Books and Arts

The Knowns and the Unknowns

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Sometime in the early 1970s I had an illuminating conversation with an expert on Soviet affairs. We ended up discussing Solzhenitsyn, and the expert expounded the view that the writer illustrated the emergence of liberal values in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. I disagreed. Certainly Solzhenitsyn was anti-totalitarian, but that did not make him any sort of liberal. Even on the basis of those of his writings that had been published in the West up to that time, he looked to me more like a latter-day disciple of Dostoyevsky, opposing the Soviet system out of a belief in the uniqueness of Russia and its deep difference from the West. My interlocutor was adamant: Solzhenitsyn had to be understood as part of a developing liberal culture. Had he not asserted freedom of conscience against the state? And was not this freedom a core value of liberalism?

It was around that time that I stopped listening to Sovietologists. The conversation was enlightening not for anything the expert told me about the Soviet Unionthough he had vastly greater factual knowledge than I didbut rather for what it showed about the limitations of the Western mind at the time. Like many in the academy and the media, the expert was assuming that the political polarities of Western democracies existed in every society. Liberals and conservatives could be found everywhere, contending against one another in a slow, often interrupted, but in the end irresistible evolution toward liberal democracy. In fact, the events that brought down the Soviet regimea development that few Sovietologists believed to be within the bounds of realistic possibilityhad very little to do with any universal trends of political evolution. A crisis in Russian history, the Soviet collapse eventuated as a result of a series of contingenciesa defeat in Afghanistan, a loss of control in Polandand resulted in an authoritarian regime that Solzhenitsyn could approve rather than anything resembling Western-style liberal government.

Not for the first time, grand theories of social evolution proved to be useless as guides to events. That has in no way dented the popularity of such theories, and it is now evolutionary psychology that is being presented as a guide for the politically perplexed. These theories show the continuing appeal of scientismthe modern belief that scientific inquiry can enable us to resolve conflicts and dilemmas in contexts where traditional sources of wisdom and practical knowledge seem to have failed. The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable.

Jonathan Haidt’s book is an example of this genre, one of the most sophisticated to date. The core of the book is an attempt at a Darwinian explanation of morality, contending that moral behavior emerges from a natural process of competition among human groups. “Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously,” Haidt writes. “Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins.... But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists.” Like the human animal, morality is “groupish,” requiring the subordination of individuals for the sake of the good of the group. Human beings “have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group,” an ability that “facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.” Once we see ourselves as animals having “primate minds with a hivish overlay,” we get “a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion.”

A part of The Righteous Mind is a useful critique of the primitive type of rationalism that has lately been in vogue. Haidt is refreshingly dismissive of the “new atheism.” Considering why religious communes have lasted longer than secular ones, he writes: “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. Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally.” One is tempted to object that solving collective action problems is only one of the human needs that religion servesand not in the end the most important. Still, Haidt is right to ridicule those who see religion as little more than a body of irrational belief.

The fixation on belief, according to Haidt, exemplifies an outdated view of the mind. Applying a metaphor employed in his earlier book The Happiness Hypothesis, he remarks that “The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoningthe stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processesthe ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” The idea that this relationship could ever be reversed is a fantasy of rationalism, and contrary to reason. As he puts it, “the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist.” Reason can never be other than rare in human affairs. But contrary to Haidt, this is not a frailty that can be avoided by relying on large, speculative ideas. If history shows anything, it is that acting on the basis of grand theories only makes human behavior even more unreasonable.

Haidt’s account of the emergence of morality is disputed by other evolutionary psychologists, who argue that group selection is a part of Darwin’s inheritance that should be discarded. The debate has been heated and at times rancorous, an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism. As is often the case, a larger issue has gone largely unexplored. In evolutionary theories of this kind, what exactly is it that is being explained? Though they think their theories are universally applicable, evolutionary theorists commonly take their local conception of morality for granted. Books such as Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, one of the more impressive of recent applications of Darwinism to ethics, assume that acting morally is a matter of following rules or principles having mainly to do with justice and the prevention of harm. This may seem self-evident to secular social scientists in American universities, but it hardly squares with how most human beings (or most Americans, for that matter) understand morality.

Haidt’s view is more realistic. “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness ... the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptorseither concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.” This recognition that morality has many “flavors” is welcome, but it leaves some important questions unanswered. What if the evolutionary psychologist’s “groupish” understanding of morality fails to square with powerful moral intuitions? Haidt notes that most human cultures have been “sociocentric” rather than individualistic, and quotes with approval the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s observation: “The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe ... is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”

This is a useful reminder that the modern Western conception of the individual as the central protagonist in moral life is far from being universally accepted. Notions of individual responsibility are not prominent in the Iliad, where moral life turns on issues of shame and social recognition; nor do they figure much in many non-Western cultures today. Even in modern Western societies, it is easy to underestimate the extent to which morality remains a group-centered phenomenon. You have only to read the novels of Evelyn Waugh to see that in interwar England ethical life was largely a matter of being seen to conform to the mores of one’s circle and class. Part of the appeal of religion to some of Waugh’s characters, and to Waugh himself, came from the fact that it recognized individual moral responsibility in a way that the England described by Waugh did not.

