A Review of Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
Back in the early 1950s, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues conducted a now-infamous experiment that validated the central premise of Lord of the Flies. Two groups of 12-year-old boys were brought to a camp called Robber’s Cave in southern Oklahoma where they were observed by researchers as the members got to know each other. Each group, unaware at first of the other’s presence at the camp, spontaneously formed a hierarchy, and they each came up with a name for themselves, the Eagles and the Rattlers. That was the first stage of the study. In the second stage, the two groups were gradually made aware of each other’s presence, and then they were pitted against each other in several games like baseball and tug-o-war. The goal was to find out if animosity would emerge between the groups. This phase of the study had to be brought to an end after the groups began staging armed raids on each other’s territory, wielding socks they’d filled with rocks. Prepubescent boys, this and several other studies confirm, tend to be highly tribal.
So do conservatives.
This is what University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt heroically avoids saying explicitly for the entirety of his new 318-page, heavily endnoted The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In the first of three parts, he takes on ethicists like John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, along with the so-called New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, because, as he says in a characteristically self-undermining pronouncement, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason” (89). Intuition, Haidt insists, is more worthy of focus. In part two, he lays out evidence from his own research showing that all over the world judgments about behaviors rely on a total of six intuitive dimensions, all of which served some ancestral, adaptive function. Conservatives live in “moral matrices” that incorporate all six, while liberal morality rests disproportionally on just three. At times, Haidt intimates that more dimensions is better, but then he explicitly disavows that position. He is, after all, a liberal himself. In part three, he covers some of the most fascinating research to emerge from the field of human evolutionary anthropology over the past decade and a half, concluding that tribalism emerged from group selection and that without it humans never would have become, well, human. Again, the point is that tribal morality—i.e. conservatism—cannot be all bad.
One of Haidt’s goals in writing The Righteous Mind, though, was to improve understanding on each side of the central political divide by exploring, and even encouraging an appreciation for, the moral psychology of those on the rival side. Tribalism can’t be all bad—and yet we need much less of it in the form of partisanship. “My hope,” Haidt writes in the introduction, “is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and more fun, even in mixed company” (xii). Later he identifies the crux of his challenge, “Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide” (49). There are plenty of books by conservative authors which gleefully point out the contradictions and errors in the thinking of naïve liberals, and there are plenty by liberals returning the favor. What Haidt attempts is a willful disregard of his own politics for the sake of transcending the entrenched divisions, even as he’s covering some key evidence that forms the basis of his beliefs. Not surprisingly, he gives the impression at several points throughout the book that he’s either withholding the conclusions he really draws from the research or exercising great discipline in directing his conclusions along paths amenable to his agenda of bringing about greater civility.
Haidt’s focus is on intuition, so he faces the same challenge Daniel Kahneman did in writing Thinking, Fast and Slow: how to convey all these different theories and findings in a book people will enjoy reading from first page to last? Kahneman’s attempt was unsuccessful, but his encyclopedic book is still readable because its topic is so compelling. Haidt’s approach is to discuss the science in the context of his own story of intellectual development. The product reads like a postmodern hero’s journey in which the unreliable narrator returns right back to where he started, but with a heightened awareness of how small his neighborhood really is. It’s a riveting trip down the rabbit hole of self-reflection where the distinction between is and ought gets blurred and erased and reinstated, as do the distinctions between intuition and reason, and even self and other. Since, as Haidt reports, liberals tend to score higher on the personality trait called openness to new ideas and experiences, he seems to have decided on a strategy of uncritically adopting several points of conservative rhetoric—like suggesting liberals are out-of-touch with most normal people—in order to subtly encourage less open members of his audience to read all the way through. Who, after all, wants to read a book by a liberal scientist pointing out all the ways conservatives go wrong in their thinking?
