Sunday, May 04, 2014

Book Review: The Righteous Mind

The following is a review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (Random House: New York, 2010).  Like a good Christian, I am a couple years behind the curve reviewing this important contribution to secular sociology and ethics. Fortunately, the book's content isn't time-sensitive, and much of it can apply to methods of evangelism.  (Because I am reviewing an Amazon Kindle copy, page citations might not properly align with the print version. I believe Haidt is pronounced like “height.”)

In Search of Moral Agreement

Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once said that:
The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character. I do not mean by this just that debates go on and on and on--although they do--but also that they apparently can find no terminus. There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture....From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate (After Virtue, 6, 8)
Issued today, MacIntyre’s verdict would be something of an understatement. Modern political and religious debate is characterized not by the exploration of opposing ideas or the pursuit of consensus, but of polarization and demonization. In the face of threatening empirical or philosophical evidence, partisans would rather turn to conspiracy theories than surrender a cherished political or religious belief.

In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt sets out to explain this bizarre, and often frustrating, behavior. Through extensive research, Haidt shows that much of what passes for moral reasoning is an exercise in confirmation bias whereby we try to justify our moral intuitions to ourselves and others. Haidt hopes understanding how we reason morally will prompt disparate political and religious groups to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation, increasing our society’s overall well-being.

I find his descriptive project fascinating, especially his critiques of liberalism, but I am less convinced of his prescriptive aims.

Reason Riding The Intuitive Elephant

Why is it that people engaged in ideological conflict seem impenetrable to facts and reason? Haidt claims this is due to how we arrive at moral judgments. First, moral judgments arrive intuitively; then these are justified by rational deliberation. Haidt explains this by way of a metaphor: the elephant and its rider. The elephant represents our moral intuition, which leans one way or the other toward something it desires. The rider represents our rational faculty, which helps guide the elephant toward its goal. The rider exists to serve the elephant, for the elephant sets the general course.

On this view, intransigence is a function of how the mind justifies snap moral intuitions. People are attracted to certain features in an idea, person or community, after which reason seeks justifications for this preference. It turns out the rational faculty is much more of a public relations entity than a disinterested explorer. It serves to convince ourselves and others that our views are plausible and respectable. It does not actively seek out and evaluate evidence that might disprove our intuitive preferences. We are driven by confirmation bias.

But is this metaphor sound? According to Haidt, older psychological models sought to understand moral reasoning through Platonic ideals of rationality. On this view, "morality is self-constructed by children on the basis of their experience with harm. Kids know that harm is wrong because they hate to be harmed, and they gradually come to see that it is therefore wrong to harm others, which leads them to understand fairness and eventually justice" (29-30). Drawing on extensive scientific research, Haidt argues that this model cannot account for how people actually engage in moral deliberation. In reality, moral actors employ a kind Humean emotivism to arrive at moral beliefs, and are willing to claim these beliefs as true even in the face of rational critique. (Hume famously argued that reason is the “slave of the passions.”) For example, one experiment tested whether people would take a sip of apple juice into which a fully sterilized cockroach was dipped. Despite there being no risk of disease, many people refused, citing a strong revulsion to the idea (43-44).

In practice, this means many of the arguments we make about political or social issues are ways in which we are trying to justify our moral intuitions. Refutations of these arguments usually fail at changing intuitive preferences, and so people merely search for other justifications for their intuitive preferences. (This is all the more so when the arguments are demolished in such a way that the opponent becomes suspicious of you or your motives.) Instead of addressing the “rider,” approaches need to "elicit new intuitions, not new rationales" (56). People change their minds when they see an affectionate presentation, often through a friendship, that moves them to sympathize with particular intuitions, so as to nudge the “elephant” in a new direction.

This has application to some conservative theories of politics. It is sometimes asserted by conservatives that a lack of articulate leaders is a major or primary contributor to electoral defeats. Haidt’s research suggests that articulate spokespersons would really only serve to reinforce the beliefs of conservatives, rather than create new sympathizers. I think there is empirical evidence for this: consider the way liberals dismiss the secular writings of Charles Krauthammer and George Will.