From one angle, seeing morality in groupish terms is simply being realistic. But in another perspective, a group-oriented understanding of morality leaves out what many of us would see as some of the most unequivocal examples of moral behavior. Understanding morality as a group phenomenon neglects the fact that human groups are complex, historically shifting, and internally conflicted. Tribes and nations are not natural kinds of things like genes and blood types. They are historical constructions whose existence depends on human recognition. Human beings rarely, if ever, belong to only one group. One of the tasks of morality is to arbitrate the clashing loyalties that regularly arise from the many group identities that human beings possess. In some cases, morality may lead people to put aside group loyalties altogether.

In his diary recording the persecution he suffered in Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer reports on tradesmen and neighbors occasionally slipping him and his wife food and chocolate. Against the background of pervasive hatred and cruelty that Klemperer experienced, these fitful expressions of kindness must qualify as moral behavior. But they are in no sense “groupish.” Quite the contrary: they show people setting aside group identities for the sake of human sympathy. Those who helped Klemperer and his wife were violating the group-centered racist morality of Nazismalong with the morality that had in the past sanctioned persecution of Jewsin order to show concern for individuals. In effect, they were choosing between good and bad moralities.

This illustrates a fundamental problem with scientism. A shift of meaning occurs when “morality” is used as a theoretical category in a putative scientific discipline. In everyday parlance, “morality” is a term heavily freighted with value: to call something moral is to distinguish it from things that are immoral or amoral, or to which moral judgments simply do not apply. When “morality” features as a theoretical category, this prescriptive element falls away. When “morality” becomes a term of art in a supposedly scientific discipline, there is no longer any difference between good and bad moralities.

It is rather late in his argument that Haidt offers anything like a definition of morality, but when he does it is avowedly functionalist: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” Haidt recognizes that this is an entirely descriptive definition. He acknowledges that, if it were applied normatively, “it would give high marks to fascist and communist societies as well as to cults, so long as they achieved high levels of social cooperation by creating a shared social order.”

That is an implication of Haidt’s analysis about which he should be seriously concerned. But Haidt seems not to grasp the depth of the difficulties that he faces. There is a slippage from “is” to “ought” in nearly all evolutionary theorizing, with arguments about natural behavior sliding into claims about the human good. It may be truethough any account of how precisely this occurred can at present be little more than speculationthat much of what we see as morality evolved in a process of natural selection. That does not mean that the results must be benign. Freud tried to develop a view of human nature in terms of which morality could be better understood; but he accepted that much that comes naturally to humanssuch as sexual predation and other types of violencehad to be repressed in the interests of a civilized life. Civilization sometimes requires the repression of natural human traits, including some that may be sanctioned by prevailing moral codes. The moralities that have emerged by natural selection have no overriding authority.

When Haidt considers what the normative element in morality should be, his conclusion is simple-minded to an extraordinary degree: “When we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.” There is no sign that he is aware of the difficulties of utilitarianism as a moral theory. He cites Isaiah Berlin’s defense of pluralism in ethics without seeming to grasp that, if true, this pluralism was fatal to utilitarianism (as Berlin intended it to be).

Haidt assumes a connection between utilitarianism and the values of liberal democracy that dissolves with a moment’s critical reflection. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, believed that utilitarian ethics applied universally, and advocated enlightened despotism throughout much of the world. Haidt’s belief that utilitarianism offers an effective way of making public policy in ethnically and morally diverse societies is equally unfounded. One of the problems of morally diverse societies is that utilitarian understandings of harm may not be widely enough shared to form an agreed basis for public policies. This is nowhere more clearly true than in the United States. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage are not bitterly disputed because legislators have failed to apply a utilitarian calculus. They are bitterly disputed because a substantial part of the population rejects utilitarian ethics.

Haidt is a strong supporter of moral intuition, telling us that “gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments.” We must “reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism” and “be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” Individual rationality clearly is suspect for Haidt; but “if you put individuals together in the right way ... you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. That is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity.”

Haidt appears not to grasp the importance of the fact that intuitionism and utilitarianism are rivals, and not only in moral philosophy. They are also at odds in practice. Making public policies on a basis of utilitarian reasoning requires a high degree of convergence, not diversity, in moral intuitions. Such policies will not be accepted as legitimate if they violate deep-seated and widely held intuitions regarding, for example, sexuality and the sanctity of human life. Bentham was clear that there may be an unbridgeable gulf between moral intuition and the results of utilitarian reasoningand when such a discrepancy was the case, he was never in any doubt that it was intuition that must be sacrificed. Once again seemingly unaware of the depth of the problems he is addressing, Haidt tells us that such conflicts will not arise, or else they will be soon overcome, as long as people are brought together in the right way.

