Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Righteous Mind

So I read Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I've talked about Haidt a number of times before, including recently here, because ethics and psychology have steadily worked themselves more and more into what I want to do on this blog. If many of our problems are economic, many of the solutions to those problems are ethical - or at leat, involve not deceiving ourselves about ethical issues. The fact that economics and psychology tried to be become value-neutral and rational for three generations is a major part of our problems as a society.

And Haidt is one of the most interesting people writing on moral psychology right now. I find his views intriguing. There is a certain wisdom to what he says.

Haidt is a professor at the University of Virginia, as credentialed as they come. And he, like other leading psychologists like Martin Seligman, came to believe the profession had lost its way.

First, he talks at length about how he came to develop his current perspective in moral psychology, from undergraduate at Yale to postgrad work in Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as a transformative experience visiting India for an extended stay. It is the story of how he became increasingly uneasy about gaps in the story that leading psychologists like Lawrence Kohlberg were telling. They saw moral psychology largely in developmental terms, as children came to recognize the value of rules which prevented harm.

But Haidt comes to believe that rules are much more reflective of a particular society, not a matter of universalist reason. He saw rules about sanctity and authority in India, and empirical work in Brazil and the US gradually convinced him that the secular liberal view of educated Westerners was too narrow. Indeed, it was his immense frustration as a partisan liberal that the Kerry campaign did not seem to be able to connect with middle America in 2004 that drove him to think more about the roots of different political orientations.

He is not arguing for relativism, however. Quite the opposite, in some ways. We do have evolved moral intutions in common. But this is not the enlightenment story of progressive reason conquering the dark forces of subsconscious prejudice.

Reason and the conscious mind, he says, is like a small rider on a large elephant of instinctive mind. Reason does not rule. It tends to make up post-hoc justifications for what the elephant wants to do anyway.

Kant and Bentham (both likely a little austistic, he thinks) elevated reason to the exclusion of all else, and sent moral philosophy on a two century diversion.

Instead, says Haidt, David Hume had it right. Moral sentiments come first. The idea that pure reason should be our guide is naive.

.. the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist. I urged instead a more intuitionist approach to morality and moral education, one that is more humble about the abilities of individuals, and more attuned to the contexts and social systems that enable people to think and act well.

That brings him to his six "taste receptors" or foundations for morality. These are innate dispositions in most people, at least outside educated western elites.

Haidt has altered his system. There were five factors before, but he has rethought "fairness."

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

This is something I've argued before myself, that the left finds it hard to understand "fairness" as fundamentally about who deserves what, rather than equality.

Haidt suggests that an ancient desire to prevent tyranny of a hunting group by a despotic alpha male led to the evolution of a sensitivity towards illegitimate repression.

I looked into what was known about the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers, and found a strong argument for splitting apart these two kinds of fairness. The desire for equality seems to be more closely related to the psychology of liberty and oppression than to the psychology of reciprocity and exchange. After talking about these issues with my colleagues at, and after we ran some new studies on various kinds of fairness and liberty, we added a provisional sixth foundation—Liberty/oppression.

So now his original fairness foundation is more about proportionality. He locates much egalitarian feeling within the liberty-oppression foundation.

We all recognize some kinds of authority as legitimate in some contexts, but we are also wary of those who claim to be leaders unless they have first earned our trust. We’re vigilant for signs that they’ve crossed the line into self-aggrandizement and tyranny. ...

But egalitarianism seems to be rooted more in the hatred of domination than in the love of equality per se.The feeling of being dominated or oppressed by a bully is very different from the feeling of being cheated in an exchange of goods or favors.

So equipped with his revised six moral foundations, he argues that liberals are sensitive to just three of them, but conservatives tend to be senstive to all six.

We'll discuss his take on why people are liberal or conservative next.



  1. Jonathan Haidt's new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both in intuitive and learned behavior. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual." Here are four paragraphs from it:

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

    The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

  2. Empirical rule
    Empirical rule, empirical