Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind on "Groupish" Behavior, and Clayton Kershaw

I have finished reading, once through, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. There is lots of interesting stuff in this wonderful and provocative book, but building on my earlier post about Clayton Kershaw (who has completed his regular season with a league-leading E.R.A. to 1.83, the first time since 2000 that a starting pitcher with at least 180 innings finished a regular season with an E.R.A. of less than 2.00), some of Haidt's interesting work has to do with how humans have evolved to gravitate towards groups. Groups are very important to humans. Humans like groups because groups give individuals guidance on what moral behavior is. Behaving morally is not something that can be reduced to raw game-theoretic, repeat-play co-operation (as Haidt somewhat pejoratively labels homo economocus); there is just too much behavior that cannot be explained by co-operation. And humans need a group that is small enough to be cohesive and for "morality" messages to be sufficiently proximate in order to make sense, which is why Marxist societies never work. But within groups, norms of moral behavior can be very powerful: suicide bombers, have nothing but morality, and perhaps some family rewards, to die for.

So this brings me back to Clayton Kershaw. Faith is clearly an important part of the Kershaws' life and humanitarian work in Africa. So you could guess there is something of a missionary purpose in their work, but I don't see it. There is no proselytizing that I can see. Faith is not mentioned once in the New York Times article about them two years ago. And African orphans would seem to be only remotely, remotely able to be in a future position to ever help someone who will soon become the highest-paid pitcher in baseball. There is no sense that the Kershaws are helping out members of any plausible group to which they might belong. So if, as Haidt argues, that moral behavior is an evolved human characteristic, what is the evolutionary explanation for the Kershaws' generosity?

It has got to be, my guess, a relic of enlarging groups. Generosity and kindness towards strangers and outsiders seems often to be a tenet of many religions, and there must be a recruitment component to this. But that is a very odd tenet, because so much of the "groupish" behavior studied and documented by Haidt and some of his colleagues, Joe Henrich and AraNorenzayan, focus on smaller, tractable groups. How does the morality of kindness towards strangers fit within a larger set of group norms of morality?

1 comment:

  1. Whether and why people behave altruistically intrigues me, too. I watch for altruism, scrutinizing for hidden selfish motivations. Charles Eisenstein ("Sacred Economics") suggests that humans' highest motivation is to give our gifts and have them well received. But we're often blocked by fear of scarcity. Maybe Krenshaw is just feeling so much abundance that he can do it? How can I (everyone?) have a life like that?