Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind

NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has risen to prominence in recent years by taking a stand against the rising tide of PC sensibilities on college campuses. Given his willingness to take on the cultish groupthink that has overtaken the political Left, I was initially enthusiastic about The Righteous Mind. Similar to what I’ve experienced with his fellow would be dissidents on the classically liberal Left, I was really taken in by this book at the outset, but its allure diminished as it progressed. The Righteous Mind is a fine piece of scholarship for anyone seeking a clear headed albeit academic perspective on moral and evolutionary psychology. However, this recommendation comes with caveats. Haidt is a liberal academic who seeks mostly to explain and classify the components of the moral apparatus while remaining within the confines of the liberal mindset. His role model of a society which respects authority and hierarchy is the one articulated by Marxist sociologist, Emile Durkheim. He unironically cites Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell and Barbara Ehrenreich as authortative scholars. He’s not a threat to the secular democratic consensus. He’s not a reactionary proposing a return to religious order. He’s merely a well intentioned intellectual who is making an above average effort at providing people across the conventional political spectrum a deeper empathy for the opposition.

The Righteous Mind is a good summary of the current state of evolutionary psychology, but ultimately all it does is give you a more scientific framework for understanding how liberals and conservatives process morality. The book mostly seeks to mitigate the contentious nature of political discourse. Since it comes from a Darwinian perspective, it portrays morality as an evolving, semi-malleable psychological realm which resides exclusively in the political arena. Though Haidt describes his disaffection with the dry and clinical nature of his early explorations into this field, this book suffers from the same pitfalls. There’s a part of me that thinks that this work is just an inducement to log on to so that the results can be sent to progressive think tanks or the AI teams at DARPA and Google to optimize machine learning systems.

Haidt argues that there is an innate wiring for morality, but the specifics vary across cultures and they are evolutionary adaptations. Morality is not the product of pure intellectual reasoning nor can it be adequately explained or generated through rationalist attempts at universal rules. People possess moral intuitions, but there is a margin of elasticity which allows for reasoning to occur. This innate wiring can be described as a matrix of receptors that he calls Moral Foundations Theory. “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” (1)

Haidt builds his case by tracing the evolution of morality in the secular philosophical sphere up to the discoveries of modern evolutionary psychology. He consolidates these discoveries with his own studies which corral all moral thought into the political arena. He posits that the morality of progressives, libertarians and social conservatives can be understood through a matrix of six different foundations. These foundations would be Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity and Liberty/oppression.

Haidt’s view of morality is roughly analogous to that of a liberal Christian Protestant theologian, but viewed through the lens of modern social science. In other words, man is prewired for moral instincts, but the moral matrix requires input from external sources in order to develop. This development may be constrained in various ways. We are guided by our moral intuitions, but there is a realm of slack that allows for moral reasoning and persuasion to occur. By laying out the moral matrix of liberal progressives, libertarians and social conservatives, Haidt hopes to elevate the public discourse to a place where disagreements can be had without being disagreeable. An honorable aim, but doomed nonetheless.

Since Haidt is himself a liberal and writing for an audience who are like minded in one way or another, the great triumph of the book is that he solidifies the proposition that all humans are wired for religious thinking. Everyone. Even you. Deal with it.

It’s not about whether you read the Bible or attend church services. Haidt’s great victory lies in the fact that he able to persuasively argue that the human mind has the capacity to sanctify anything. Even a self-proclaimed atheist sanctifies gods called “reason”, “social justice” or “democracy”. Haidt proclaims the following:

Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive. (174)

The one thing I particularly appreciate is that Haidt is very explicit about the fact that liberals sanctify politics and deify the presidency. The highest moral reality for the secular liberal is realized through the democratic process. This is a large reason that progressives are so contemptuous of conservatives. Because the progressive sees only oppression in traditional society or conserved ideals, there is no real morality outside the context of politics. Conservatives are just contemptible Neanderthals who must be mercilessly mocked and then dragged into the future by force. This observation also goes a long way toward explaining the absolute insanity that has overtaken the Left in the Trump era. In the progressive view, an apostate has usurped the pinnacle of moral authority. Trump’s very presence in the Oval Office is nothing short of blasphemy against the Holy Writ of Progressivism.

