In Frank Herbert's epic science fiction novel, Dune, the protagonists rely on a method of fighting called :the weirding way" that channels thoughts into actions.
We are here today to look at a different kind of WEIRDing way; specifically, the WEIRD culture of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. The Righteous Mind explores the bases of modern morality and American politics. Haidt's work intersects with the PMF Lenses in several interesting ways.
Haidt's work comes from psychology and has direct parallels and integration with the Prospecting Lens. Haidt presents a mind model that he calls "The Elephant and the Rider", where the elephant represents our intuitive mind and the rider represents our reasoning mind. (These concepts were actually presented in his earlier work, The Happiness Hypothesis.) Haidt credits the work of the philosopher David Hume, whose model was that humans are primarily run by their passions (the elephant), which their reasoning abilities generally support and sometimes direct (the rider).
Haidt's Elephant and Rider mind model and the System 1 and System 2 of the Prospecting Lens are nearly identical. Haidt also rejects, as to Kahneman & Tversky, that humans are motivated fundamentally by rational concerns (the utilitarian model of Bentham and the rational rules model of Kant). Instead, reasoning (System 2/Rider) is merely a tool or skill that can be used to either support the conclusions and desires of System 1/Elephant.
Haidt is very firm in his convictions: "As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists). The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children."
One of Haidt's main contentions is that culture influences behavior and the accepted morality of a society. In particular, he focusses on the so-called WEIRD culture, which means "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic." Relying on this research, which concludes that people raised in WEIRD cultures do have an innately different viewpoint than the rest of the world:
Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of the self than do East Asians. For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the words “I am …,” Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).
Haidt notes that the differences between WEIRD and non-weird cultures translate into their primary ethical concerns (from Richard Schweder) as follows:
The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies. You find it in the writings of utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer (who value justice and rights only to the extent that they increase human welfare), and you find it in the writings of deontologists such as Kant and Kohlberg (who prize justice and rights even in cases where doing so may reduce overall welfare).
Haidt explains that the WEIRD cultures focus on autonomy and the rights of the individual against the community as the primary ethic, where as the rest of the world considers community as the primary ethic and is more likely to value divinity as well.
Haidt does not offer an explanation as to why WEIRD cultures are weird and notes that the authors of the WEIRD article did not really go there either:
The authors of the WEIRD people article (Henrich et al. 2010) do not comment on when Western thinking became WEIRD. But their thesis directly implies that during the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution progressed and levels of wealth, education, and individualism increased (at least for the elite class), WEIRD thinking became increasingly common.
If we gaze through the Mimetic Lens, however, we do see a clear explanation for why Western cultures value autonomy -- in aspiration if not in operation, and why other cultures are more interested in community and divinity.
Rene Girard essentially agrees with Nietzsche that what makes Western or WEIRD culture different than other cultures is its reliance on Christianity as a basis, and in particular it preference for the victim, or individual, over the community. As Nietzsche said, "Christianity is the religion of the downtrodden, the bullied, the weak, the poor and the slave." When he wrote that, it had been posited hundreds of years earlier by John Locke that each individual was also endowed with God-given rights, which translates in autonomy against the community. In other words, the community has no right to scapegoat individuals for simply exercises that autonomy. These ideas later became the bases for most Western governments.
But here is where it becomes even more interesting. Girard takes the view that by upholding the rights of individuals not to be scapegoated by their communities, Christianity is in fact, the destroyer of religions and leads directly to current Western culture, which is fixated on individualism and the rights of victims.
From the introduction to Girard's "Evolution and Conversion: The Origins of Culture":
Girard maintains that Christianity is essentially the cultural and moral acknowledgement of the sacrificial origins of our culture and our society. . . . In this sense, Girard goes against common assumptions, and takes on board the Judaeo-Christian tradition as having prime responsibility for the de-mythification and de-sacralization of the world. Secularization in the Western world has been accomplished by the slow erosion of mythical and sacred structures triggered by the Christian revelation - and this very assumption would simply defy the kind of reductionist vision of religion as expressed by Dennett or Dawkins. The end of religion, and even scientific atheism itself, has been produced by a religion: Christianity.
