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Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Part Two


Jonathan Haidt

4,946 words

Part 2 of 2; part 1 here [2]

Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
New York: Pantheon Books, 2012

In Part One of this review [2] I discussed Jonathan Haidt’s argument that morality has evolved in response to a number of “adaptive challenges.” From these, several “moral foundations” emerged, such as those concerned with care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Virtues such as caring, trustworthiness, patriotism, piety, and chastity developed as expressions, for lack of a better word, of these foundations. But different societies placed different emphases on some of the foundations, and practiced the virtues in different ways. In particular, Haidt notes that modern, Western societies emphasize only half of the moral foundations he identifies. Conservatives within Western societies, however, are attuned to the entire moral spectrum. In this, their moralities are more like those of non-Westerners, who tend to give priority to family and the group over the individual. Haidt argues that morality as such arose as a means to promote group cohesion. As I will discuss shortly, this theory provides us with a means to mount a vigorous critique of Western, liberal morality.

That last assertion may seem strange to my readers, since Part One may have given the impression that Haidt’s position leads to relativism. Again, his “moral foundations” are only a number of what we might loosely call “areas of human concern” dealt with by the moralities of different cultures. The trouble, however, is they are dealt with very differently. If morality is a matter of very basic and innate “taste receptors” into which different cultures (and sub-cultures) plug different content, then it certainly would seem that there is no such thing as an objectively true morality (i.e, one that is true independent of what different people in different cultures believe). I will argue, in fact, that in a certain way this quite correct – yet in another way it is clearly not. Haidt’s theories actually do give us reason to prefer certain cultures’ moral positions to others. In making this argument, however, I will be going somewhat beyond the claims made by Haidt.

If by an “objectively true morality” one means a morality that can be rationally justified (for example, as a set of rationally-supported rules or principles) then Haidt’s answer would be that this is quite impossible. And he devotes a good portion of the book to explaining why. As mentioned in Part One, Haidt is a follower of David Hume, who famously said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Haidt compares the rational mind to a rider sitting atop an elephant, and asserts that the rider evolved to serve the elephant. Morality, in Haidt’s view, is almost entirely a function of passions and intuitions. However, we fool ourselves into thinking that our moral judgments are the result of reasoning (this goes double if we are non-Humean moral philosophers). Actually, we use reason after the fact, to attempt to convince others – and sometimes even ourselves – that our judgments are correct. To paraphrase R.G. Collingwood, ethical reasoning is “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.” Haidt refers to reason as the “inner lawyer,” and he does not mean this as a compliment. In an even less flattering analogy, he compares reason to a politician trying to win votes – though reason would prefer to think that it is like a scientist searching for truth.

[3]Haidt cites a considerable amount of empirical evidence supporting the claim that morality is primarily a matter of “intuitions” or emotional responses. For example, patients with brain damage who cannot feel emotions consistently make bad decisions, including moral ones (judged within a given cultural context). It seems that the emotions are our guide in a great deal, and that bereft of them we lose our way. Psychopaths are quite capable of reasoning, but “feel” nothing. The consequence, of course, is that they are terrible at morality. By contrast, babies who are not yet capable of conceptual reasoning do feel emotions – and also, probably not coincidentally, display the rudiments of moral judgment.[1] [4]

Haidt writes:

We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. 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). [p. 90]

Here, the key words are “and [if] all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly.” For in addition to being primarily based in sentiment rather than reason, morality is also inescapably social. Almost all moral convictions or judgements have to do, in one way or another, with our relationship to others, or to the social whole. And, as already noted, it is culture that shapes our sentiments, that builds elaborate structures overtop the moral foundations identified by Haidt. Without that social context, we would essentially be animals with certain raw, undeveloped sentiments; really, we would have only the potential to be moral agents.

Indeed, as noted earlier Haidt makes a persuasive case that morality evolved as a means to strengthen group bonds. If true, this gives us a way to overcome the pernicious relativism that Haidt’s position might seem to lead to; a way to critique different moralities. Quite simply, if the entire raison d’être of morality is group cohesion, then we may say that morality becomes morbid when it harms or negatively impacts the cohesion of the group within which it is practiced. This conclusion (which Haidt does not explicitly draw) has some interesting implications, some of which are rather subtle. No doubt my readers will immediately realize that it allows us to mount a critique of liberal morality. In the case of liberals, their practice of morality actually has the effect of undermining the health and cohesion of their own societies. My readers are already very familiar with this point, so I will offer only one illustration of it: the tendency of white liberals to pursue an ideal of “justice” in such a way that they advocate for the disempowering and dispossession of their own people, in their own countries, as a corrective to past or present injustices (real or imagined).  Haidt gives us the means, however, to go beyond simply observing that liberal morality causes harm: we may argue, further, that it is fundamentally invalid as morality, since it defeats the very purpose for which morality exists.

