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Most Interesting Book of 2012

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'Tis the season for end-of-year assessments, so my contribution is the most interesting book I read in the last year.  It is Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt explores through the lens of evolutionary psychology why people have such fundamentally different views of right and wrong.  The basic thesis is that we are mostly self-centered beasts, competing with other individuals for survival of the fittest, but there is also a streak of loyalty to our group that sometimes transcends self-interest.  This, too, is a product of evolution, as groups that have such loyalty have a competitive advantage over groups that do not.

In Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory, there are six elements of the moral matrix:  care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  He then explores how people of different political orientations place differing emphasis on these elements.  Haidt is a liberal, and he unabashedly states that the motive for his research was to help liberals win elections.  He was distressed by John Kerry's dismal campaign in 2004.
Haidt finds that in forming ideas of right and wrong, liberals place primary on the care/harm element, somewhat less on the liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating elements, and very little on the remaining three.  Conservatives have a more balanced distribution, placing comparable weight on all six elements.  Libertarians, interestingly, have an even more skewed view than liberals, placing predominant weight on liberty/oppression, some on fairness/cheating, and very little on the others.

To illustrate how this leads us to very different conclusions, let us look at the Stolen Valor Act case, United States v. Alvarez.  The issue was the constitutionality, under the First Amendment Freedom of Speech Clause, of an Act of Congress making it a crime to lie about receiving a military medal.  When the Supreme Court took the case up, many people thought it was an easy case -- in opposite directions.

For my part, I saw little danger to the liberty/oppression value.  A law against a bald-faced lie on an objective fact personally known to the liar raises none of the dangers the First Amendment was enacted to guard against.  The law would have no utility to any censor who wished to suppress dissenting views on politics, religion, science, or anything else.  Given the weakness of threat to this value, the threats to multiple other values dictate the outcome.  The liar is cheating by garnering acclaim and respect he has not earned.  He is betraying the brave men who did serve.  He is degrading a sacred symbol with his filthy lies.

Liberals and libertarians did not see it that way.  The cheating involved is cheating on an intangible matter that involves the values of loyalty and sanctity for which they have little respect.  In the liberal mind, government can punish lies that deprive people of tangible objects of material value but not transcendent values such as are involved here.  Thus a trademark law that lets the government punish the seller of a knock-off product is constitutional, but this law punishing a false claim to the Medal of Honor is not.  Justice Alito, dissenting, wrote,  "Surely it was reasonable for Congress to conclude that the goal of preserving the integrity of our country's top military honors is at least as worthy as that of protecting the prestige associated with fancy watches and designer handbags."  Nailed it.

Along with the main theme of the book, Haidt's discussion of the history of moral values scholarship is a revealing look at the utter corruption of academia by Political Correctness.  Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning, which was taught as a kind of secular gospel when I was in college, was given more credence than it deserved because it fed the liberal conceit of their being more advanced and evolved than conservatives.  Conversely, the work of Edward Wilson, challenging the view that nurture and not nature entirely shapes human behavior, was falsely and viciously attacked as supposedly racist.  We see the same effect in research on crime.  As explained in my recent article, Baldus's claims about race and the death penalty are treated as Revealed Truth in academia and the New York Times, when any objective view of the research reveals a very different picture.  Similar corruption occurs on the subjects of deterrence and incapacitation.

This is a fascinating book, and it deserves a more thorough treatment than I have given it here.  I recommend it to people on both sides of the political divide.  Understanding a bit more about how the other side thinks may help us tone down to vitriol a bit.

3 Comments

I can only say that the thoughtfulness and insight of Kent's post here show why C&C is one of the ABA's top-rated blogs, and it humbles me to be a guest contributor on it.

::"Haidt explores through the lens of evolutionary psychology"::
"Writing in The Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers said: ‘From an evolutionary perspective, anticipating an aversive event may help an individual prepare reactions in threatening situations."~~DailyMail (UK) 12/31/12

Such is the Darwinian tale signifying nothing which is based on neither history nor observation; no help in understanding current behaviour, no prognoses for future developments.
The utility value & predictive ability of evolutionary science is slimmer than a Whippet.

My dissertation ('99) involved an instrument questioning high school students as to
their values in relation to their belief in evolutionary biology. One result was that
those who believed that evolution was a "fact of life" were more likely--to significantly more likely--
to espouse ruthless behaviour as "natural".
'''''''''''''''''','
~Adamakis

"The cheating involved is cheating on an intangible matter that involves the values of loyalty and sanctity for which they have little respect."

Ouch. Sad that it wasn't always so.

The Alvarez decision doesn't upset me too much, although the idea of some jerk lying about receiving a CMOH is enough to make my blood boil. My sense is that the Founding Fathers would have had zero issue with the prosecution.

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