‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt

‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’ is an extremely interesting work of moral psychology, well and accessibly written. Haidt is a professor at the University of Virginia, but this more popular book is a distillation of his previous academic work, and weaves together personal stories with the results of his research. The result provides lots of insights that can help support a Middle Way approach. However, Haidt only offers some resources that can contribute to the background understanding that helps one to think in Middle Way terms. His own approach is not the Middle Way, and there are some major ways that I disagree with it.The Righteous Mind

The book is divided into three sections, each of which stands fairly independently, although each section also depends on the previous ones. These are:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second
  2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness
  3. Morality binds and blinds

I found the first two of these sections the most illuminating, but the third disappointing, because it is based on unexamined assumptions that I think undermine the usefulness of the whole approach.

The first section is concerned to make us aware of how much our moral judgements are motivated by unreflective or emotional assumptions. Here he uses the image of the rider and the elephant that I wrote about in a blog. The elephant represents the stubborn momentum of our habits embodied in our physical existence, and the rider the self-conscious reflective decision-maker that we think of as ourselves. It is not that we have no control over the elephant, but less than we generally think we do. To influence the elephant we have to think ahead and address the conditions required, not just make a command and expect the elephant to obey immediately. Given the power of our ongoing embodied existence, it is hardly surprising the we cannot live up to idealised abstract moral rules.

In the second section, Haidt is concerned to show the importance of a range of moral foundations in human experience. These foundations, crucially, are not necessarily just starting points for reasoning, but actual ways we experience morality as making immediate demands on us. He lists 6 such ‘foundations’ of moral experience, all of which have different sorts of adaptive value, offer different virtues and may be triggered by different kinds of experience.

  1. Care/harm (protectiveness, compassion, social responsibility to allay suffering)
  2. Fairness/cheating (basic sense of justice, fairness and honesty)
  3. Liberty/oppression (suspicion of untrustworthy power)
  4. Loyalty/betrayal (group pride and cohesiveness)
  5. Authority/subversion (dominance, respect, submission and obedience)
  6. Sanctity/degradation (avoiding contaminants, disgust, chastity, purity)

Whilst the Enlightenment Liberal tradition emphasises only the first two, more traditional cultures, together with the more conservative tradition in the West, rely on the whole range of moral foundations. Educated middle-class Western liberals find it difficult to comprehend why anyone should feel loyalty, authority or purity to be a moral issue, and thus be offended by burning the American flag (disloyalty), react adversely to disrespectful language (subversion) or object to harmless sado-masochism with mutual consent (sanctity). However, the fact that Haidt presses home is that we all have these kinds of moral reactions, and liberals have only learnt to avoid them by cultural means. If we want to avoid intractable conflicts, of the kind seen in American politics, we need to learn to work with all the moral foundations rather than simply rejecting some of them as not moral.

This again, I find very illuminating. Haidt’s work can be used to extend the arguments I have already put forward for Middle Way Ethics – namely that different types of moral foundation are tools for objectivity. I have argued that we cannot take just one kind of moral foundation as offering a final set of answers as to what is ultimately right – for example just making utilitarian calculations about what will lead to benefit and avoid harm. Rather we need to adopt whatever moral foundations will best stretch our objectivity in the circumstances.

Very often it is the recognition of issues of harm or fairness that do this stretching, and sometimes also it is self-development (possibly a seventh foundation?) that can provide a third kind of imperative. However, reading Haidt has helped me realise that there may indeed be other moral foundations beyond these, and that these foundations do not consist primarily in rational assumptions, but rather in wider embodied experiences. I still feel that we need to take great care in using loyalty, authority or sanctity as a basis for moral thinking, but the key question we need to ask, as with harm, fairness, and liberty, is whether we are using them as rigid metaphysical principles or whether they are indicators of our moral experience. Loyalty to a group we have come to respect through experience has some value, as long as we can also question the group norms. Similarly, recognising authority in someone we have experienced as worth following is a response that is ingrained into us – it is only when that authority is unquestionable that it becomes dubious. Sanctity, also, may represent the value of the God Archetype for us, and our respect for it may help it to be meaningful for us, as long as we don’t start to ‘believe’ in it.

There are bound to be practical circumstances where loyalty, authority or sanctity do provide us with an immediate basis of judgement. For example, I feel a loyalty to the Middle Way Society that makes me want to fulfil the commitments I have made to it. I recognise a degree of authority in many thinkers that I admire (such as the Buddha, Hume, or Dewey), even though they also all have limitations. My judgements are also swayed by my sense of the meaningfulness of sanctity, which is probably my main reason for visiting art galleries where I know there are Renaissance works. I am not just a utilitarian calculator, a follower of Kantian principles, or even a lover of virtue – there are other dimensions of moral experience that Haidt has usefully highlighted.

