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The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
New York: Pantheon Books, 2012
Jonathan Haidt is a former liberal who is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Last year he published The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff). This book has become a bestseller and is worth reading, but you can glean the book’s message just from a glance at the cover: contemptibly weak snowflake generation created by calamitous sheltering from any and every challenge. Not good, as our President might say.
In this essay, however, I am concerned with Haidt’s less-widely-read, much more important earlier book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The ostensible purpose of this book is conveyed by its subtitle: Haidt seeks to answer the puzzle of why we (specifically, we Americans) are so sharply divided by ideology. The Righteous Mind was published in 2012, but, needless to say, its topic is timelier than ever. However, this book offers much more than an answer to Rodney King’s famous question, “Can we all get along?” (which Haidt references on his very first page). Indeed, Haidt’s analysis of what divides us and how we might come together is, ultimately, the least impressive part of the book. In the end, his conclusions – as I will discuss in the second part of this essay – just seem downright naïve.
Nevertheless, it’s in the process of trying to address this issue that Haidt expounds some genuinely fascinating, and extremely valuable ideas – though he doesn’t always see where these ideas lead. Though Haidt’s subtitle refers to religion, the main focus of the book is the sharp division between “liberals” and “conservatives” in the United States. His basic thesis is that the inability of these groups to understand each other (or even, minimally, to see each other as human beings) is due to the fact that they operate with different “moral matrices.” These cause them to see the world very, very differently. On this subject, Haidt’s conclusions are extremely interesting. They are based partly on considering different philosophical theories about ethics (Haidt sides with Hume), his own personal experience (including experience of different cultures), and some very eye-opening psychological studies. Indeed, the book is worth reading simply for this material.
However, as is often the case with the works of mainstream or quasi-conservatives, the logic of Haidt’s ideas leads very directly to conclusions he shrinks from drawing. In this, he is very much like Steven Pinker. (Both men, it is worth noting, are Jewish academics with impeccable establishment credentials and plum jobs.) Quite without intention, what Haidt really winds up proving is that morality evolved to support communities of genetically similar people; that morality doesn’t work very well outside of those communities; that “diversity” undermines morality, even within sub-groups of genetically-similar people; and that a system not unlike fascism or National Socialism is the political order best able to preserve morality, and to bring about (believe it or not) a “just society.” In truth, it would be a trifle unfair to accuse Haidt of refusing to draw these conclusions: he actually seems unaware (at least consciously) that his ideas lead to any of them. Nevertheless, it is in these implications that the book’s real importance lies.
The book opens with a chapter titled, “Where Does Morality Come From?” Haidt considers three basic answers to this question: nativism, which postulates that morality is somehow “innate”; empiricism, which holds that it comes from childhood learning and imprinting; and “rationalism.” Haidt uses the latter term in a manner that has little to do with how it is used in philosophy. “Rationalist” theories of morality claim morality is “constructed” by children on the basis of their experiences. This theory is most famously associated with the psychologist Lawrence Kolberg, who built his theoretical structure on foundations laid by Jean Piaget. Just as Piaget attempted to identify stages of cognitive development, Kolberg delineated the stages of moral development in children.
Kolberg believed that children construct moral ideas based on their experiences with harm. They know that harm is wrong because they dislike being harmed themselves, and so eventually they come to see that it is wrong to harm others. For Kolberg, morality consisted entirely in reasoning about fairness and justice (which usually turns out to mean “equality”). Haidt writes, “Kolberg’s timing was perfect. Just as the first wave of baby boomers was entering graduate school, he transformed moral psychology into a boomer-friendly ode to justice, and he gave them a tool to measure children’s progress toward the liberal ideal” (9). Kolberg’s was the dominant psychological theory of moral development for many years – including the period when Haidt entered graduate studies in social psychology.
