The Dark Side of Sympathy

November 3, 2014

If you think reason is the better angel of our nature, think again.

According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the noblest aspect of human nature is revealed in our sympathetic dealings with others. Sympathy, not reason, is the royal road to overcoming selfish and destructive behaviors. Yet even sympathy has a dark side, as indicated by the title of the book. But before we explore the dangers of sympathy, here’s a quick overview of Haidt’s fascinating work.

haidt

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, he advances three principles of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reason second

“We don’t reason about moral matters to discover the truth,” says Haidt. “We reason to justify our beliefs.” In the early 90’s, Haidt conducted interviews to probe reactions to the morality of harmless but offensive stories. Thirty eight percent of those he surveyed claimed someone was harmed even though the stories were carefully crafted to exclude harm. He found the people quickly condemned the action in a snap judgment. Haidt construes this as evidence that reasoning often serves intuitions, not the other way round.

2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness

In the Western world, we’ve embraced an ethic of autonomy, which protects rights and liberty and balances justice for individuals. We tend to think that actions are permissible so long as they don’t harm anyone else. But there are other moral frameworks in the world, as a simple matter of fact.

liberty

In an ethic of community, moral concerns center on duty, hierarchy, respect, and patriotism. Here people are viewed as members of a group, not as separate individual people. Tribes, groups and families are worthy of moral regard, independently of what a person thinks or feels.

In an ethic of divinity, central moral concepts include sin, sanctity and purity. People are seen in relationship to God, gods, or something supreme that’s worthy of worship. In this worldview, moral concerns focus on the need to protect the “divine” dimension of life.

Now if you’re like me, you’re at home in an ethic of autonomy. But before you shrug off the moral language of community and divinity, ask yourself, “Is it OK for a brother and sister to have consensual yet 100% protected sex?” Or, “Is it OK to use a dead chicken for sexual gratification?”

Well, is it?

Like Haidt says, there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

3. Morality binds and blinds

Morality has a light and a dark side. On the one hand, morality enables people to get along within a group.

“When I say that human nature is selfish,” Haidt explains, “I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saint, but we are sometimes good team players.”

blind

On the other hand, morality, in enabling us to overcome selfishness and form cohesive groups, creates a new problem, namely, out-group tension and conflict.

“Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Beyond the righteous mind

One of the finest aspects of Haidt’s work is that he suggests a path forward, a way for us to accept the brute facts of in-group and out-group dynamics, while identifying areas where interventions, both technological and educational, can help minimize the effects of our moral blind spots.

Full piece is cross-posted on the HopeLab blog.

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wherein a disagree with rohan — 2 of 2

January 12, 2014

tIn last Friday’s post, I got tuckered out. My bad.

Picking up the thread, let’s agree that Gone with the Wind is a morally appalling book.

Here’s the passage in the Rohan’s superb article I’ve been mulling over:

“While I read [Gone with the Wind], in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world.”

Like most novels, good or bad, well written or not, Gone with the Wind has a definite point of view. In this case, it adopts a stance on labor, land, family, leisure, race, history, and duty, among other things. A complex moral framework with many moving parts, some of which are appealing, others not.

Entering a point of view, with its alien and foreign values, doesn’t require us to compromise our commitment to a just and equal world.

Why would it?

We can read an adulterous novel without abandoning our belief in the virtue of fidelity. And we can read misogynistic, hebephilic, and even homicidal necrophilic novels without losing or staining our moral beliefs in these areas, too. A moral stance isn’t compromised by entering a strange odious world.

Rohan suggests that reading Gone with the Wind sympathetically suppresses one’s best self. I disagree.

There’s an alternative way to frame the issue. Bring one’s best possible self to bear on a novel, period. Do one’s level best to enter its world, good or bad, familiar or alien. Allow one’s emotional center to be moved by it. Then one might learn something new and unexpected about language, about desires and values, about in-group and out-group dynamics, about the primacy of gut feelings over reason, about different moral foundations and viewpoints, and about the mysterious transit between belief and action in a pluralist world.

We’re so easily divided into hostile groups, each convinced of its own righteousness.

Instead of worrying about the possibility of moral contagion, bring your best possible self to bear on reading alternative points of view, especially when they strike you as morally appalling. Especially then.

Struggling to find common ground through the difficult practice of sympathy is a lot better than the alternative.


wherein i disagree with rohan — 1 of 2

January 10, 2014

wilde2At last I’ve finally screwed up the nerve to disagree with Rohan Maitzen, an English professor and talented book blogger at Novel Readings. She’s read Gone with the Wind a staggering 31 times. That to my one.

Of course I’m likely playing the upstart to a wiser, more informed perspective. Or not.

If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind, here’s what you need to know to join the party.

The novel is a compelling read, a page turner, and it’s splattered with many vices. Yeah, it suffers from aesthetic limitations as a work of art.

But these aren’t the vices I’m foregrounding (thanks, Tom!) at the moment.

No, I’m talking moral vices.

As Rohan says, “It’s a morally appalling book.” It ignores the iniquity of slavery, adopts an apologetic stance toward the Confederacy, and whitewashes the history of the civil war.

Now I’m not convinced books can be immoral. I tend to agree with Wilde that they’re either well written or not.

The proper objects of moral condemnation are people and their actions.

Not fictional people, those thronging denizens of stories.

Real ones.

You, me, and all the rest, including Margaret Mitchell.

Perhaps she is immoral after all. Assuming the narrator is not only a literary device but is also a kind of incendiary or morally retrograde bullhorn, Mitchell might be writing (read: acting!) immorally.

Even then I’m not convinced.

But let’s assume it is a morally appalling book with a morally offensive point of view and that Mitchell is an immoral author and person to boot.

Let’s just grant all that. Or rather please allow me to grant it when I’ve mustered the energy to press on.

I’ve plumb run out of steam and am ready for bed…