However, in the third part of his book, Haidt tries to give a fuller explanation of the value of the groupish feelings reflected in these ‘conservative’ moral foundations. Here I think he goes astray in several ways. He explains how we have natural feelings of groupishness that we can move rapidly into, which he calls ‘the hive switch’. Supporting our team at a sports fixture, for example, we merge into a kind of superorganism, as our individual experience merges into a collective one. Haidt wants us to get over our individualistic suspicion of this kind of state of mind, because he sees groupishness as having a helpful function in creating coherent and harmonious groups in society.

I think Haidt makes a whole pile of unhelpful (though unfortunately widely shared) assumptions when he talks about groups in this way. Firstly, he opposes groupishness to ‘selfishness’, and thus relies on the metaphysical idea of the self rather than our actual experience of changing identifications. There is nothing necessarily good about groupishness or bad about serving our own interests as individuals, but he often seems to see it that way, apparently unreflectively following the conventional idea that ‘selfishness’ means something of moral importance and is vaguely bad, and thus that groupishness is a useful corrective to it.

Worse, however, he makes no distinction between more and less useful ways of serving either individual interests or group interests. In the terms I have developed in Middle Way Philosophy, he makes no distinction between integrated ways of relating in groups and those merely based on power supported by group dogmas. Apparently seeing the individual self as a fixed unit, too, there is no idea that the self might be more or less integrated, or that conflicts within the self are a moral issue. Instead, when the individual enters dhyana-like states, feelings of awe, sublimity or ecstasy, Haidt insists that this has a group function – even if it happens when we are alone. Yes, according to Haidt, absorbed states in meditation have developed just to make you one with the group! In this section his thinking just seems very crude. There is no recognition that groups can relate in better or worse ways or that individuals may have better or worse ways of thinking aside from the group – just a reduction to a single simplistic model.

So, after the insights of the first two sections, I was very disappointed to find that the third section was such a rehash of unexamined and unhelpful assumptions. We are hardly likely to make moral progress just by embracing groupthink as positive after all. Instead, we need to be able to differentiate groupthink from integrated group activity, parochial groups from open ones, and mere coherence alone from coherence with a recognition of ignorance.  That way groups can continue to be meaningful to us in the way Haidt wants us to recognise, without merely exerting power over us through their shared metaphysical assumptions.

Nevertheless, Haidt is an interesting and important voice, and a good indicator of the progress being made in moral psychology in recent years. He has also emerged as a challenger of the assumptions on which the polarisations in American politics are currently founded. I certainly wish him luck in getting those committed to the political extremes in the US to even recognise that the other side has a sincere moral standpoint. His work from this point of view, particularly, is timely and important.

Robert M Ellis

5 thoughts on “‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt

  1. I have found Haidt’s identification of a range of moral principles very useful. He has pointed out that, in social sciences in the US (from which most publications on social psychology come) there are virtually no republican supporters. Thus social psychologists share certain moral principals and simply are unaware of other principles. To try to counteract this, I have found it useful to see the point of those of a more right wing persuasion in regard to issues of authority, of group solidarity and even of purity. I may not share their principles but I can see that their views are based on certain principles which I do not much subscribe to.

    It is thus interesting to note that most of the exploration of ethics within Psychology are based on the principles of abstract universality. Thus Piaget and Kohlberg both assume that abstract reasoning is the pinnacle of moral reasoning, which in Haidt’s terms is a restricted view of morality. Going even beyond Haidt, I have found an enormous increase in my understanding from reading Le Guin’s book ‘The Dispossessed’. In the book there is a contract between the values of a collectivist planet with one which is individualist. It is possible to see the upside and downside in the values of both. We in the west are very much of the individualist persuasion so tend to downgrade the collectivist. To which I would offer a challenge: which persuasion has and is more likely to wreck the ecology of our planet, than which there can be surely no greater moral challenge?

    1. I’m not sure that individualists are any more likely than collectivists to ruin the ecology of the planet. Rather I think the moral distinction between the two is often over-hardened into a habitual false dichotomy in our culture. One major reason why people over-consume, for example, is as a social signal and status indicator. People who buy a new car every year, or lots of unnecessary clothes, are collectivist to the extent that they are dominated by the group perspective and their place in it, and also individualist in other respects. Our view of ourselves and our interests is inextricably intermeshed with group views.