These ideas have application to apologetics as well. Take a recent example, the Strange Fire conference. It was an exercise in confirmation bias, for both charismatics and non-charismatics alike. It did little to change minds. No surprise, as MacArthur’s conference failed to address the intuitive functions; the presentations appealed only to the “rider,” and were inflammatory to boot. The hardliner rhetoric merely hardened charismatics and confirmed their suspicion that non-charismatics do not seek to understand or care about them.

Liberal Myopia, WEIRD Culture, and Becoming a Pluralist

In the second part of his book, Haidt demonstrates that there is more to moral reasoning than just questions of care and fairness; there are also the categories of loyalty, authority and sanctity. This is fairly obvious to conservatives (and libertarians), but Haidt’s audience (as with most books dealing with psychology and sociology) is made up of secular liberals, the kind that are deeply entrenched in the Western Enlightenment framework and inhabit the ivory towers of universities and wealthy, urban bubbles. Many secular liberals are unable to understand the moral preferences of conservatives because their own view of morality is so stunted.

One cause of this unawareness resulted from how psychologists had conducted experiments. Citing some fascinating research, it turns out that Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic people (aka WEIRD) are statistical outliers; “they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class…is most unusual of all” (112). Unlike the rest of the world, WEIRD culture is profoundly individualist and autonomous. This is even reflected in its main philosophers, Kant and Mill, who “generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals” (113).

Whereas previous researchers had “used psychology to explain away conservatism,” Haidt argues that “conservatives are just as sincere as liberals” (189). For Haidt, a multi-dimensional understanding of morality is necessary to capture the preferences of conservatives. Haidt thinks the differences in moral preferences is what drives the current culture wars. Drawing on the prescriptive aims of The Righteous Mind, he suggests, “It’s just too easy for our riders to build a case against every morality, political party, and religion we don’t like. So let’s try to understand moral diversity first, before we judge other moralities” (Ibid.).

Haidt is no stranger to understanding moral diversity. In 1993, he travelled to Bhubaneswar, a city in east central India, in order to conduct cultural research. This was not a tourist trip, giving a pretense of cultural appreciation with none of its substance; Haidt spent three months living and breathing a non-Enlightenment culture steeped in traditionalist and religious practice and belief. Haidt, who was once a dedicated liberal atheist, became a pluralist, and his conversion (to use religious terminology) is instructive:

On the one hand, I was a twenty-nine-year-old liberal atheist with very definite views about right and wrong. On the other hand, I wanted to be like those open-minded anthropologists I had read so much about and had studied with, such as Alan Fiske and Richard Shweder. My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and dissonance….In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine. 
It only took a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear….I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. Wherever I went, people were kind to me. And when you’re grateful to people, it’s easier to adopt their perspective. My elephant leaned toward them, which made my rider search for moral arguments in their defense. 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 the 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. 
I had read about Shweder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel it. I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires….[F]or the first time in my life, I was able to step outside my home morality, the ethic of autonomy. I had a place to stand, and from the vantage point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused….The same thing happened with the ethic of divinity. I understood intellectually what it meant to treat the body as a temple rather than as a playground, but that was an analytical concept I used to make sense of people who were radically different from me” (118-119).

I think this can inform our approaches to evangelism. Non-believers are unlikely to change their minds by pure argumentation. That is approaching the person from the wrong direction. Rather, friendship evangelism and the inclusion of the unbeliever in the life of the church community is critical in fostering plausibility and sympathy toward an alien worldview.

This is all the more so given that the core commitments of WEIRD culture, ruthlessly committed to individual autonomy and innate human goodness, are antithetical to the Gospel’s narrative of guilt and surrender. The Gospel demands that you put your own preferences to death and submit your entire being to the Lord. Rational arguments alone will never unseat deep preferences for personal freedom. (And this is certainly confirmed by the testimonies of Kirsten Powers and Rosaria Butterfield, where friendship evangelism played an essential role.)

