Why We Act

The elephant in the room

This morning, while reading Tim Ferriss’s weekly newsletter, I re-encountered a quote by Oscar Wilde: “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.”

I wonder if Germans have a word for witty assertions that turn out to be scientifically confirmed.

During an election year, the first book every person should have on their reading list is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt explores the evolutionary, psychological, and cultural ingredients that flavor the stew of our individual moral preferences.

One of the central themes of the book is that our intuitions come first, our reasoning comes second. Gut feeling drives our judgments, and our strategic reasoning is the ‘press secretary’ that explains and justifies our non-rational whims.

As an example, he cites a study where participants are asked to describe their reactions to “harmless taboo violations.” These are situations that gross us out, but are ultimately harmless to the people in the story, e.g. two adult siblings having protected sex in secret. The majority of participants said that these actions were wrong, but when their reasons for saying so were disproven by the researcher, they’d simply generate a different reason, on and on until they finally settled on something like “it’s wrong because I just feel that it is.”

I’m reminded of this nearly every time I see people engaging in protracted political arguments on Facebook. I understand the urge to dip into the comments of a charged political post that gets its facts completely wrong, but the facts are beside the point.

Instead, we must understand what principles guide our moral intuitions. How much importance do we place on authority and hierarchy? How sensitive are we to physical suffering versus fairness? Is it more important to be chaste or loyal? Haidt explores how these moral dimensions translate into the ideologies we consider liberal and conservative.

It’s a challenge these days, being on social media and not wanting to gouge your eyes out or set the internet on fire in response to viewpoints we find at best baffling and at worst existentially dangerous. This book helps us develop empathy for why somebody might see the world very differently than we do.

Read The Righteous Mind if you want to have a less aggravating, more compassionate year.

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