Haidt rejected Kolberg when he came to fully appreciate the degree to which what counts as the “moral domain” varies by culture. When Kolberg centered moral reasoning on questions of harm versus care and justice versus injustice, he was assuming the universality of a perspective that is actually Western and strongly individualistic (and, as we shall see, it is the perspective only of a certain subset of Westerner – usually, the self-described liberal). The “moral domain” of affluent, educated Westerners is actually very narrow when compared to that of other cultures, and other social classes within the West. Haidt quotes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz:
The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures. (14)
In so-called “sociocentric” (as opposed to individualist) cultures, morality encompasses far more areas of life and human experience. Haidt discusses in detail anthropological studies showing that other cultures do not make the same distinction Westerners do between morality and mere “social convention.” What we would regard as violations of social conventions, they tend to see as moral infractions. But how do Westerners draw the line between morality and social convention? Very simply: if a rule doesn’t protect someone from harm, then it’s just a social convention. For example, we regard injunctions against rape, murder, and theft as moral rules, because all these things involve harming others. By contrast, rules against swearing, or working on the Sabbath, or allowing the flag to touch the ground are seen by many (perhaps most) Westerners as mere social conventions; they are matters of the social order, not the moral order, because they harm no one. Other cultures, however, seem to regard the social order as a moral order. This is a problem for theorists like Kolberg, however, because one of their universalizing assumptions is that the distinction between the moral order and social convention is real and objective, and a basic part of universal human moral understanding. Haidt astutely points out that this distinction itself is really a Western cultural artifact:
[It is] a necessary by-product of the individualistic answer to the question of how individuals and groups relate. When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified. It’s just a social convention. (17)
As we will see, Haidt argues that we can identify a number of moral “foundations” (his term) that figure in human moral action worldwide. This is not the same thing as claiming there is a universal morality; it is merely the claim that moralities, worldwide, deal with much the same set of problems or concerns. What is peculiar about the morality of the modern, “liberal” West is that it appeals to only a small subset of those problems and concerns, whereas other cultures’ moralities encompass much more. One of the more interesting claims in Haidt’s book is that the moral convictions of Western conservatives are similar to those of non-Western cultures, in that they include more areas of concern: i.e., they go well beyond the idea that the moral deals only with preventing harm, and making sure people are treated equally.
Amusingly, Haidt refers to modern, Western morality as WEIRD: an acronym standing for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic. Haidt notes that WEIRD people are statistical outliers on many psychological measures, including measures of moral psychology. For example, the WEIRDer you are, the more likely you are to think of the world in terms of separate (and separable) objects, rather than in terms of relationships. When Westerners are asked to describe themselves by completing the sentence “I am . . .”, they usually list personal, psychological characteristics (“I am happy,” “I am a loner,” “I am extraverted,” etc.). By contrast, non-Westerners tend to describe themselves in terms of social roles (“I am a husband,” “I am a father,” “I am a salesman,” etc.). Needless to say, such a description emphasizes their relationships to others. The majority of the world’s population, in fact, tends to think “holistically,” while Westerners tend to detach objects from networks of relationships (mentally or otherwise).
As a consequence of this, non-Western moralities tend to be group-centered or sociocentric. By contrast, WEIRD philosophers like Kant and Mill have put forward moralities that are individualistic: they emphasize personal autonomy, and see moral action as a matter of individuals applying universal rules to particular situations. (The clearest case is that of Kant, who argued that human individuals must “legislate” the moral law for themselves, and that an action is moral only if it flows from an individual’s affirmation of moral truth.) Thus, Western ethics is primarily limited to an ethics of autonomy; to concerns about individuals hurting, cheating, or oppressing other individuals. Haidt writes that “[i]f you grow up in a WEIRD society, you become so well educated in the ethic of autonomy that you can detect oppression and inequality even where the apparent victims see nothing wrong” (109).