Thus, the WEIRD-ing way, while obscure under the Prospecting Lens, is actually explained by the Mimetic Lens. Regarding Nietzche and the consequences of the spread of Christian victim-ethics in WEIRD society, Girard further notes this paradox:
The death of God and the question of how we are going to make up for that death lead Nietzsche to formulate the idea of the foundational murder. The Heideggerian idea of the withdrawal of the gods is an effort to deny the primacy of the biblical God, which still lies behind the Nietzschean formula. Heidegger’s formula means that religion is withdrawing everywhere and not merely the Christian God. This is true, but why is it happening? Because the old pagan sacrificial order is disappearing thanks to Christianity! It is ironic: Christianity seems to be dying together with the religions it extinguishes, because, in sacrificial terms, it is perceived as one mythical religion among others. Christianity is not only one of the destroyed religions but it is the destroyer of all religions. The death of God is a Christian phenomenon. In its modern sense, atheism is a Christian invention. There is no atheism in the ancient world. The only exception I can think of is Epicureanism, but it is limited and its denial of the gods is not aggressive. Epicureanism does not deny God against anything or anyone: it doesn’t have that strong negative quality of modern atheism.
In effect, Girard is telling us that the defense of the victim has become the divinity ethic in the WEIRD culture that Haidt describes (perhaps much to the chagrin of Nietzsche's ghost). And indeed, one can see in our culture that before anyone can advocate for an official act that requires public approval, one must invariably first identify the victims to be protected. Thus, we see the odd spectacle and paradox of those with power claiming victimhood so that they can justify persecution of selected scapegoats, effectively mixing the divinity of victimhood with the archaic sacred practice of scapegoating.
Without meaning to, a number of the commentators on the WEIRD article also echo some of these themes.
In his commentary on shame research, Daniel Fessler notes that WEIRD cultures view shame -- which is what one does to scapegoats -- as an individualist experience to be avoided, whereas traditional cultures tie it to fear, respect and subordination to the community hierarchy.
In their critique, Gaertner, et al emphasize that although people have basic commonalities in certain behaviors, there is a fundamental difference between WEIRD cultures and others in that WEIRD cultures relating to improving self esteem or self-enhancement in that "Westerners self-enhance (i.e., deem self superior to peers) on attributes relevant to individualism and Easterners self-enhance on attributes relevant to collectivism. This is because Westerners deem individualism, and Easterners deem collectivism, as important."
But why there are these differences is really only explained through the Mimetic Lens.
In her critique, Alexandra Maryanski contends that perhaps WEIRD is what humans were meant to ascribe to being in Garden-of-Eden sense: "[S]ince the days of hunter-gathering, the society that best fits this view of human nature – at least in terms of placing a high value on individualism, mobility in space, relative autonomy, verification of self, sexual equality, and freedom of choice – are WEIRD populations. For, despite all the multiple ills of industrialized societies, WEIRD societies may be more compatible with our human nature than the high-density kinship constraints of horticultural societies or the “peasant” constraints of agrarian societies with their privileged few (for data on this argument, see Maryanski & Turner 1992; Turner & Maryanski 2005; 2008)."
In their reply to the commentators, Henrich, et al. note that in considering WEIRD and other cultures, cultural evolution is a highly important factor to consider: "[H]umans are a runaway hyper-cultural species whose genetic endowments, including abilities to adapt ontogenetically, have been shaped by a long history of cumulative cultural evolution, social norms, institutions, and culture-gene coe- volution (Henrich 2008; Laland et al. 2010; Richerson & Boyd 2005)."
Girard would agree that the WEIRD-ing way is a form of cultural evolution that started two thousand years ago and has been going on with fits and starts ever since. Both nominally religious and nominally secular organizations have, at various times in history and continuing to this day, adopted the norms of the archaic sacred, involving hierarchies and scapegoating, and the defense of the individual victim. (In this regard, the labels of "religious" and "secular" are largely irrelevant, as it is the mechanism that is at issue, not the label). Yet the trend is clearly towards the latter, although it is frequently interrupted by spasms of scapegoating violence of governments and other hierarchies.
There are additional intersections between Haidt and Girard explored most recently in a short book entitled The Righteously Mimetic Mind Morality, Politics and Human Development between J.Haidt and R.Girard by Luca Luchesini.
But we will save them for the next blog post.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.