On the flipside, I think Haidt gives progressives too much credit. He asserts that everyone cares about the Care/harm axis, “but liberals care more”(212). This is patently absurd. Liberals are quintessentially Glauconian in the sense that they care about the appearance of caring above all else. Politicized compassion is not the same as the practice of individual acts of compassion. Advocating for the passage of a law which will only expand the sphere of criminality in pursuit of some abstract notion of equality without regard for cost or outcome is not an expression of caring. Walking into a voting booth to pray to the Democracy God on the basis of altruistic sounding political rhetoric is not the same as taking individual action to improve the welfare of some disenfranchised group. Hashtags, rallies and slogans are not substitutes for volunteering in soup kitchens or being a mentor for an inner city kid with no father. Progressives have merely politicized every sphere of social interaction and sanctified government bureaucracy. To oppose any progressive initiative, policy or agency is seen as moral degeneracy. You can’t just oppose transgender bathrooms because to do so just means you’re a hate filled bigot. You can’t criticize the Department of Education because to do so means you oppose education all by itself.

In fact, when it comes to expressing disdain towards conservatives, progressives can be downright hateful and violent. When attacking conservatives, all of the flowery slogans and treacly hashtags are immediately jettisoned. The progressive Left are the very definition of double standards and selective outrage when it comes to voicing their contempt for conservatives. To his credit, he acknowledges this by citing the hate filled bile of Village Voice writer, Michael Feingold. It’s a hate that has only been amplified by the media and progressive priesthood in the Trump era.

Haidt is also guilty of trafficking presumptions of moral truth which presumably underpin the liberal West. He claims that Westerners regard life as “supremely valuable, and that the human body is more than just a walking slab of meat” (174), but this is a dubious proposition. If that were the case, abortion would not be legal. Nor would progressives callously cheer the hypothetical gunning down of an audience full of Trump supporters. He tips his hand further by suggesting that the “only ethical question about abortion” (177) becomes the point at which a fetus feels pain. Not the point at which it becomes its own distinct life.

Haidt asks you to buy into the presuppositions that comprise the liberal, Darwinian worldview. In other words, nominalism and empiricism are to be taken as a given. He describes this using the acronym WEIRD which stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world of separate objects, rather than relationships. (113)

The bad news is that Haidt, like his fellow compatriots in the so called “intellectual dark web”, is simply trying to tend the barricades of classical liberalism in the vain hope of preserving these ideas for the future. To his credit, this book offers a potential glimmer of empathy for the hardboiled progressive who views the conservative with disdain and contempt. Progressives like to preach empathy, but it’s an empathy that seems only to extend to those who agree with the progressive worldview.

Are you even allowed to disapprove of transgenderism or gay marriage without being ostracized from society? Are you allowed to crack a joke at the expense of the Left’s favored groups without fear of losing your job? Are you even allowed to be on the Left and hold heterodox beliefs without being ldemonized?

This is the core problem of The Righteous Mind and classical liberalism. Not only is morality circumscribed to politics, but it is considered a malleable matrix that can be reshaped through social policy if properly understood. Haidt essentially asks you to accept pragmatism and relativism as givens. There are no fixed principles nor is there objective truth except the presuppositions of Darwinism and liberalism.

If morality lives in a malleable psychological scientistic realm, then social scientists will be able to adjudicate morality and no one will question their authority or methods. Who’s going to question the tenured social scientist with a fancy degree who insists that pedophilia is a congenital sexual orientation? Who’s to say that the highly respected physician at Johns Hopkins who insists that children with gender dysphoria should receive hormone blockers is wrong? How can you mount that case when morality is consigned to the realm of scientism and evolutionary relativism? What’s preventing us from removing the moral “taboo” against cannibalism? How can you mount a case against any of these positions when morality is consigned to the realm of scientism and evolutionary relativism?