Non-Western moralities are not entirely devoid of some concern for the autonomy of individuals, but they emphasize the group or community as primary. Whereas WEIRD ethics tends to understand our relations to others in the negative – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t rape – non-WEIRD ethics places more emphasis on our positive obligations to others, and to the role we play in the community. And it encompasses many matters that are downright puzzling to WEIRD people: such as the idea that certain objects, days, and activities may be “sacred,” and others “profane”; that we may have obligations to divinity, and so on. As already noted, we find something very much like this non-WEIRD morality among religious and conservative subcultures within the West.
One of the highlights of Haidt’s discussion is his recollections of the time he spent in India as a graduate student. He went there as a self-described “twenty-nine year old liberal atheist,” expecting to be shocked and scandalized by India’s repressive, patriarchal society. And indeed he was. But Haidt wanted to understand the Indian people on their own terms. Moreover, he found himself liking them – even the colleague whose wife silently served them dinner and then retreated to the kitchen. Gradually, Haidt came to realize that Indians operate with a fundamentally different set of moral foundations, and he came to sympathize with how they view the world:
Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, protecting subordinates, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important. (102)
Whatever his other faults may be, Haidt has been gifted with a remarkably open and honest mind. (All liberals who are so gifted will, in the natural course of things, evolve into former liberals.) Haidt’s acquired ability to appreciate another, very different morality on its own terms is very rare. As he himself notes, while “moral matrices” serve to bind people together, they also tend to blind them to the existence of other matrices. Most of us are quite incapable of even considering the possibility that there are other “moral truths.”
So far, we have spoken rather vaguely of moral “foundations” and “matrices,” and now we must discuss this idea more fully and clearly. Again, Haidt’s thesis is that there is a small number of basic human areas of concern that are addressed by morality. And, to repeat, this is not the same thing as saying that there is a universal morality: different moralities address these concerns differently. As we will see, while Haidt is advancing what we might call “moral pluralism,” he is not a moral relativist. For instance, it is obvious from the foregoing that he regards WEIRD morality as inadequate, simply due to the fact that it fails to address genuine human moral concerns. These concerns do arise in the lives of Westerners, but most are poorly equipped to deal with them, since they have been saddled with a narrow “ethic of autonomy.” We may also note, as I will soon discuss, that Haidt provides us with convincing reasons why morality exists in the first place. These reasons lead to the inescapable conclusion that WEIRD morality defeats the very purpose of morality itself, and that some form of sociocentric morality is therefore to be preferred. (I will leave these implications of Haidt’s ideas for the second part of this review.)
But what are these universal human moral concerns, or foundations, to which Haidt refers? How might we understand this idea better? Haidt compares morality to taste – i.e., the gustatory sense. The tongue is covered with different taste receptors, which allow us to register a variety of tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, spicy, and so on. Haidt develops an amusing (and fictitious) tale in which he visits a restaurant serving food that stimulates only one of the taste receptors. Obviously, most people would find such a restaurant dull, and avoid it. But the situation with respect to Western moralities is strikingly similar. WEIRD morality usually appeals only to the “moral taste receptors” of avoidance of harm and fairness. Haidt refers to the dominant, Western philosophical moralities – such as deontology and utilitarianism – as “one receptor moralities.” And, amusingly, he speculates at some length that this is because Kant and Bentham had Asperger’s Syndrome! These moralities appeal to people who are “high in systematizing and low in empathy” (one of the principal characteristics of autism). Of course, there is no way to confirm such a diagnosis, but Haidt makes a fairly persuasive case, especially when it comes to Bentham.
Among Western philosophers, it is David Hume and his “moral sentiments” approach that Haidt finds most promising. It was Hume’s thesis that morality is not a matter of formulating and applying abstract rules; rather, it involves the training of certain innate “sentiments.” Morality is more a matter of emotion than of reason, and all of us come equipped with certain emotions or sentiments that are honed and refined through experience and socialization. Here again, taste can serve as an analogy: though we all come equipped with the same taste receptors, over time, if we are exposed to enough variety, our taste develops. What had seemed delicious when we were children now seems sickly sweet; we learn to appreciate the bitter or spicy tastes that originally repulsed us. We can even learn how to differentiate between the different varieties of whiskey – which at first, of course, all seemed the same. In the same way, we are all born with, to take just one example, the capacity to experience the sentiment of “sympathy.” Over time, we learn to experience a wider range of sympathies, or to feel sympathy in situations that, when we were younger, provoked no sympathy in us at all. Using “taste” in a different sense, we can also utilize another analogy: we are all born with the capacity to respond to beauty, but over time (if all goes well) this gets honed and refined by experience and instruction. The busy colors we thought beautiful when we were children now seem garish and unsubtle; we learn to respond to beauty in different forms.
