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The Righteous Road to Ruin

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Haidt approvingly quotes Phil Tetlock who argues that "conscious reasoning is carried out for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery." Tetlock adds, Haidt notes, that we are also trying to persuade ourselves. "We want to believe the things we are saying to others," Haidt writes. And he adds, "Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth." 

The supposition that moral creeds are excuses for self-interest, ironically, defines Haidt's stunning moral blindness in India. This does not hold true for the oppressed. The oppressed -- Haidt's "slackers" -- are forced because of their powerlessness to confront the mendacity of conventional morality. It does not mean the oppressed hold a higher morality. There are many examples of yesterday's victims becoming today's victimizers. But while Haidt correctly excoriates conventional morality as largely a form of self-justification, his solution is not to seek a moral code that benefits our neighbor but to ask us to surrender to this self-interest and become part of human "hives," including corporations.

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Haidt holds up the collective euphoria of college football games -- which he says are religious rites -- as an example of the positive benefits of collective emotions. He links school and team spirit to Emerson's and Thoreau's transcendentalism, which is, to say the least, a gross distortion of transcendental thought. He says football games also lead us to reverence. The crowd in a football stadium allows us to experience, he writes, awe and the sacred. It turns us, he writes approvingly, into a human hive. "It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are 'simply a part of a whole,'" he writes of corporate or crowd experiences. He calls on us to surrender to these collectives. He writes that "a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people." 

Happiness, then, comes with conformity. If we are unhappy it is not because there is something wrong with the world around us. It is because we have failed to integrate into the hive. This, of course, is the central thesis of positive psychology, which Haidt is closely associated with. And it is an ideology promoted by corporations and the U.S. military to keep people disempowered.

Moral behavior is, to some extent, probably the result of natural selection. But there is little doubt there are human inclinations, which also appear to have their roots in natural selection, that must be curtailed, repressed or even punished if human civilization is to function. Sigmund Freud makes this point in "Civilization and Its Discontents":

"The instinct of work in common would not hold [civilized society] together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man's aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formations."

Haidt recognizes these biological passions, but unlike Freud he encourages us to give in to them. Reducing the moral life to this retreat into collective emotions, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, is the central attraction of totalitarianism. It offers us an escape from the anxiety and responsibility of moral choice and abrogates to those in control the power to determine the moral and the immoral. Fear, the primary emotion that conquered Haidt, is the emotion skillfully manipulated by totalitarian systems to enforce conformity. Once we surrender our instincts to the crowd, once we are made afraid, we no longer think. This surrender elevates demagogues and charlatans, as well as corporate crooks, which perhaps is why Haidt lauds Dale Carnegie as "a brilliant moral psychologist."

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Haidt mistakes the immoral as moral. Totalitarian structures, including corporate structures, call for us to sublimate our individual conscience into the collective. When we conform, we become, in the eyes of the state, or the corporation, moral and righteous. Haidt would do well to remember historian Claudia Koonz's observation that "the road to Auschwitz was paved with righteousness." This is a book that, perhaps unwittingly, sanctifies obedience to the corporate state and totalitarian power. It puts forth an argument that obliterates the possibility of the moral life. Submission, if you follow Haidt, becomes the highest good.

The moral life is achieved only by fostering a radical individualism with altruism. The Christian Gospels call on us to love our neighbor, not our tribe. Immanuel Kant says much the same thing when he tells us to "always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends." Morality is never the domain of crowds. And if you follow Haidt's advice on how to become righteous you will, like so many of the self-deluded in history, end up a slave.

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To see long excerpts from "The Righteous Mind" at Google Books, click here

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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