Of Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Historical Narratives
by A. Helian
JONATHAN HAIDT IS ONE OF THE MOST coherent thinkers in the social sciences today. A Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he specializes in the study of morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. He describes himself as an atheist, and embraces the notion that there is such a thing as “human nature,” in the sense that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions. For that alone he would have suffered the anathemas of his fellow experts in the behavioral sciences a few short decades ago. Until quite recently they were still in thrall of the collective delusion that human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture and education. But Haidt doesn’t stop there. His work focuses on our moral nature, and he is of the opinion that moral reasoning is not the basis of moral judgment. Rather, he supports what he calls the social intuitionist model, according to which moral judgments are the result of quick, automatic intuitions, including moral emotions. Moral reasoning commonly only appears after moral decisions have already been made, serving to rationalize them after the fact. Innate, evolved traits play a significant role in the process. In Haidt’s words from the paper, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,”
The social intuitionist model… proposes that morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture. Moral intuitions are therefore both innate and enculturated.
Obviously, we have come a long way since the 60s and 70s, when the entire orthodox scientific establishment was defending the cherished but palpably absurd dogma that “human nature” was almost entirely the result of education and culture, and the effect of innate predispositions of the kind Haidt (pictured above) refers to on human behavior were insignificant. In one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in scientific history, they have finally been forced by the weight of evidence to abandon that delusion. For all that, they have shown a remarkable resistance to facing the obvious implications of the truth they have finally embraced. Nowhere has that been more true than in the field of morality.
If what Haidt says is true, then human morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. As such, it cannot be other than subjective in nature. Objective good and evil cannot exist because there is no legitimate basis for their existence. Morality has no purpose, nor does it serve any higher end. It exists purely and simply because it has increased the odds that carriers of the genes that give rise to it would survive and reproduce those genes. In spite of these seemingly elementary facts, no human illusion is as persistent and resilient as the belief in objective good.
Haidt explores some related issues in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s a good read, consisting of a collection of interesting ideas, insights and recent research results and concluding with an examination of the question, “What is the meaning of life.” According to Haidt, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” really consists of two sub-questions: What is the purpose of life? and What should be our purpose within life? He does not attempt an answer to the first, but focuses on the second, noting that it refers to what we should do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life. Haidt devotes the final portion of the book to the question. There is something rather striking about his answer. It requires acceptance of the theory of group selection.
Why is that striking? Back in the day when, as noted above, virtually the entire orthodox scientific establishment was proclaiming the dogma that “human nature” was almost exclusively the result of education and culture, the most influential and significant writer insisting that the establishment was wrong, recognized as such at the time by proponents of both points of view, was Robert Ardrey. Well, it so happens that Ardrey, a brilliant writer with a profound grasp of the big picture, was right and the establishment was wrong about the role of the innate on human behavior. Yet today his name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Galileo, or any of the other great destroyers of false orthodoxies in the sciences for that matter. Rather, he has been almost entirely forgotten. It happens, you see, that Ardrey was outside the academic pale. He was, in fact, a playwright for much of his career, and it would be too painful for the guild of “experts” to admit that a mere playwright like Ardrey had correctly insisted on an abundantly obvious truth at a time when they were still collectively defending a cherished but palpably false delusion.
Eventually, when the delusion collapsed, resulting in one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of the sciences, the “experts” constructed an entire alternative reality, exemplified by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, according to which, incredibly, Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” and the real hero had been the more respectable and palatable E.O. Wilson, no matter that the ideas he set forth in books like Sociobiology and On Human Nature were no more than a reformulation of Ardrey’s thought. Now the chances that Pinker ever actually read Ardrey before dismissing him as “totally and utterly wrong” are vanishingly small, but he cited Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene as the basis of his claim, as if Dawkins were as infallible as the pope. Dawkins, in turn, based his entire criticism of Ardrey on some remarks he made in his book The Social Contract about a theory that was of no particular significance whatsoever as far as the fundamental question of the role of the innate on human behavior is concerned. And what was that theory? Why, none other than the theory of group selection, without which Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” evaporates in the mist. It appears that Dawkins was somewhat premature in announcing its demise. Such are the narratives that occasionally pass for “history” in the sciences. Meanwhile, Ardrey remains an unperson. I should think he deserves better.