Instead of innate moral sentiments, however, Haidt speaks of “moral foundations.” And initially, he (along with his colleagues) developed an account which identifies five such foundations. These are the moral “taste receptors” all humans come equipped with – though how they are “expressed” differs from culture to culture. Putting matters more technically, Haidt refers to the moral foundations as “the universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices.” He initially offers five:
- Care/Harm (characteristic emotion: compassion; relevant virtues: caring, kindness).
- Fairness/Cheating (characteristic emotions: anger, gratitude, guilt; relevant virtues: fairness, justice, trustworthiness).
- Loyalty/Betrayal (characteristic emotions: group pride, rage at traitors; relevant virtues: loyalty, patriotism, self-sacrifice).
- Authority/Subversion (characteristic emotions: respect, fear; relevant virtues: obedience, deference).
- Sanctity/Degradation (characteristic emotions: disgust; relevant virtues: temperance, chastity, piety, cleanliness). (125)
Haidt posits that each of these foundations is innate – i.e,, organized in advance of experience. He compares our set of innate foundations to a “first draft” that gets revised and embellished as we grow up in a culture that builds upon these foundations. (He seems unaware here of how he is standing on the shoulders of Kant the Sperg – at least the Kant of the first Critique.) Haidt arrived at each foundation by inferring it (and its associated virtues) from the “adaptive challenges of social life” discussed by evolutionary psychologists (124). Needless to say, Haidt is operating on the hypothesis that morality is an evolved feature of social life – evolved in response to “adaptive challenges.” (This is a position I initially resisted, but which I now find quite convincing.) The five adaptive challenges Haidt identifies are these:
- “Caring for vulnerable children.” (→ care/harm foundation)
- “Forming partnerships with non-kin to reap the benefits of reciprocity.” (→ fairness/cheating)
- “Forming coalitions to compete with other coalitions.” (→ loyalty/betrayal)
- “Negotiating status hierarchies.” (→ authority/subversion)
- “Keeping oneself and one’s kin free from parasites and pathogens, which spread quickly when people live in close proximity to each other.” (→ sanctity/degradation) (125)
In elaborating on these, Haidt makes a number of useful observations concerning cultural differences, and concerning how conservatives and liberals differ in terms of how they “express” the foundations. For example, liberals and conservatives differ markedly in how they understand the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations. “Conservative caring,” as Haidt puts it, “is aimed not at animals or at people in other countries but at those who’ve sacrificed for the group. It is not universal; it is more local, and blended with loyalty” (134). As an illustration, he contrasts the sort of charities liberals and conservatives tend to support. A typical liberal charity is “SaveDarfur.org.” White American liberals often seem to care more for people on the other side of the world than for those suffering just outside their doors. They are much more likely to be concerned with the plight of Somalia than with the plight of Appalachia – even though Appalachia is in their own country, and its people are members of their own race. A typical conservative charity, by contrast, is the Wounded Warrior Project (Haidt’s example), which supports “those who’ve sacrificed for the group.” It is hard to escape the conclusion that liberal “caring” is dysgenic, though Haidt does not go this far.