Haidt makes some sharp criticisms of naïve rationalismthe idea, found among the “new atheists” and others like them, that human life may someday be governed by science. But his claims for the usefulness of evolutionary psychology are hardly less naïve and rationalistic. Much of his book is an attempt to apply the findings of evolutionary psychology to the political gridlock that currently exists in the United States. The incongruity of the exercise should not go unnoticed. Whatever the causes of division in Washington, they have nothing to do with evolution. The phenomenon is much too recent for any evolutionary explanation to be remotely plausible. It is also too distinctively American to be explicable in the universal terms of evolutionary theory. With the possible exception of Poland, there is no advanced industrial country as deeply polarized as America is today. Gridlock in Washington is a failure of American politics, and the solutionif there is onecan only come from the resources of America’s political tradition.

Vainly invoking the universal laws of science to account for the accidents of history, Haidt has fallen into a classic confusion of categories. His analysis of American divisions, he tells us, is an application of “Moral Foundations Theory,” which identifies “the universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices.” Applying the theory, Haidt proceeds to develop a typology of liberal and conservative mentalities, with liberals focusing on issues to do with caring and fairness and conservatives on questions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Summarizing his findings, he reports that “conservatives responded to a broader set of moral tastes than did liberals,” and he concludes that “Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t.” Later he warns: “Until Democrats understand the Durkheimian vision of society and the difference between a six-foundation morality and a three-foundation morality, they will not understand what makes people vote Republican.” And finally, in the closest he comes to a practical proposal for reform, Haidt suggests that rancorous divisions might be overcome if congressmen brought their families to Washington. “Before 1995, congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night.” If only politicians knew each other better, “Manichaeism and scorched earth politics” could be left behind.

One cannot but admire such warm-hearted optimism. But there is more than a hint of absurdity in Haidt’s pronouncements, and it is not because he is necessarily mistaken in his analysis of American politics. He may be right that American political divisions are currently correlated with attitudes to morality in the ways that he specifies. The absurdity comes from neglecting the historical contingencies that have produced the correlations he describes. If the American public realm is more polarized than it was five years ago, the fact may have something to do with the disruptive effects of the financial crisis. Anyway, American politics and culture have long been more ideological and more religious than those of other modern countries.

Haidt’s typology may fit the United States, but it has less application for European countries (including Britain) where political consensus is stronger and religion much weaker. Haidt acknowledges the risks of cross-cultural generalization. “Particular rules and virtues vary across cultures,” he notes. Yet not much more than ten pages later the reader finds him invoking moral and political polarities that are supposedly universal: “There are two radically different approaches to the challenge of creating a society in which unrelated people can live together peacefully. One approach was exemplified by John Stuart Mill, the other by the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim.” The American left “fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see a Durkheimian world as anything other than a moral abomination. A Durkheimian world is usually hierarchical, punitive, and religious. It places limits on people’s autonomy and it endorses traditions, often including traditional gender roles. For liberals, such a vision must be combated, not respected.” Durkheim will re-elect President Obama!

More nuanced than other examples of the genre, The Righteous Mind is a useful critique of a certain shallow and fashionable rationalism. In the end, however, Haidt’s attempt to apply evolutionary psychology is yet one more example of the failures of scientism. There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all. Dissidents against the Soviet state were no more bound to be liberals than were the people who toppled Mubarak. Are the Salafists who are outflanking the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on the right or the left of politics? Were the market reformers who dismantled the Maoist economy (but not the state apparatus that enforced it) liberals or conservatives? Such questions are senseless, indeed ludicrous. They involve fitting polities and societies whose histories and present circumstances are profoundly different from ours and each other’s onto a map that was designed to chart the conflicts of a small number of closely related countries.

The belief that the political conflicts of the day can be resolved by applying evolutionary psychology is no more wellfounded than the claims of earlier versions of scientism that invoked phrenology or dialectical materialism. No doubt human knowledge has increased since the days when those pseudo-sciences were in the ascendant. Certainly we know a good deal more about human origins, and about the workings of the human brain, than we did then. But we are no better equipped to deal with moral and political conflict. Intellectually, we may be less well prepared than previous generations, if only because we know less of our own history.

Scientism has been shown to be an illusion time and time again. But it is another illusion to imagine that scientism will go away. Looking to science for deliverance from the tragicomedy of history is part of what it means to be modern. The tracts that come and go in airport bookstores, promising solutions to problems that have baffled the greatest minds, are symptoms of a confusion that is incurable. We may expect many more books that offer to extricate us from conflict by sprinkling the magic dust of science on our disorders.

John Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. He is the author, most recently, of The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.

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