The Elephant in the Room
Haidt’s first move is to challenge the primacy of thinking over intuiting. If you’ve ever debated someone into a corner, you know simply demolishing the reasons behind a position will pretty much never be enough to change anyone’s mind. Citing psychologist Tom Gilovich, Haidt explains that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” We begin a search, “and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have justification, in case anyone asks.” But if we don’t like the implications of, say, global warming, or the beneficial outcomes associated with free markets, we ask a different question:
when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must. Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on “motivated reasoning,” showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusions they want to reach. (84)
Haidt’s early research was designed to force people into making weak moral arguments so that he could explore the intuitive foundations of judgments of right and wrong. When presented with stories involving incest, or eating the family dog, which in every case were carefully worded to make it clear no harm would result to anyone—the incest couldn’t result in pregnancy; the dog was already dead—“subjects tried to invent victims” (24). It was clear that they wanted there to be a logical case based on somebody getting hurt so they could justify their intuitive answer that a wrong had been done.
They said things like ‘I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t think of a reason why.’ They seemed morally dumbfounded—rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively. These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions. (25)
Reading this section, you get the sense that people come to their beliefs about the world and how to behave in it by asking the same three questions they’d ask before deciding on a t-shirt: how does it feel, how much does it cost, and how does it make me look? Quoting political scientist Don Kinder, Haidt writes, “Political opinions function as ‘badges of social membership.’ They’re like the array of bumper stickers people put on their cars showing the political causes, universities, and sports teams they support” (86)—or like the skinny jeans showing everybody how hip you are.
|Image courtesy of Useable Learning|
Kahneman uses the metaphor of two systems to explain the workings of the mind. System 1, intuition, does most of the work most of the time. System 2 takes a lot more effort to engage and can never manage to operate independently of intuition. Kahneman therefore proposes educating your friends about the common intuitive mistakes—because you’ll never recognize them yourself. Haidt uses the metaphor of an intuitive elephant and a cerebrating rider. He first used this image for an earlier book on happiness, so the use of the GOP mascot was accidental. But because of the more intuitive nature of conservative beliefs it’s appropriate. Far from saying that republicans need to think more, though, Haidt emphasizes the point that rational thought is never really rational and never anything but self-interested. He argues,
the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm. (46)
The futility of trying to avoid motivated reasoning provides Haidt some justification of his own to engage in what can only be called pandering. He cites cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Noenzayan, who argued in their 2010 paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” that researchers need to do more studies with culturally diverse subjects. Haidt commandeers the acronym WEIRD—western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic—and applies it somewhat derisively for most of his book, even though it applies both to him and to his scientific endeavors. Of course, he can’t argue that what’s popular is necessarily better. But he manages to convey that attitude implicitly, even though he can’t really share the attitude himself.
Haidt is at his best when he’s synthesizing research findings into a holistic vision of human moral nature; he’s at his worst, his cringe-inducing worst, when he tries to be polemical. He succumbs to his most embarrassingly hypocritical impulses in what are transparently intended to be concessions to the religious and the conservative. WEIRD people are more apt to deny their intuitive, judgmental impulses—except where harm or oppression are involved—and insist on the fair application of governing principles derived from reasoned analysis. But apparently there’s something wrong with this approach:
Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. (28)
This is disingenuous. For one thing, he doesn’t refer to the rationalist delusion throughout the book; it only shows up one other time. Both instances implicate the New Atheists. Haidt coins the term rationalist delusion in response to Dawkins’s The God Delusion. An atheist himself, Haidt is throwing believers a bone. To make this concession, though, he’s forced to seriously muddle his argument. “I’m not saying,” he insists,
we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. (90)
As far as I know, neither Harris nor Dawkins has ever declared himself dictator of reason—nor, for that matter, did Mill or Rawls (Hitchens might have). Haidt, in his concessions, is guilty of making points against arguments that were never made. He goes on to make a point similar to Kahneman’s.
We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. (90)
What Haidt probably realizes but isn’t saying is that the environment he’s describing is a lot like scientific institutions in academia. In other words, if you hang out in them, you’ll be WEIRD.