Haidt also stumbles in his attempts to reconcile the dialectical tension that arose from the Enlightenment which pits the will of the individual against the collective unity embodied in the state. Invoking the work of Rockefeller University graduate, Barbara Ehrenreich, Haidt discusses the binding powers of psychedelics, cross dressing and ecstatic dancing as a way of strengthening hierarchical structures through ritualized subversion. Naturally, he lauds these practices as progressive and healthy while simultaneously cautioning against the bad kind of collective identity that fascism represented. He even invokes the magical power of oxytocin as though everyone is going to pay attention to the limited effects it has on strengthening in-group affection. True to progressive form, he mostly avoids the errors of communist states and places all of his emphasis on the one and only moral negative that exists in the progressive worldview: fascism.

He also seems to contradict himself when it comes to racial in-group preferences. He concedes that “we trust and cooperate more readily with people who look and sound like us.”(244) Because he’s making an evolutionary and Darwinian argument based around genetic adaptation to culture, he’s able to completely sidestep his own claim in favor of a politically convenient argument that runs completely contrary to his original claim.

Like Jordan Peterson, he takes a more charitable view towards religion than his atheist contemporaries . “Gods and religions, in sum, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.” (306). In contrast to the New Atheists, he doesn’t see religion as a pure pathology, but merely an accessory to pathology. He recognizes that religious people are more charitable and have more children. He acknowledges that religious communities are more cohesive and maximize cooperation better than their secular counterparts. But he ultimately affirms the conclusions of Jeremy Bentham! He just wants a more nuanced felicific calculus.

Haidt is generally pretty good about presenting the conservative and libertarian position, but he misses the mark occasionally, too. He describes conservative opposition to the entire array of welfare as the absence of “proportionality”. What he ignores is the compulsory nature of the taxes collected to pay for them. Compelled charity is not charity at all. Any social welfare system will require the creation and maintenance of a bureaucracy within the government. Once this bureaucracy is established, the incentives immediately become corrupted. The bureaucrats will only seek self-preservation while the recipients will lose their incentive. He eventually gets around to the problem of bureaucratized compassion when he discusses the adverse effects that arise when attempting to make health insurance more affordable through government policy. Kudos to Haidt for calling out the Left’s pathological and religious obsession with using government policy as an instrument of compassion

This book was published in 2012, so it predates Trump Derangement Syndrome. Haidt’s sympathy towards the religious community extends to conservatism in general, but it’s a conservatism that’s confined to the province of classical liberalism. Haidt’s efforts to foster greater empathy for conservatives and conservatism is above and beyond the vast majority of his contemporaries, but his Twitter feed suggests a pretty typical indifference to the hostility towards conservatives that has erupted in the Trump era. When rank and file conservatives are being vilified for seeking border security that was uncontroversial under Bill Clinton, Haidt’s work feels increasingly tepid and weak.

I’m willing to give Haidt credit for trying to turn down the temperature of the political discourse, but I can’t help but think he’s missing the bigger picture issues. There’s no mention of the collapse of the family. There’s no mention of high divorce rates. There’s no mention of the effect of illegitimacy on children. There’s no mention of rising suicide rates in men. There’s no mention of the increase in antidepressants and opioids. There’s only a passing mention of “social engineering” and Haidt seems pretty blithely dismissive of the ways that society has already been socially engineered by the likes of Durkheim and Russell. How can you discuss morality and not make a connection to these outcomes? How can you be concerned about morality and not see these issues as supremely troubling? Haidt’s book is mainly geared towards educated liberals just like him while ignoring the vast swaths of the population who can’t be bothered with this shit. Most people formulate a worldview very early on and simply aren’t interested in having it challenged. I’d wager that even amongst the target demographic for this book, very few were persuaded to view the opposition with greater empathy.

If morality is consigned to genetic evolution, then eugenics and technocratic social engineering are not far behind. As much as I admire Haidt’s good intentions, I fear that these are the ends this book is serving.


One thought on “Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind

  1. I’m personally becoming quite sick of this so called ‘intellectual dark web’. They miss the forest for the trees.

    Liked by 1 person

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