Insight and Error in “The Righteous Mind”

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage: reprint edition, 2013.

by Trevor Levin

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind should give anyone reason to reconsider their most fundamental assumptions about the nature of morality and the optimal way to organize society. Over 371 accessibly written pages, Haidt argues that moral reasoning evolved not to discover truth but to act as our external “press secretary” to justify our moral intuitions and rally others to our side. Those moral intuitions, and the religions that codified them, in turn evolved to solve the problems of living in large groups. In response to various evolutionary challenges, we evolved emotional responses to issues of care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation. The modern culture war, he argues, takes place because liberals consider only three—or, really, two and a half—of these “moral foundations” to be legitimate: care, liberty, and, in a certain form, fairness. But, although liberals’ sensitivity to those issues is very important for policy-making, Haidt argues that the others are not just vestiges. He adopts a moral framework he calls “Durkheimian utilitarianism,” which is actually just utilitarianism with an emphasis on individuals’ needs for belonging and the importance of “moral capital” in keeping organizations and societies functioning well.

Along the way, he recapitulates the history of moral psychology from its origins within developmental psychology to the present, tracing his own intellectual journey, which included a classically eye-opening trip to India, where he says he finally understood the foundations outside liberalism. Indeed, one might read The Righteous Mind in hopes of discovering universal truths about humanity imprinted in our brains, rather than our cultures, but while Haidt does apply “Moral Foundations Theory” everywhere, it makes a pretty strong case for a qualified cultural relativism, or at least non-judgment, since seemingly immoral acts or rules can become moral once one considers the other’s possibly different moral foundations (and their evolutionary origins and potential modern function).

Especially interesting discussions include a claim that Western cultures have “found a way to strip down and thin out” morality (14) so that it covers a much narrower range of activities and interactions than, for example, Indian morality; a differentiation between the “exploratory thought” that involves weighing evidence carefully and the “confirmatory thought” that rationalizes an already-arrived conclusion, which we are much more likely to use if we don’t have to explain or justify our decisions (88); a distillation of WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) culture as “The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships” (113); an insistence that liberals value sanctity, too, though they sacralize different things (123); a theory that “political parties and interest groups strive to make their concerns become current triggers of your moral modules” (156); a subtle but clear distinction between communitarian practices like ecstatic dancing or festivals versus fascist spectacle (280); an argument for the importance of “culturally approved or institutionalized ways to lose yourself in a larger group” (282); a legitimizing of narrowly defined conservatism (336-8); and a closing call to see political disagreement not as bad faith or bad reasoning but as a prioritization of values one might not themselves prioritize (371).

Though Haidt explicitly tries to avoid the naturalistic fallacy, one of the book’s most serious problems is its tendency to assume that people finding something disgusting implies that the thing is immoral (124, 171-4). Similarly, it implies that because most people are less systematizing than Bentham and Kant, the moral systems of those thinkers must not be plausible (139, 141). Yes, moral feelings might have evolved as a group adaptation to promote “parochial altruism,” but that does not mean we shouldn’t strive to live a universalist morality; it just means it’s harder. Thomas Nagel, in the New York Review of Books, writes that “part of the interest of [The Righteous Mind] is in its failure to provide a fully coherent response” to the question of how descriptive morality theories could translate into normative recommendations. Haidt also makes the predictable error of assuming that states, rather than conventions or markets (though he acknowledges their “miraculous” potential), are the proper enforcer of morality (174). Finally, especially writing as a WEIRD white male (in 2012), Haidt leaves himself wide open to the criticism that understanding is a fine goal, but sometimes the other side is, well, Nazis. Sure, the fairness/cheating foundation drives much conservative thought about welfare programs, but he ignores the racial element of those objections; see Skocpol and Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, for an argument that the Tea Party was perfectly fine with entitlement programs that benefited people like them. Relatedly, he overreaches in uncritically endorsing conservative ideas that liberal ignorance of the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations caused welfare programs that apparently “reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families” (361).

Stylistically, Haidt explicitly uses the same psychological theories he discusses to make his argument more memorable and appealing. He chooses a “central metaphor” for each of the three sections: “rider on an elephant” for his case that intuitions drive reasoning, “tongue with six taste receptors” for Moral Foundations Theory, and “morality binds and blinds” for the functions of morality and religion. He repeats them so often that it sometimes feels condescending, but it undoubtedly makes these phrases more memorable. He also includes “In Sum” sections at the end of each chapter, which both help integrate the vast information he marshals and point toward the next chapters. These somewhat blur the line between popular book or narrative nonfiction and textbook, but I did find myself wishing more nonfiction authors used that rather un-literary technique.

The most useful section of The Righteous Mind, however, may be its references. Haidt surveys a wide range of studies and disciplines, citing generously, and by the time I finished, I had a list of some 23 articles and books that point the way forward, ranging from psychology papers to classic sociology to the political philosophy. The top of my list includes Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition: A Theory of Judgment by Howard Margolis; The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker; and “The Psychology of System Justification and the Palliative Function of Ideology” by John Jost and Orsolya Hunyady. Haidt directs readers to the Jost and Hunyady article specifically as an opposing argument to the sometimes uncomfortably rosy accounts of authority and tribalism that appear in The Righteous Mind.

(Note: I wrote this review immediately after finishing the book in December 2017. It is mostly unedited, but I’ll note that with the passage of time, Chapters 9 through 11 have stuck with me the most. There, while noting the controversy over “group adaptations,” Haidt argues that our moral impulses evolved because they helped tribes and clans survive crises like droughts, famines, and plagues: tribes where people experienced and expressed disgust and anger at free-riding or other actions that created collective action problems had better chances at survival. Regardless of the truth of this empirical claim — and it is less supported than the rest of the book — it has been an incredibly helpful idea towards understanding shared moral codes like religion and ideology. People need to agree on certain terms of behavior, and they gravitate toward e.g. Protestantism not because of the theological arguments but because it offers a focal point. In other words, morality is social, not intellectual. This might be the thesis statement of the book, anyway.)