Ties that Bind

Toward the end of his work, Haidt explores how morality binds and blinds. For Haidt, community morality creates a grand narrative with a particular moral matrix and an attendant community. Once someone commits to a community, confirmation bias sets in and it becomes nearly impossible to extricate someone from that community. These communities are themselves the product of certain gene dispositions, as a person’s genetic makeup inclines them to certain personality traits that align with certain political parties.

Haidt suggests that both the left (liberal) and right (conservative and libertarian) traditions have much to offer in the governance of America. Each group is able to see problems that the others cannot, and so all are essential to creating a better society. However, Haidt sees limits to his cooperative project:

“It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish” (283).

Perhaps on naturalism. However, unlike any other philosophy, Christianity offers the possibility of unconditional love, if we are willing to admit our own sinfulness and begin the process of sanctification.

Like many in the Enlightenment tradition, Haidt seems focused on social arrangements. While social arrangements are important, unconditional love can only come through a change in social agents, and I don’t see much within the Enlightenment tradition that can help this, especially if secular humanism is assumed.

A Prescriptive Enterprise

As a descriptive enterprise, The Righteous Mind is a cogent presentation that makes sense of moral reasoning and its attendant conflicts. I am not as confident of its prescriptive aim, which is to foster group unity and improve the aggregate well-being of society.

In his conclusion, Haidt suggests that we hold “a suspicion of moral monists. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation….[A]nyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another.” (366). While I appreciate Haidt’s call not to let a singular moral matrix govern a society’s moral reasoning, at the risk of being peevish, this recommendation strikes me as a singular moral prescription for all societies. Everyone is a fundamentalist about something, even if their fundamental is that there ought to be no fundamentals.

More important is why this should be morally binding. As someone raised and educated in the WEIRD tradition, I am certainly suspicious of oppressive grand narratives, but what justifies this moral intuition? I think Haidt risks the is-ought fallacy. On secularism, there is no real way to move from facts about the world as it is to duties about the way the world should be.

Ultimately, I think Haidt falls into a common pluralist trap. Despite his immersion into and appreciation of traditionalist and religious moral matrices, Haidt still treats these cultural views as objects to reinforce and improve his own tradition. It is still a kind of individualistic project, like choosing which apps best serve the needs of your mobile device; Haidt has just expanded the pool of available options. And like all pluralists, Haidt must inevitably stand in judgment over all other traditions and decide which components are to be incorporated and which are to be discarded in the Western pursuit of a better life.

His moral framework also seems at odds with his moral descriptions. Haidt believes that true happiness is not found within, as Stoicism and Buddhism taught, but from “getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself” (283), and he seems to prefer a utilitarian version of the world, one that is focused on group well-being as opposed to individuals:

I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in the private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good (316).

Unfortunately, utilitarianism is beset by a number of philosophical problems:

At a basic level, it is a hedonistic calculus. Only Enlightenment societies set the highest good as the avoidance of pain and the maximization of happiness, either individually or corporately. Why prefer that vision to another? This might be a compelling ethical system for an atheist or agnostic, who otherwise has no hope in a future state of existence. But it hardly seems compelling to anyone who thinks there are values greater than pleasure.

It suffers from incommensurability. How do we measure a unit of pain or pleasure across two people? These values cannot be quantified, yet any utilitarian calculus requires precise measurements. Even if the utility calculus could be reasonably completed, there are infinite future consequences and an indeterminable probability of consequences. For example, what if a country finds itself in a set of economic conditions where the best way to minimize poverty is to drastically increase energy production. This will cause massive pollution, but scientists predict it will take 100 years for the worst effects to occur. Is it acceptable to take this temporary action banking on the idea that we will have the ability to solve this pollution concern in 100 years?

Additionally, the maximization of aggregate happiness does not require that this happiness is more or less equally distributed. On utilitarianism, the maximization of happiness could require slavery, where one group of people are made somewhat miserable to work, but another group is made exceptionally happy not to work. Utilitarianism privileges utility monsters, even if focused on groups, not individuals.


The Righteous Mind is a fascinating book that will help you understand how people reason. As a work of psychology and sociology, it has significant application for methods of apologetics and evangelism. As a work on morality, it is less valuable, although it is instructive to see the limits of secular ethics. I recommend it.

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