Liberals and conservatives also differ considerably in how they deal with the “fairness” foundation. Liberals tend to interpret fairness as “equality.” We have all scratched our heads at the liberal insistence on equality of outcomes; their assertion, for example, that if fewer women go into STEM fields, or if a higher percentage of blacks than whites goes to prison, then “the system” simply must be inherently unjust. If your mind were wired to understand fairness (or “justice”) as equality, none of this would be a mystery for you. Unfortunately, being wired in this fashion is extraordinarily unhealthy (as well as dysgenic) since it blinds liberals to important aspects of human reality, aspects dealing with human differences. By contrast, Haidt theorizes that for conservatives, fairness means “proportionality”: the belief that “people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” (138).
But Haidt’s most striking claim about the moral differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberal morality is confined to just two of the five foundations, the two just discussed: “care” and “fairness.” By contrast, conservative morality involves all five. It “triggers every moral taste receptor” (admittedly, this sort of language is a bit vulgar – but I can forgive Haidt for it, since the analogy it is based on is quite clever and useful). To all appearances, liberals seem to have been born without the “loyalty,” “authority,” and “sanctity” foundations – which means they have almost no interest in such virtues as honor, patriotism, obedience/deference to authority, temperance, chastity, and piety. (See the chart of foundations given earlier, and their associated virtues.) Based on further research, Haidt and his colleagues later expand their list to include a sixth foundation: “liberty/oppression.” Here, too, the foundation is expressed differently depending on whether one is a liberal or a conservative. Liberals again tend to view “liberty” through an egalitarian lens, seeing liberty as freedom from oppressive hierarchies. By contrast, Haidt claims that on the Right, the “liberty/oppression” foundation expresses itself as conservativism’s “libertarian” streak: belief in the right to be “left alone.” (Liberals don’t want to leave anyone alone, especially all the people that don’t know they need to be liberated.)
Among other things, Haidt’s analysis explains a phenomenon that has long puzzled Democrats: the tendency of low-income rural and blue-collar Americans to vote Republican, even though they might benefit by the wealth redistribution championed by the Democrats. These Westerners are closer in their morality to non-Westerners than to their citified, college-educated cousins on the other side of the tracks. They are firing on all five – no, six! – moral cylinders. In their minds, other factors – such as patriotism and religious piety – outweigh the issue of income inequality. Besides, as noted already, they do not understand fairness/justice to be the same thing as equality.
Haidt often refers to a “Durkheimian” vision of society in which the basic social unit is the family, not the individual, and in which hierarchy and tradition are highly valued. He contrasts this to the “Millian” society preferred by liberals, which, as he notes, “has difficulty binding pluribus into unum” (215). He states at one point that “[u]ntil Democrats understand the Durkheimian vision of society and the difference between a six-foundation morality and a three-foundation morality, they will not understand what makes people vote Republican” (186). This sort of comment is typical of Haidt, one of whose aims in The Righteous Mind is to help liberals and conservatives to better understand each other. But in these parts of the book, he simply comes off as naïve. It seems highly unlikely that liberals are ever going to come to understand – let alone sympathize with – Republicans by seeing them as having a “different morality.” Liberals are already well aware that conservatives have a different moral outlook: one that they dismiss as ignorant, benighted, backward, stupid, or just downright “evil.” And among the countless ironies of the present cultural scene, the liberals who make such claims are usually also the first to insist that morality is “relative” and that we ought not judge. The truth is that such a position is only used strategically, to silence expressions of non-liberal moral judgments. If liberals actually believed their relativism, they might be more open to Haidt’s well-meaning attempts to reconcile them with conservatives.
In the next, and final, part of this review I will discuss why Haidt’s position not only does not commit us to a thoroughgoing relativism; it actually gives us a basis for making qualitative judgments about moralities – as well as a basis for arguing that much of “liberal morality” is sort of the moral equivalent of autoimmune disease. I will also discuss why the evidence presented by Haidt actually leads to the conclusion (which he himself does not draw) that morality evolved to bind together genetically similar people, and that it works poorly when applied across different groups. Finally, I will review Haidt’s suggestions for how “good people” can overcome division by politics and religion – and identify the fatally flawed assumption in his proposals.