.  Socialists traditionally mistrusted conservative support for the armed forces and monarchy without recognizing that their own support for Power itself is morally questionable. Libertarians are the enemies of Power.    


The Sanctity versus Degradation module. Sanctity in the western tradition was the monopoly of the Church. Western Christendom inherited this position from the late Roman Empire. The Catholic Church was the religious arm of the Western Roman Empire after the fourth century division of the Roman world - just as the Orthodox Church was the equivalent for the much longer lived Eastern Roman Empire.


The church assumed jurisdiction over marriage (previously subject to more flexible private agreement) and morality. It dispensed spiritual comfort to its flock. It also invoked God’s support for the ruler and provided literate clerics (‘clerks’) to operate government. In return the ruler suppressed heresy, and with it freedom of speech or conscience.


This arrangement kept Christendom backward compared to the other Old World civilisations of China, India or the Middle East for a millennium. The struggle to break the Catholic Church’s was a key part of the development of liberty in Britain and America. Not for nothing does the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States start with religious freedom, and then cover freedom of speech, of the press and of peaceable assembly.


Not coincidentally the next priority, the Second Amendment, was intended to ensure that Americans retained their arms to defend their rights, especially those set out in the First Amendment.


The French Revolution, whatever its other failings, largely brought about freedom of conscience on the Continent. The stage was set for Christianity’s remarkable loss of influence during the nineteenth century., especially after Darwin’s publication of the 'Origin of Species in 1859. Educated men could no longer, in all conscience, believe in the literal truth of the Bible.


Which brings us straight back to progressives like Haidt and their socialists fellows across the West. The great libertarian and scholar Murray wrote ‘The Progressive Era’. In it he explained how the Progressive movement in the US in the late 19th and 20th century was an alliance of left wing intellectuals, power seeking politicians and big business crony capitalists intent, as usual, on using state power to hurt consumers and smaller competitors. Much of the intellectual heft was provided by Protestant churchmen. They basically transferred their belief in the divine, and skills of persuasion, from God to ‘The State’. They brought their flocks with them to worship at the altar of the omnipotent state.


They were naively unaware that the state, far from meriting anyone’s reverence, would inevitably come to be dominated by men with the moral compass of a chimpanzee war band.


They nevertheless succeeded in instilling a mystical worship of the Democratic Socialist state, at least until recently. The utterances of (even Catholic) churchmen became indistinguishable from those of officialdom. They thus betray those of their flock who retain their faith. Why have such churchmen at all?.


Belief in the state as a redemptive entity, able to rectify all ills with a stroke of the official pen, became the religion of our times. Its priestly employees and experts have been able to shroud their inept and harmful efforts in a cloak of fake sanctity. An ill-schooled, indoctrinated populace knows no better than to applaud with diminishing enthusiasm and belief.


It is however a false god. Nothing sacred at all. How about the sanctity of human life and human flourishing instead, which libertarians uphold?  Flourishing and prosperity occur when people are allowed to live their lives as they see fit. It doesn’t happen when people are forced into the degraded state of slavery by state bullies.  Slavery is where you are forced against your will to do other’s bidding for scant reward.  Which is what, for all its platitudes, the state actually does.


The Libertarian Charge Sheet Against the State.

The Libertarian charge sheet against the state in ‘Haidtian’ terms come to this: The state doesn’t care, indeed it negligently or deliberately causes harm. It is unfair, or unjust, because it robs and bullies people, and ensures they have no recourse to justice. It deliberately hampers cooperation between productive people to improve each other’s lives and to help the few who need help.


It claims the loyalty we owe instead to our civilisation, to independent institutions in civil society, and to our families, friends and colleagues - who actually deserve it. Its claims Authority but it is just a crude, criminal and clueless Power hierarchy, recognisable to the merest ape. Real authority, based on membership of functioning (because competing) competence hierarchies, is the Libertarian way.


The state’s reputed belief in equality is fake. The Democratic Socialist state produces an artificial billionaire class. It is based on government privilege and inflationary financial markets. It also creates a privileged and over-rewarded bureaucracy. Equality is a Marxist device to grab power with the help of the ‘oppressed’. Once Marxist government is established, what follows is also profound inequality.


Western civilisation has worked so well because it believes in the (potentially) responsible and accountable individual, and not group, as the valid building block of the world.

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