Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion / Jonathan Haidt -- N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 2012

There is an extremely good motive behind Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, i.e., a desire to get people of good will, both conservative and liberal, to see past their own moral perspectives and take one another seriously.  To do so, one needs first of all to see one’s moral perspective as being in some sense subjective and also to assume the legitimacy of the perspective of those with whom one disagrees.  In short, Haidt is calling on us to exercise a little humility and charity when it comes to moral debates.  His main approach for inculcating these virtues is to connect our moral thinking to emotions that are generated by a set of pre-established values.  By examining the moral psychology of liberals and conservatives, he hopes that we will be able to recognize the causes of our differing moral attitudes and find a vocabulary that will allow us to disagree constructively.

The central metaphor for Haidt's moral psychology is that of someone riding an elephant.  The rider is the reasoning/rational aspect of a person, while the elephant is the emotive aspect.  By and large, the elephant goes where it wants to go and the rider provides an after-the-fact justification of the elephant's actions.  At best, the rider can inflect the elephant's movement.  For Haidt, emotions are doing the main work in moral behavior.  Against this, view he poses "rationalist philosophers" or often simply "philosophers."  Setting aside his view of moral psychology, his critique of his alleged opponents is quite misguided.  His mistakes comes from thinking that normative philosophical theories are moral psychological theories.  I'll say more about this later.

The most intersting aspect of his work is his analysis of the sets of values he finds in liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.  According to Haidt, the values of each are based on six "foundations:"  care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation; but the importance of these foundations (or values) is different for the different political groups.  Again, according to Haidt, the moral judgments of liberals are dominated by care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating (in that order of importance.)  The moral judgments of libertarians overwhelmingly dominated by liberty/oppression with some influence coming from fairness/cheating.  The moral judgments of social conservatives are, however, motivated equally by all six of the moral foundations. 

These conclusions are by no means surprising, but on first glance, one might question how Haidt has quantified his results.  By looking at the copious references to psychological studies and the number of surveys available on Haidt's website,, one can be reasonably convinced that his work on this score is of high quality.  One might object, however, to an overly general assessment of the regulating relationship between emotion and reason.  While it is true that much that goes by the name "reason" is in fact rationalization, reason nonetheless has a role in moral judgments -- a role that might differ among different people.  Some of us drive elephants while others of us drive horses;  Some of us are assertive drivers while others are passive.  Haidt glosses over these distinctions between the varying strengths of emotion and reason among individuals in a population.

It is important to make these distinctions as without them, one is left without an ability to evaluate moral judgments.  If we are stuck with pre-established values which drive us in spite of reason, it becomes impossible to constructively discuss moral differences.  Our moral conclusions are no more amenable to review and change than our culinary tastes.  That Haidt largely overlooks the significance of applying reason to moral decision making turns his work, at best, into a recommendation to apologists on how to address and persuade people with different moral perspectives and not an appeal to see past one's own initial moral perspective and to seriously entertain reaching more valid conclusions about moral questions.  Haidt needs to put aside deterministic psychology and take seriously the moral questions we face.  His antipathy to and misunderstanding of normative philosophy makes it unlikely that he will ever do that.

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