random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: Philosophy

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Surveying today’s political landscape, it’s easy to suppose we’re approaching a precipice. Passionate intransigence divides societies into blocks which, even where decidedly secular, are rallied around with religious fetishism. It seems that ideological boundaries are increasingly hardening, poisoning the political dialogue, preventing constructive discourse and contributing to almost maddening levels of senseless blustering.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt investigates the concept of morality and shows how differing political groups can reach such disparate conclusions from the same starting point. Gradually building up his argument, Haidt succinctly retreads a lot of territory covered elsewhere in more detail, but which is vital to understanding his standpoint.

Of particular importance is the idea that morality has little if nothing to do with rational thinking. The human mind reacts intuitively to situations at a very basic level, leaving our cerebral rationality running to catch up when it comes time to explain ourselves. Moral reasoning is almost a misnomer; moral intuition is at the core of our decision-making. What this means at a basic level is that people tend to react to statements with their guts, and later defend those reactions with their minds. In politics, this is epitomised by the kind of debate you find on populist media stations, like this example from LBC’s James O’Brien (also available on their website should YouTube receive a letter):

Moving the goalposts

In the exchange, Brexiteer Ashley is asked to justify his strongly held position. Pinning down his argument is like trying to catch an errant moth flitting around a brightly lit room. It’s all those EU laws the country won’t have to obey. Which laws? Well, it’s not so much the laws, as how political the discussions are in Brussels. Politicians talking politics? Well, it’s not really the politics, it’s the uncontrolled immigration. From outside the EU? Well, if Britain were no longer in the EU, it would be better able to integrate the immigrants. Err… right.((I’d argue that’s why you shouldn’t ask people a stupid question, but that’s a debate for another post.))

It makes for amusing radio, but for O’Brien it’s an exercise in futility. This kind of spiralling debate has no end, because the fundamental impetus for the decision wasn’t arrived at rationally, but rather – at least judging by the responses – morally. Tear down the edifice stone by stone if you will, the invisible foundations go much deeper, and cannot be struck by logic’s hammer. When every vestige of rationality has gone, the argument generally reverts to something along the lines of ‘I don’t really know, it’s just wrong.’

Where the book gets interesting is where Haidt investigates the different reactions to moral issues amongst people of different social backgrounds and political persuasions, and attempts to weigh their stances up on a six-axis matrix. This ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ measures the axes of care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion and sanctity versus degradation. While as human beings we are all affected by these, the differences between us are essentially down to our weighing and valuing these axes differently.

An interesting theory, though his ultimate conclusion seems to be the laudable but rather yawnable axiom that people need to understand where the other party stands and find the middle ground. A laudable suggestion, but one which doesn’t really do anything to help solve our intractable problems: as Theresa May might one day realise, a half-baked Brexit is about as likely to please all parties as a half-aborted baby.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas ShruggedPerhaps the most significant book in post-war American literature, one which has regained popularity since the start of the economic crisis, Altas Shrugged is the embodiment of an ideal society, the ultimate vehicle for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Weighing in at over 1,000 pages of tightly-packed print, it’s also one of the longest novels in English literature. Is it any good?

Well, as a novel, Atlas Shrugged unfortunately falls flat, in ways that Rand’s first novel, We the Living, didn’t. There is foremost no humanity in the novel, the characters are dismembered, dessicated mouthpieces to Rand’s philosophical diatribes, with everyone fitting neatly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps. Rand herself claimed that using characters as symbols was never her intention: “My characters are persons in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.” But what we are left with are flimsy apparitions, lobotomised automatons fulfilling the roles required of them to extol the virtues of her philosophy. Even this is taken to extremes, with one of the proponents delivering a 60-page long theoretical speech around which the rest of the novel might well be seen as scaffolding.

To complement this set of lifeless characters is a plot which similarly confounds understanding. In an America which technologically resembles the period in which Rand was writing, yet industrially feels set in an earlier period, and borrows heavily from the Great Depression, the main events and the decisions of the characters jar heavily with what the reader knows and expects from society. As another reviewer pointed out, what’s missing is the overt understanding that the story takes place in a parallel world or a different timeframe, to create a genuine sense of credibility. True, there are some hints that push this novel into the realms of science fiction–a super metal alloy, power derived from static electricity, weapons based on sound waves etc.–but the world is definitely our own, even if the people and their decisions are alien. Key to the story is the gradual collapse of the economic system, and the disappearance of the champions of industry. What happens in Rand’s universe when the creative minds of the world go on strike? Apparently, they settle down on the frontier and, working one month a year, create a fully-fledged miniature utopia. Personally, I imagine they’d starve.

A bad book can still be a good delivery vehicle for an interesting message. Yet this unwieldy book fails even to achieve the latter. For its mammoth length, Rand’s message could have been relatively concise, but for the plot’s repetitiveness. If you are interested in Rand’s philosophy, there are plenty of other places to turn which will provide a far more succinct and detailed explanation, without the repetition or padding necessary for its delivery in novel form. Whether you find place for Rand’s philosophy in your own, or like Gore Vidal consider it “nearly perfect in its immorality”, there are simply better summaries available. For the converted, this is probably a wonderful book, but for anyone else it simply isn’t worth risking the investment of time and energy.

No one can deny this book’s enduring popularity. That alone gives rise to curiosity strong enough to keep it fresh in the public consciousness. But it is a far cry from a great piece of literature, and as an allegory, a philosophical harbinger, its ponderous and verbose nature should have the curious turn elsewhere. The novel opens with the question: “Who is John Galt?” A thousand pages of largely disappointing text will reveal the answer, but you’d be better served just reading the appendix.

Free Will?

Slightly confusing argument to start with, but this comic provokes enough argument for legal eagles and philosophising owls alike. Would the three go down for attempted murder or conspiracy to commit murder? Would Alp get sentenced for manslaughter for being the last one out of the room and apparently the one to finally turn the key? Should Aaron take the blame for ultimately removing the water, the pre-meditated poison going unused? Did Harold commit suicide by being so dopey about sitting around in there with just a bottle of water in the first place? Could Alp get committed for being so loopy as to drill several holes in a bottle after confusing sand and water?

Sadly, however, rather little to do with the real question of free will!

Finding Space for the Public in Transport

This is one of those posts which makes it to the draught stage and never any further, but as I was tidying up my WordPress install, I decided with a bit of reworking it’s something I still feel strongly about. The original title had referred to British public transport in particular, but in truth there is very little specific to the British experience.

Virgin Trains

Before I start my rant, let me plainly state that I am great supporter of the principles of public transport. That is not to say that I don’t see the use or take advantage of private transport, merely that I feel the balance in society is generally wrong, particularly in the first world, or whatever the preferred term is these days. These societies should be perfectly capable of providing for the vast majority of man’s annual miles, with our regular combinations of buses, trams, trains etc. and private transport being available to fill in the gaps where required. Being able to pack your bags, grab the kids and hit the road for a weekend away seems like a reasonable thing to do, but where is the logic of moving a ton of metal to work and back five days a week?

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