The Righteous Mind

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Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012

Here it is 2018, and I’m just getting around to reviewing this thought-provoking book from 2012. Waiting this long does have one advantage, however. Recent political events provide additional context for evaluating Haidt’s view of moral conflicts between liberals and conservatives. In the age of Trump, some of his ideas are already starting to seem a little dated.

This is in a way two books, one on the evolutionary origins of human morality and the other on contemporary political conflict. As an evolutionary psychologist, Haidt makes a pretty good contribution to the first topic, but I found him much less convincing on the second. I will deal with these two sides of his argument in separate posts.

Intuitions come before reasons

Haidt is fond of animal metaphors, like “the rider on the elephant” and “the intuitive dog and its rational tail.” His central metaphor for Part I of the book is that “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” The rider is our conscious reasoning, which serves much deeper and more extensive mental processes most of the time. Moral judgment is mostly a matter of reacting quickly and intuitively to situations. Reasoning is secondary, and consists mainly of giving reasons to justify our intuitions in the eyes of others.

According to Haidt, most Western philosophers have had it wrong, accepting Plato’s “rationalist delusion” that reason ought to be the master of the passions. Hume was an exception, saying that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Haidt sides with Hume, although he qualifies his position a little later.

Haidt also criticizes developmental psychologists such as Kohlberg for exaggerating how much children can figure out morality for themselves through increasingly advanced reasoning. He sees such views as an expression of a Western liberal tradition of rational individualism. Most of the world’s people, including the less educated within Western countries, are more sociocentric. They react to moral dilemmas by simply and unreflectively applying the intuitions that thousands of years of biological evolution and cultural experience have built into them. Haidt likes the acronym WEIRD for the Western, educated, industrial, rich, democracies, indicating how far out of step they are with the world’s moral majority.

Is an unreflective conformity to moral tradition a good thing? I don’t know that Haidt is entirely clear about that, even in his own mind. Sometimes he claims to be just describing, not prescribing, but social scientists have a way of sliding from is to ought. Haidt seems a little too comfortable with a world in which most people stick to their past adaptations and traditions. He does acknowledge the parochialism of the righteous mind, and he would like different social tribes to respect one another and perhaps learn from one another. But he displays no confidence in an expansion of individual consciousness or critical thinking. He claims that the philosophy he studied in college was no help in figuring out the meaning of life. (For a lover of both science and philosophy like myself, that was a red flag.)

Evolutionary origins of moral intuitions

In accounting for people’s powerful moral intuitions, Haidt tries to balance nature and nurture, the innate and the learned. “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises….’Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience’.” Social experience further organizes what evolution has already organized.

The innate part consists of six universal foundations of morality. These are “adaptations to long-standing threats and opportunities in social life. They would draw people’s attention to certain kinds of events (such as cruelty or disrespect), and trigger instant intuitive reactions, perhaps even specific emotions (such as sympathy or anger).” The situations that trigger these reactions today can be very different from what may have triggered them earlier in our evolutionary history, allowing for considerable variation in cultural experience and cultural norms.  Unlike some earlier evolutionists who fell into the trap of biological determinism, Haidt is sensitive to the need to reconcile evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology.

Perhaps the most obvious of the moral foundations is what Haidt calls “care/harm.” The human species is noted for its large-brained but extremely dependent offspring, who require prolonged protection and care. Humans who didn’t have a strong impulse for care would be out-reproduced by those who did. Once a foundation was laid for caring behavior in human evolution, the caring impulse could be extended and applied in many different ways, depending on the cultural situation.

Haidt relates each of the moral foundations to the adaptive challenge it evolved to meet in the course of building reproductively-successful human groups. The challenges and corresponding foundations are:

  • protecting and caring for children (care/harm)
  • reaping the benefits of two-way partnerships (fairness/cheating)
  • forming cohesive coalitions (loyalty/betrayal)
  • forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies (authority/subversion)
  • avoiding contaminants (sanctity/degradation)
  • avoiding domination (liberty/oppression)

Rationality and politics

In Haidt’s “social intuitionist” model of morality, intuitions come first and reasoning second. When moral reasoning does occur, its function is not primarily to figure out what is right, but rather to “help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes.” In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon argue over which is more important for happiness, being just (Socrates) or appearing to be just in the eyes of others (Glaucon). Haidt agrees with Glaucon that “people care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality.” And he says, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” That description leads to this prescription: “Make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” Thus Haidt pins his hopes for moral improvement on tighter social control, not on moral education.

Haidt does try to avoid taking his disparagement of moral reasoning too far, as he admits that Hume did. He allows that “elephants are sometimes open to reason.” People can sometimes question their intuitive moral reactions, especially when people interact with others whose reactions are different from theirs. In fact, better reasoning is very likely under certain conditions:

But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Perhaps if Haidt had taken that ball and run with it a little further, he would have had a little more respect for Western liberal rationalism.

A more rational society?

Once one has acknowledged that “good reasoning” can be an emergent property of a social system, contributing to better public policy, then why not also acknowledge that a society can move in that direction in an historical process? Isn’t that exactly what one would expect of a modern, pluralistic democracy? Isn’t Haidt’s own scientific psychology and his critical thinking about prevailing psychological theories a product of such a society? Western societies are in need of reform, to be sure, but rejecting their rationality as WEIRD seems to me to be overkill.

Haidt’s position seems implicitly conservative because he is more interested in how morality evolved in the past than how it continues to evolve culturally in the present. What else besides critical thinking can evaluate traditional morality in the light of new experience?  For example, trying to restrict sexual activity to heterosexual, reproducing couples made a lot more sense when death rates were high, and high birth rates were needed for group survival. Today, societies with low birth rates but prosperous economies flourish, and they do so less by out-reproducing their competitors as by sharing their culture with them. Innovations like contraception and same-sex marriage are not a threat to such societies.

In his discussion of the “sanctity/degradation” moral foundation, Haidt expresses his appreciation for conservative sexual morality, especially the idea of chastity, while he portrays liberals as individualistic hedonists. He fails to appreciate the emerging morality expressed in such ideas as safe sex, mutual respect and mutual consent. Isn’t today’s #MeToo movement a moral crusade to hold men accountable for their behavior toward women?

In dismissing Kohlberg’s developmental psychology as too rational, he overlooks the significance of Kohlberg’s “post-conventional” moral stage. Haidt’s conception of morality is so focused on conformity to society that he fails to grasp how a rapidly changing society requires some post-conventional thinking in order to adapt to changing times.

All of this is relevant to Part II of the book, which praises conservatives for being the superior moral politicians. They win a lot of the political arguments by appealing to more of the evolutionary foundations of morality than liberals do. Or so it would seem. That will be the topic of my next post.




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