Essentially the same point is made, in a veiled way, by Plato in the Euthyphro. On the road one day, Socrates encounters a man named Euthyphro who is about to bring an indictment against his own father for murder. In conversation, it becomes apparent that the father did not intentionally kill anyone, and that the man who died was himself a murderer. Euthyphro notes that his decision to charge his father is destroying his family, but he insists that family relations mean nothing when the good is at stake. Euthyphro’s prosecution of his father is, he says, an act of “piety.” Here we see a fine example of moral fanaticism on display. And the actions of self-hating white liberals, bent on destroying their own race (their extended “genetic family”), are just Euthyphro’s standpoint writ large.

Socrates proceeds to challenge Euthyphro to define piety. With characteristic irony, Socrates says that he feels sure Euthyphro must have knowledge of the “pious things,” since otherwise he would not undertake so momentous an action as prosecuting his own father in the name of piety. The results are exactly as one would expect: Euthyphro makes repeated attempts to define piety, all of which are expertly shot down by Socrates. Finally, near the end of the dialogue, the exasperated Euthyphro states that activities that are gratifying to the gods such as “praying and sacrificing” are pious, and that “such things preserve private families as well as the communities of cities.” Socrates does not explicitly comment on this latter assertion, but it is clear that he has led Euthyphro up to a point where further reflection might help him see exactly what is wrong with his present course. Needless to say, Euthyphro’s practice of piety is undermining the very things he suggests piety exists to preserve. Euthyphro says also that impious actions “overturn and destroy everything,” yet that is exactly what his own perverse practice of “piety” does.

But we must confront another issue: if “morality” that undermines social cohesion can be declared, in some sense, “invalid” or perhaps just plain “bad,” does this mean that any morality that promotes social cohesion is “good”? Haidt does actually treat this question. He recognizes that this might lead to the conclusion that, for example, the fascist values of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany were “good,” since they unquestionably did a fabulous job of promoting social cohesion. My readers may be inclined to pounce on this and bite the bullet that Haidt won’t bite (or can’t bite): that any moral values that promote social cohesion are “good.” But we should be cautious about this, for it will commit us, for example, to declaring Muslim values “good.” I, for one, am not prepared to do this, for I find many of that religion’s values abhorrent.

We must, therefore, settle for a more nuanced position. We can certainly say that a morality is “good” if it promotes social cohesion, and “bad” if it doesn’t, if these terms are understood in a non-moral sense. If we are correct in drawing the conclusion that morality performs a function, then we can differentiate between moralities that perform that function effectively and those that do not: i.e., “good” and “bad” moralities. It is still entirely possible, however, that I may view a functionally “good” morality, one that performs the function of promoting social cohesion, as morally “bad.” In making the judgment of moral “badness” I would, of course, be judging the morality in question from the perspective of my own moral matrix. However, in claiming that the morality is functionally “good” I would be speaking from an extra-moral perspective, as when I say that my car is “good” because it runs well.

What appears to have happened with “liberal morality” is that moral values have become free-floating, decontextualized absolutes. Liberals pursue certain principles in such a way that they become positively destructive to the group context that gave rise to those values and gave them meaning. This is an extremely complex and multifaceted issue, to which I cannot do justice in the present essay. But I will venture the observation that the decontextualizing of values probably always goes hand in hand with nihilism. My readers will already have observed that Leftists tend, in their moral crusades, to be motivated by a mania for destruction. Moral principles became tools of annihilation directed against a reality that stubbornly refuses to live up to the ideal. And, like Euthyphro, the Left tends to direct its wrath very close to home. We suspect that Euthyphro “has issues” with his father and his family, and that he is moved by some kind of resentment. We suspect the same thing of the Left.