      I suspect that views that are more likely to wreck the ecology of the planet are dogmatic views, whether these take an ‘individualist’ or ‘collectivist’ form. It is dogmatic views that lead us to focus on a narrow set of conditions and ignore wider ones – and such dogmatic views are often reinforced by groups and collectivity. Obviously if a collectivist had the wider and longer-term interests of society at heart he/she would have a greater incentive to consume less, but the same applies to an ‘individualist’ who has the wider and longer-term interest of him or herself at heart. In other words, it is integrated collectivists and integrated individualists we need, not one considered superior to the other.

  2. Robert, Thanks for the comment.

    Your delineation of the collectivist who indulges in conspicuous consumption is not one I recognise or agree with. The way I understand it the collectivist ideology is one where the needs and wishes of the individual are subordinate to the needs of the group. Thus in such a society if one person indulged in conspicuous consumption in order to stand out, they would be criticised by others. In the novel The Dispossessed the protagonist is a physicist who wishes to pursue his research into a topic which of no value to the group. He is criticised and ostracised by the collectivist society so goes to an individualist planet where it is accepted that an individual should be free to pursue his passion just because he wants to. The book contrasts the consequences of these two ideologies, in the collective nobody is allowed just to pursue their own interests but there is a collective solidarity and concern for all whilst in the individualistic everyone is free to pursue their own interests but there are gross inequalities which are tolerated as acceptable. Like Le Guin, I was not wanting to state that I think that either ideology is superior, just that I think that the collectivist would produce better consequences for the planet: it is the individualist west which has produced much higher standards of living those in the west (good) but is despoiling the planet in the process (bad).

    I think that your example of somebody indulging in conspicuous consumption in order to enhance status within the group is a good example of individualism, of someone trying to stand out or have higher status for their own individual gain against the collective. I cannot understand your assertion that the such an individual is in any way forced by the group to conspicuous consumption, surely the individual chooses to try enhance status at the expense of the rest of the group.

    1. Hi Frank,
      We seem to be using different definitions of ‘collectivist’. I was thinking in terms of being justified by group norms, whereas presumably you were thinking in terms of explicit justification in terms of group goals. People who over-consume can be justified by group norms even when their explicit justification is individualistic in form. However, such people may also have explicit goals that are group-driven: for example, they may want lots of consumption for their family group, or they may expect that people like them (e.g. in the same profession) should have access to a certain kind of goods.

      In the end I think it arbitrary and just a matter of convention whether we describe a particular identification that we have as ‘individualist’ or ‘collective’. People’s ‘selfish’ identifications are actually often with others, e.g. for family members, friends or compatriots. At the same time people can fail to identify with desires and beliefs in themselves at other times due to obsession with a particular narrow idea of their interests at one time (e.g. the smoker with a commitment to give up, who’s dominated at this moment by an overwhelming craving for nicotine). As Nietzsche put it, ‘Man is an indifferent egoist: even the cleverest thinks his habits more important than his advantage’. Is a person trying to give up smoking to lengthen their own lifespan ‘individualist’ or ‘collectivist’? – it’s really not morally relevant. It’s much more important whether their attitude to themselves or others is integrated.

      I also wouldn’t accept your attempt at moral neutrality in relation to ruining the ecology of the planet. Ruining the ecology of the planet is not in fact a matter of moral indifference (I suspect, to either of us), so the discussion about what might bring about that effect is unavoidably morally loaded. This takes us back to the fact-value distinction (see page about this), which is a distinction that only operates in the abstract, never in actual examples of people holding beliefs or engaging in reasoning about them. I reject the distinction between collectivism and individualism precisely for moral reasons, since I think all judgements are to some extent moral and thus will only accept distinctions in forming them that offer moral adequacy.

  3. I have today read the third part of The Righteous Mind, after reading the first two parts last weekend. I can see Robert’s points about the reservations he has with this third part, but the key points Haidt was making in this third part are worth hearing.

    He seems to want to redress the balance in popular perception that we are purely self-interested in our morality by recognising that we are selfish *and* groupish, hence the metaphor he employs “we are 90% chimp [incapable of altruistic cooperation] and 10% bee [dedicated to altruistic action for the groups that we belong to]”.

    He also wants us to be more aware of our blind spots due to groupthink… for example, my inclination towards progressive politics blinds me to the fact that moral foundations valued by conservatives are indeed moral foundations. I have a tendency to absolutise beliefs like “All authority is tyranny” and “Since my nationality is an accident of birth, loyalty to my nation is a fiction and thus of no value”. Middle Way helps here by stressing incrementality and provisionality, but there’s encouragement from Haidt’s suggestion that I’m going to find it very “difficult to connect with those who live in other [moral] matrices”… he recommends spending time with such others, finding points of commonality and building up some trust before jumping in to any discussion involving morality.

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