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Jonathan Haidt (1963 – ) is an American philosopher of morality at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

Jonathan Haidt

Photo of Jonathan Haidt at TED talk

Sources for Jonathan Haidt quotes; WikiQuote, GoodReads, TED, The Righteous Mind


Quotations from Jonathan Haidt

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.

People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.

Reasoning can take you wherever you want to go.

The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

The “first draft” of the moral mind – “The initial organization of the brain does not rely that much on experience… Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built–in” does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” (Marcus, 2004)

Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.

Creating gods who can see everything, and who hate cheaters and oath breakers, turns out to be a good way to reduce cheating and oath breaking.

“The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose; Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. Make a hairbreadth difference, and Heaven and Earth are set apart; If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against.  The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” Ancient wisdom of Seng-ts’an 700 CE (Arthur Waley)

Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD).

Putting this all together, it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals.

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

The social psychologist Tom Gilovich studies the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then (as Kuhn and Perkins found), we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.

It’s always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or, if all else fails, question the honesty or ideology of the researchers.

When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.

It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger thank yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.

Having once reviewed the literature on the catharsis hypothesis, I knew that there was no evidence for it. Letting off steam makes people angrier, not calmer.


COMMENTS on Jonathan Haidt

If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. This statement of Haidt’s is probably true enough and no doubt drives much of human social action, but it also lays the groundwork for justifying unintentional self-deception, and when that is brought to the attention of the person, they are compelled to fabricate stories to justify themselves. When we observe this process in action it appears to be hallucinatory or pure self-justifying lying. He seems to accept this as the normal state of affairs between humans, and yet if that were so our societies would soon generate so much friction they would grind to a halt. Instead it appears most people accept at face value the social interactions that others present to them, and that is the normal situation, and that makes a lot more sense.

The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. This seems applicable in a contentious society of viciously competing tribal kinship groups, but in a well-ordered civil society as now exists in Europe and America millions of people get along quite well most of the time, even with greatly different ethnic groups mixing almost constantly. It seems strange the Haidt doesn’t see this as he has been immersed deeply in this society all of his life.

Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on  what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few). This was written several years ago when there was some concern as ethnically non-Europeans were entering the various countries, and there was some strife, but presently with millions of Syrians streaming in the whole fabric of Western liberal institutions will be challenged. We may look back in a few years as this being more of a turning point for world history than was either of the World Wars.

We search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. This isn’t the case most of the time, but when we find ourselves in critical situations, existential situations, then the need for conviction is essential for performing extreme actions that would normally be considered very bad and even criminal, and they are condoned by our social group. The ancient Greeks turned to the Delphi Oracle for answers, which we now deem foolish, but most of us now turn to religious organizations, which from outside of the group appear preposterous. But these ideas do permit the group to defend itself against all threats.

Ultimately the goal is personal and group survival, and finding what works.

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