*The Righteous Mind* by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins his story of discovery with the conventional wisdom in moral psychology that reigned a couple of decades ago. Kohlberg, Jean Piaget, and others had shown, so they believed, that children learned about justice and fairness through their own interactions with other children, and that by a few years of age, they could understand the difference between universal morality and social convention. For instance, if asked whether it was morally wrong not to wear a uniform to school if the school required it, they would answer yes, whereas if the school did not require it, they would answer that it was not morally wrong not to wear a uniform. Haidt labels Kohlberg’s empiricist theory “rationalism,” and he tries to persuade us that rationalism is wrong. Haidt uses the word rationalist “to describe anyone who believes that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge” (7). Note how Haidt sneaks normative pretensions (“reliable”) into an ostensibly scientific discussion. This is typical of the book.

Haidt’s own theory is that our moral judgments come largely from our intuitions, which are genetically ingrained in almost all of us and manifest themselves even in infants. He has some good evidence on this point, about which more later. In WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies, many people have suppressed some of their moral intuitions, especially about authority, loyalty, and sanctity, in favor of care/harm and fairness/injustice. For instance, many University of Pennsylvania undergraduates do not think that it is morally wrong to have sex with a dead chicken one has bought from a grocery store. But in poorer societies like India and among the working classes in Western countries, a more “holistic” (and therefore, he implies, better) morality still reigns. For instance, he claims that working-class Brazilian school-children think that it is always morally wrong not to wear a uniform to school, even if the school does not require it. (Really?!) This allegedly shows that they do not even have a concept of social convention. The whole distinction between universal morality and social convention is just a Western cultural construct (and therefore bad, he implies).

Nevertheless, it is possible to get even WEIRDies’ inner social conservatives to come out. For instance, if you ask Harvard undergraduates whether it would be morally wrong for a consenting brother and sister using multiple forms of contraception to have sex, most answer that it would. When asked to give a reason, they can’t, beyond saying that it’s just wrong, a phenomenon Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding.” “Affective priming” refers to how the environment (“priming”) can affect survey takers’ responses. For instance, spraying fart smell makes people answer surveys about moral questions in a more socially conservative fashion. So does asking people to wash their hands before taking a survey.

Haidt believes that these findings support the claim that people’s moral judgments are based on their intuitions — a “flash of feeling,” as Haidt puts it — not calm reasoning. When people use reasoning, it is “motivated”: aimed at persuading others of our point of view, not actually getting at the truth. Nevertheless, there is evidence that reflection can make a difference. When Harvard undergraduates are posed the incest dilemma mentioned above, but are also required to read an argument that the act of incest would be morally permissible and to wait two minutes before registering a response, the proportion of respondents saying the incest is permissible increases dramatically. So it turns out that reasoning is not helpless.

Moreover, Haidt does not acknowledge a weakness of using surveys to establish the sources of moral judgment: surveys are always a low-cost, low-reflection way of getting people to express their opinions. The responses one finds on surveys are likely to differ dramatically from the responses one would find after a period of debate, deliberation, and reflection on a matter of critical personal importance. Still, one important political activity is akin to survey-taking: voting. Because the personal costs and benefits of voting are low, we should expect people to express offhand and uninformed judgments in the voting booth. Introit the vast literature on voter ignorance.

Yet Haidt believes that intuitionism and “motivated reasoning” are not problems. His advice to us is just to give in to our instincts and to respect all the moral intuitions of others, no matter how silly. By way of contrast I am reminded of another book of pop psychology, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini shows how human psychology can be manipulated, yet his advice is not to give in to the manipulation, but to use our minds to resist tools of manipulation when we encounter them. Haidt derives exactly the opposite conclusion from Cialdini’s.

Haidt also has advice for liberals and Democrats. He believes conservatives have a natural advantage in politics, because conservatives show roughly equal concern for all five dimensions of moral intuition, while liberals care much more about care/harm and fairness/injustice than the other three. Therefore, conservatives find it much easier to relate to voters, who care about all dimensions.

Haidt is making two basic errors here. First, he assumes that responses to his survey questions correspond to some absolute, context-free scale of value. Conservatives score about 3.0-3.5 out of 5 points on each of the five moral dimensions, on average. But the average liberal also scores above 1 on all 5 dimensions, so liberals also care about all 5 dimensions. They just care less about authority/disrespect, loyalty/betrayal, and sanctity/impurity than do conservatives. We could only infer that liberals care less about the latter three dimensions than care/harm and fairness/injustice if responses across survey questions were comparable, that is, if there were some absolute, Goldilocksian standard of “just right” one each dimension, of which liberals are falling short.

Haidt’s second error is to assume that the median voter has the same moral intuitions as conservatives. But what if the median voter is closer to the liberal pattern? Then conservatives’ harping on about sanctity and authority might actually repel the median voter. Haidt fails to address any of the findings in political behavior about what American voters actually want and how political rhetoric and issue positions matter to vote choice. Certainly, recent election results give little credence to the view that conservatives hold an inherent advantage in American politics.

Finally, Haidt wants to make normative claims about how society should work. We should all care about tradition, authority, loyalty, purity, and sanctity. Why? Because they are useful to the social fabric. (Haidt calls himself a “Durkheimian utilitarian” to indicate a utilitarianism that cares about human connectedness.) They are, in essence, noble lies. Scratch the surface, and Haidt is just as WEIRD as his undergraduates in the end.

But of course, people who really care about sanctity don’t share this view. For a Durkheimian utilitarian, it matters not whether the social fabric is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or maybe even secular humanist; it just matters that it works. Haidt therefore fails to take seriously the reality of fundamental moral and philosophical disagreement and in so doing disrespects the very worldviews he urges us to take seriously.

The book is not entirely terrible. The “social intuitionist” model of moral judgment clearly applies to political ideologies and is consistent with the experimental political science literature on “partisan rationalization” (people tend to adopt the judgments of ideological compatriots but resist those of ideological adversaries). More civility in politics and understanding where other people’s judgments come from seem like good things. Jonathan Haidt is a decent enough moral psychologist, but he makes some basic interpretive errors, and when he wades into the deep waters of political science or moral philosophy, he finds himself at sea very quickly.

(*) For non-philosophers: Intuitions and arguments are the basic particles of moral philosophy. Hume argued that reason and the passions were different categories of mental activity and did not struggle against each other at all. Hume also thought that justice was an artificial virtue, not innate, having been created by humans to make society and markets possible. Kant thought that he was systematizing ordinary, “commonsense” morality and certainly didn’t think you needed to be a moral philosopher to be a good person. He also didn’t think that morality was all about justice and fairness (nor did Bentham).

4 thoughts on “*The Righteous Mind* by Jonathan Haidt

  1. Well said. I was thoroughly unimpressed with Haidt’s departure from reason in reaching his mind-boggling conclusions when I read this in 2015.

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