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.”

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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.


The Nutritional Profile of Reading Books

January 18, 2014

Reading novels is like stuffing your face with mental veggies. It can lower stress levels, help you sleep better, keep your veggie pagebrain sharp, and stave off Alzheimer’s, all at the speed of a turning page. Before you whip out your laptop, however, consider this: “At least a few studies suggest that screens sometimes impair comprehension precisely because they distort people’s sense of place in a text.” For years I’ve been interested in the effects of reading, ranging from its impact on subjective experiences, i.e., moral and psychological, as well as on the underlying objective physiology. In a gorgeous bit of serendipity, I find myself working at HopeLab where we research the connection between mental states and the body so we can develop interventions to improve health and well-being. In the coming months, I hope to uncover and share fascinating tidbits in the realm of reading, psychology and biology.