Haidt gives us a few tools for understanding this strange psychology, worth briefly discussing here. (To go deeper we would, I believe, have to revisit Nietzsche.) He cites studies showing that liberals and conservatives seem to differ fundamentally with respect to their responses to two basic things: novelty and threat. Liberals derive a great deal of pleasure from novelty and (of course) diversity, and are less sensitive to signs of danger. (This is why, for example, women who are young, liberal, and white are so easily preyed-upon by non-white rapists and muggers: “Why of course I’ll let you into my building; I’m not a racist . . . .”) Conservatives are simply the opposite.

The way Haidt puts the matter, however, potentially gives the impression that conservatives are fuddy-duddies who distrust anything new. This is true up to a point (it is certainly true of myself), but it would probably be more accurate to speak of a distrust of “otherness” rather than a distrust of “novelty.” The liberal, on the other hand, is drawn to otherness. Haidt does not mention the obvious: the flip side of this is that liberals are less attracted to sameness. I would bet anything that if this were made the subject of a well-crafted scientific study (of the kind Haidt likes to cite) it would yield abundant evidence that white liberals are less drawn to and less attached to those genetically similar to them, at least in comparison to other peoples (including non-white liberals). This makes white liberals a very unusual kind of freak. Everything in nature is very attached to its own. All things dull and ugly, all creatures short and squat, all things rude and nasty, they love their own a lot. Except white liberals. It’s really the greatest puzzle confronting White Nationalists: how on earth did a creature like the white liberal ever get bred?

The matter is especially puzzling if one takes seriously the idea of evolutionary “group selection.” In fact, one of the most valuable features of Haidt’s book is his robust defense of group selection. Everything that has been said so far about the evolution of morality as a device to promote group cohesion presupposes, in Haidt’s view, the reality of selection at the group level. However, for several decades now a majority of biologists have recognized natural selection as operating at the level of the individual alone.

This is one of these cases where establishment science comes off as seeming just a bit daft. What could be more obvious than that groups compete with each other, and, as a result, some may evolve traits that make them better at, for example, group cohesion? How would those traits be produced? Very simply, individual members of groups possessing traits conducive to group survival would be more attractive to potential mates within the group. The good of the group thus places evolutionary pressure on its individual members, and certain traits become more or less prevalent, over time, in those members. To take the case of morality, the virtue of loyalty (closely tied to honor) is obviously conducive to group cohesion and survival. Individuals exhibiting that trait would thus be attractive mates, while individuals lacking it would be considered repugnant freaks, and consigned to the realms of the incels.

Darwin states the theory of group selection as follows:

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. . . . The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. . . . Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes. [p. 192; quoted in Haidt, his italics omitted]

Despite the commonsensical nature (indeed, the obviousness) of group selection, and Darwin’s own belief in it, Haidt notes that the idea has been fiercely resisted. As Haidt puts matters, “competition between groups was downplayed and everyone focused on competition among individuals within groups” (p. 218; his italics). This ought to make us more than a bit suspicious. Belief in group selection has been particularly associated with sociobiologists, including E.O. Wilson. It seems quite possible that many scientists have opposed the theory not because it is untrue, but because it might lead to the legitimation of a variety of forbidden truths.

For example, Haidt notes that we seem clearly to have evolved the tendency to help others in our own group. Helping others outside the group is comparatively rare. Indeed, those who engage in out-group altruism are so unusual “we send film crews out to record them for the evening news” (p. 198). Of course, people establish all sorts of groups. An individual might, for example, be more inclined to help someone who roots for the same football team that he does. But in the context of a discussion of evolutionary biology and group selection, we must recognize that the tribe is the most basic sort of group there is, aside from family. And it is genetic similarity that exerts the strongest “pull” on us. But, of course, this is a “forbidden truth,” for it means that human beings (aside from white liberals, of course) will always place their own tribe before all others. This tosses something of a spanner into the works of “global citizenship” and the multicultural paradise.

Haidt writes that, “It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. But rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love – love within the group – amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders may be the most we can accomplish” (p. 245). Haidt argues, cleverly, that if oxytocin (a hormone that plays a role in human bonding) evolved as a result of group selection, we should expect that it would bond us to our own groups, including our families – not to humanity in general. In fact, we do find this. Haidt cites a Dutch study which found that oxytocin caused Dutch men to “like Dutch names more and to value saving Dutch lives more (in trolley-type dilemmas)” (p. 234). (Contra liberal expectations, this increased love of one’s own was not accompanied by a noteworthy increase in hostility toward the non-Dutch.)

