The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt

I started reading The Righteous Mind with some eagerness. For several reasons, the author’s ideological sea change among them, I was disappointed.

Once upon a time, there was a liberal moral psychologist who was frustrated with the ineffectual presidential campaign of John Kerry. So he read a book by a conservative ideologue, and lo, he was transformed.

He realized that he had been on the wrong side, that his politics clashed with his research. So he changed his label; and, wishing everyone to benefit from his new insights, he wrote a book about how liberals don’t get it and how conservatives live a fuller, richer moral life. Well, that’s not what the booksays it’s about, but that’s really what it’s about.

He called his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. And he looked on his creation, and Jonathan Haidt saw that it was good.

I started reading The Righteous Mind with some eagerness, for I knew that Haidt’s “Moral Foundations” theory had been very influential. I’m not convinced that Haidt has shown that his specific moral foundations are anything more than a post hoc categorization of our generalized emotional basis for everything, not just morality. That is, the foundation categories may be our imposition of structure on the chaos of inchoate feelings, rather than loci or processes in the brain. Still, as I say, his theory has been influential, and I wanted to read more about his ideas.

For several reasons, the author’s ideological sea change among them, I was disappointed.

The most straightforward reason for my disappointment is that The Righteous Mind (TRM) is a bit of a primer. Haidt writes for a very general audience, too often reducing his complex ideas to simple metaphors. Your emotions are an elephant, and your reason is the rider. The rider can encourage the elephant to go this way or that, but unless the big brute really wants to move in the direction you want him to, he’s not going to be pushed around by some puny mahout.

Despite Haidt’s frequent references to the literature, metaphors like this, and mantra-like repetition of statements like “people are 90% chimp and 10% bee,” turn much of TRM into an under-informative and overly user-friendly introduction. I suspect that most of his readers are beyond this level, and those who aren’t won’t really get his ideas no matter how cleverly he packages them.

Of greater concern is Haidt’s covert bias. Instead of “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” a more accurate subtitle would be something like “Why Liberals Are Only Half Moral, Which Is Why Conservatives, Who Are Fully Moral, Are Superior.” A fairly clumsy mess for a title, I agree, but much closer to the book’s true content than the misleadingly balanced subtitle Haidt actually used.

I don’t intend to go over the basic details of “Moral Foundations” theory in this space. I assume that if you’re reading this article, you’re generally familiar with Haidt’s claim that our moral codes are socially-determined expressions of our six (originally, five) pre-wired moral triggers. If you’re not familiar with the theory, or want a quick review, there are many easily accessible online sources, including the front page of Haidt’s own webpage on the subject.

Instead, I want to look very briefly at the parts in the book where Haidt shows how clueless he believes liberals to be.

The main reason for his assertion is that Haidt believes that his research suggests that conservatives are correct about human nature. Thanks to our emotions, we are all capable of — genetically predetermined for — selfishness and cheating. Conservatives get this, and their moral caution leads them to support the necessary restraints of a hierarchical society. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t have a clue how the emotional underpinnings of morality operate, so they constantly misjudge human nature and thereby undermine their own goals by adopting misguided policies.

Of course, that there is an emotional context to politics is not a new idea. Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant is just one example of the popularity of books by brain and language researchers who argue that the Republicans have been so successful lately because they have understood and effectively manipulated the language that gives public debate its emotional context.

What makes Haidt’s book different is that, while couched as a summary of recent moral research, it is in large part the story of one man’s conversion. His trip to India to learn about the importance of tradition and cleanliness. His epiphanous reading of Jerry Z. Muller’s Conservatism. Stuff like that.

The core of Haidt’s argument against liberals is that they operate on only three of the six moral foundation cylinders, while conservatives appeal and respond to all six. Worse, liberals don’t understand that conservatives mean something different by “freedom” and “justice” than liberals do. This leads liberals to misjudge conservatives as people who are against equality and fairness, when they really just have a different sense of what those things are. Worst, Haidt argues, liberals ignore or even outright reject the key moral foundations that are both central to the conservative worldview and the glue that holds society together.

In other words, liberals have incomplete values, and as a result they don’t know how best to structure a functional society. It’s hard to think of a more damning criticism, and it’s disingenuous in the extreme to find this assessment popping up everywhere throughout a book that claims to be about the “good people” on both sides of the political divide.

Here’s the “balance” the book describes: Everyone cares about avoiding harm and maximizing freedom and ensuring justice, but only conservatives understand and respond positively to the need for structure and authority, and to the “moral glue” that the sacred and the traditional give to society.

So liberals are incomplete, mistaken, naive, and wrongheaded — all words that Haidt uses in the book to describe them. Conservatives, on the other hand, are sober, realistic, and clear-thinking.

– * –

There is another angle from which TRM can be criticized — not by me, but by the ubiquitous John Gray.

In the latest issue of The New RepublicGray’s long review of TRM touches on some of the points above, although sometimes with an opposite take. He notes the narrow focus, pointing out that the U.S. is more polarized and more religious than much of the rest of the world, rendering suspect any claims for a single human nature based on the American experience. He also notes Haidt’s criticism  of “naive liberalism,” but this is the one part of the book that he likes.

The article’s real focus is Gray’s signature target of late, “scientism.”

MORE NUANCED than other examples of the genre, The Righteous Mind is a useful critique of a certain shallow and fashionable rationalism. In the end, however, Haidt’s attempt to apply evolutionary psychology is yet one more example of the failures of scientism.

The compact version of Gray’s criticism is that Haidt errs in assuming that morality and politics are evolutionary in origin. He rejects the idea of group evolution, rather curiously at the same time that he praises Haidt’s assessment that the rituals of religion make believing communities more stable than are societies based on the more recent notion of individual liberty.

There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

You have to admire John Gray’s rhetorical agility.

In a single article — in a single paragraph! — he manages to label The Righteous Mind ”nuanced” and “useful” on the one hand, and a “stultifying” failure on the other.


One thought on “The Righteous Mind

  1. Pingback: Lisa’s review of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt | Belletristic Book Babes

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