All of the foregoing (including what was presented in Part One) suggests a conclusion that, as we will see, only the author himself can evade: human beings have evolved to prefer members of their own genetically-similar groups, and morality evolved as a mechanism to promote the cohesion of those genetically-similar groups. If Hume is right, then “moral sentiments” are at the basis of morality, not abstract principles. And if genetic similarity theory is right, the strongest sentiments we feel are for those who are biologically similar to ourselves. It follows that morality simply does not “work well” when applied outside the context of a group of genetically-similar humans.

This is not to say that it does not work at all. Yes, of course, it is possible for me to feel sympathy for the sufferings of a member of a different race. And we have all experienced this. Hell, we even feel sympathy for members of different species. But it’s just not the same. If your puppy dies you cry for a day and then are mostly over it. If your child dies you will never get over it.

This poses what is in fact an insuperable barrier to creating cohesive multicultural societies, based on overarching moral principles that promote tolerance, cooperation, and mutual aid. Haidt cites the well-known research of Robert Putnam, who writes that “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ – that is, to pull in like a turtle” (quoted in Haidt, p. 308). Putnam’s research shows that in diverse “communities” people become less trustful even of members of their own group. Distrust, isolation, and a general hardening and callousness toward others increases.

In short, sentiments such as sympathy, the very basis of morality (according to Hume and Haidt), weaken and atrophy the more “diverse” society becomes. The only alternative for those who advocate multiculturalism (or who perceive it as in their interests) is to lecture us all with abstract moral principles about the necessity of coming together and cooperating (while simultaneously, of course, proclaiming that which divides us as our greatest strength). But this approach presupposes that morality is a matter of following abstract rules. As Haidt has argued, however, sentiments come first, and “reasons” follow. The multiculturalists are issuing orders to the rider that the elephant will never go along with. (And, let’s face it, some of the groups they are addressing are notorious for being all elephant and having no rider to speak of at all.) Unable to rely upon sentiments-based morality to bind people together in multicultural societies and make them behave, governments have to resort more and more to surveillance and policing. It is difficult to see how such societies are sustainable, and impossible to see how they are desirable.

Nevertheless, the above sketch of the conclusions to which Haidt’s research leads would probably come as a complete surprise to Haidt himself. He has indeed moved to the Right, but he has not moved far enough. He never indicates that he is aware of how his findings pose a problem for multiculturalism, and seems (so far as I can tell) to be committed to a kind of civic nationalism. At a certain point in the book, Haidt offers suggestions for how to promote greater cohesion in groups. His first suggestion is to “increase similarity, not diversity.” Truer words were never spoken. But immediately Haidt disappoints us: “There’s nothing special about race,” he writes. “You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies” (p. 239). Well, no, you can’t, because it’s not true that there’s nothing special about race. There is something very special indeed: it has an unbreakable hold on our sentiments (unless, of course, one happened to be born a white liberal). As Disraeli said, “All is race, there is no other truth.”

In his explicitly political conclusions, Haidt comes off not as blind or evasive but as just downright naïve. This is rather embarrassing, for these conclusions constitute a major component of the book. After all, the stated purpose of The Righteous Mind is really to promote understanding between people divided by political ideology. There are two major reasons why this aspect of the book fails: (1) Haidt is operating with a very shallow, very conventional, and very American understanding of “Left” and “Right”; and (2) he naively assumes that those divided by politics (and religion) are all “good-faith actors” (i.e., that they are honestly mistaken and open to moderating or altering their views when faced with evidence).

Haidt tries to identify both the virtues and the vices of “liberalism” and “conservatism.” In doing so, he demonstrates that his understanding of these is confined entirely to how the terms are currently used in the American political scene. For example he divides conservatives into “social conservatives” (e.g., the religious right), and libertarians or classical liberals. Social conservatives score points in Haidt’s book for their “Durkheimian” prioritization of the family and group above the individual. Libertarians score points because markets really are “miraculous” (p. 313). This is the “yang wisdom” of conservatism, as Haidt describes it (yes, really).

But conservatives “fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests” (p. 294). Liberals are better at limiting those predations given that they are “experts in care” and “better able to see victims” (p. 313). (In the margins of my copy I simply wrote “Ugh” at this point.) The “yin wisdom” of liberalism, Haidt maintains, is entirely right to recommend that government “restrain corporate superorganisms.” Liberals are right, in general, to think that some social problems can be solved by regulation. Whereas “conservatism,” in Haidt’s view, is fundamentally opposed to regulation (why this is necessarily a “conservative” position is never discussed). Haidt even gives us a litmus test. Answer the following question: “do you agree that government should do more to advance the common good, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals?” If you answer yes “you are probably a liberal. If not, then you could be either a libertarian or a conservative.” (But I answered yes, and consider myself as conservative as they come – more on this anon.)

So what is Haidt’s solution to our present divide? You guessed it: yin and yang must balance each other! Both are necessary to a healthy political life. My first reaction to this (since I will admit to having voted Republican) was that it is like saying both syphilis and penicillin are necessary for health. But it is actually worse than this – more like saying both syphilis and gonorrhea are necessary. Haidt’s account of liberal ideology is basically correct, but when it comes to the Right it is clear that he has never even considered any form of Rightism other than that of the average Republican. In particular, he completely fails to see how there is absolutely nothing “conservative” about “libertarianism,” and that libertarians have much more in common with the Left than they do with the Right.

The solution is clearly not for liberals and conservatives to see that they need each other. One obvious reason for this (and here I arrive at my second major criticism of Haidt’s proposals) is that those involved are seldom good-faith actors. This is especially true of those on the Left. You will never get liberals to see that there is anything to “conservative” views at all, since they dismiss those views as ignorant and evil. I could be accused of partisanship here, but years of experience really have taught me that those on the right are usually far more open to debate and discussion. Worse yet, I believe that in a great many (but not quite all) cases, Leftists have arrived at their views not through honest error, but through willful blindness and hatred born of ressentiment. Nothing could be more obvious today than that those loudly decrying “hate” are utterly consumed by it.

No, there is another solution to the problems discussed by Haidt – and many other problems, undiscussed by him, which loom from the edges of this book like the proverbial elephant in the room. The solution is a different form of conservatism, one much closer to the European than to the American Right. On the European Right we find exactly the “Durkheimian” prioritization of the family and group over the individual – sans the mess that is Christian fundamentalism, which can’t ultimately preserve the most important group (the tribe), since it is founded on a gooey universalism.

The European Right is, traditionally, socialist – something Haidt would no doubt see as a “contradiction,” but is nothing of the kind. Prioritizing the group over the individual means reining in the greed of individual actors (including “corporate superorganisms”), and providing a social minimum – not out of recognition of a supposed “human right,” but simply out of love of one’s own. And as for limiting “the predations of certain powerful interests” we may note that the European Right has a sterling record of taking sometimes drastic action to do precisely that.

In answer to the question “do you agree that government should do more to advance the common good, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals?” these Rightists would respond with a resounding “yes!” – thus, I’m afraid, confounding poor Professor Haidt. They are indeed the true “experts in care”: care of one’s own. And this is perhaps the real reason why Haidt cannot turn to the European Right as a serious option, even to discuss it (I doubt, in fact, that he is totally unaware of it). For it makes tribe central, and advocates for ethnically and culturally homogeneous societies. No going there, folks. That’s the Forbidden Zone.

Yes, it’s this sort of conservatism we need, not the “conservatism” of Bill Buckley, Jerry Falwell, and Milton Friedman. We need this, and we need to defeat the Left, not “counterbalance” it. We need to annihilate this “yin,” not cozy up to it. For it is utterly pernicious. It is a doctrine founded on hatred of the good, the healthy, and the strong – hatred, indeed, of fact, and of reality. It has caused, and continues to cause, untold suffering. It brings death, misery, division, poverty, anomie, rootlessness, and meaninglessness. We must destroy it, and create the conditions that will make it impossible for it ever to creep back.

As my readers have no doubt realized by this point, the importance of The Righteous Mind lies mainly in the support it gives to conclusions the author does not himself draw. I hasten to add, however, that many of the points Haidt makes are sensible, well-argued, and supported by a goldmine of information culled from surveys, scientific studies, and other sources. Haidt acknowledges that in persuading the reader, he must appeal to the reader’s elephant. And so he has written what is actually a very personal book, laying bare the sometimes-embarrassing details of his own intellectual journey. This has the desired effect: one comes away liking the author, principally for his humility and willingness to challenge his own cherished assumptions. Of course, everyone has their limitations. One can’t really expect Haidt to perceive that he has actually produced an argument in favor of ethnonationalism, let alone to embrace it. You see, Haidt is a perfect exemplar of one of the phenomena he so lucidly discusses: his limitations are the result of his own, particular “groupishness.”


[1] [5] I am referring, of course, to non-psychopathic babies.