A Taste for Self-Righteousness
The divide over morality can largely be reduced to the differences between the urban educated and the poor not-so-educated. As Haidt says of his research in South America, “I had flown five thousand miles south to search for moral variation when in fact there was more to be found a few blocks west of campus, in the poor neighborhood surrounding my university” (22). One of the major differences he and his research assistants serendipitously discovered was that educated people think it’s normal to discuss the underlying reasons for moral judgments while everyone else in the world—who isn’t WEIRD—thinks it’s odd:
But what I didn’t expect was that these working-class subjects would sometimes find my request for justifications so perplexing. Each time someone said that the people in a story had done something wrong, I asked, “Can you tell me why that was wrong?” When I had interviewed college students on the Penn campus a month earlier, this question brought forth their moral justifications quite smoothly. But a few blocks west, this same question often led to long pauses and disbelieving stares. Those pauses and stares seemed to say, You mean you don’t know why it’s wrong to do that to a chicken? I have to explain it to you? What planet are you from? (95)
The Penn students “were unique in their unwavering devotion to the ‘harm principle,’” Mill’s dictum that laws are only justified when they prevent harm to citizens. Haidt quotes one of the students as saying, “It’s his chicken, he’s eating it, nobody is getting hurt” (96). (You don’t want to know what he did before cooking it.)
Having spent a little bit of time with working-class people, I can make a point that Haidt overlooks: they weren’t just looking at him as if he were an alien—they were judging him. In their minds, he was wrong just to ask the question. The really odd thing is that even though Haidt is the one asking the questions he seems at points throughout The Righteous Mind to agree that we shouldn’t ask questions like that:
There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. I’m going to try to convince you that this principle is true descriptively—that is, as a portrait of the moralities we see when we look around the world. I’ll set aside the question of whether any of these alternative moralities are really good, true, or justifiable. As an intuitionist, I believe it is a mistake to even raise that emotionally powerful question until we’ve calmed our elephants and cultivated some understanding of what such moralities are trying to accomplish. It’s just too easy for our riders to build a case against every morality, political party, and religion that we don’t like. So let’s try to understand moral diversity first, before we judge other moralities. (98)
|The Brits always get better book covers.|
But he’s already been busy judging people who base their morality on reason, taking them to task for worshipping it. And while he’s expending so much effort to hold back his own judgments he’s being judged by those whose rival conceptions he’s trying to understand. His open-mindedness and disciplined restraint are as quintessentially liberal as they are unilateral.
In the book’s first section, Haidt recounts his education and his early research into moral intuition. The second section is the story of how he developed his Moral Foundations Theory. It begins with his voyage to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa in India. He went to conduct experiments similar to those he’d already been doing in the Americas. “But these experiments,” he writes, “taught me little in comparison to what I learned just from stumbling around the complex social web of a small Indian city and then talking with my hosts and advisors about my confusion.” It was an earlier account of this sojourn Haidt had written for the online salon The Edge that first piqued my interest in his work and his writing. In both, he talks about his two “incompatible identities.”
On 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. (101)
The people he meets in India are similar in many ways to American conservatives. “I was immersed,” Haidt writes, “in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine” (102). The conversion to what he calls pluralism doesn’t lead to any realignment of his politics. But supposedly for the first time he begins to feel and experience the appeal of other types of moral thinking. He could see why protecting physical purity might be fulfilling. This is part of what's known as the “ethic of divinity,” and it was missing from his earlier way of thinking. He also began to appreciate certain aspects of the social order, not to the point of advocating hierarchy or rigid sex roles but seeing value in the complex network of interdependence.
|Image Courtesy of The New York Times|
many authors reduce morality to a single principle, usually some variant of welfare maximization (basically, help people, don’t hurt them). Or sometimes it’s justice or related notions of fairness, rights, or respect for individuals and their autonomy. There’s The Utilitarian Grill, serving only sweeteners (welfare), and The Deontological Diner, serving only salts (rights). Those are your options. (113)
Haidt doesn’t make the connection between tribalism and the conservative moral trifecta explicit. And he insists he’s not relying on what’s called the Naturalistic Fallacy—reasoning that what’s natural must be right. Rather, he’s being, he claims, strictly descriptive and scientific.
Moral judgment is a kind of perception, and moral science should begin with a careful study of the moral taste receptors. You can’t possibly deduce the list of five taste receptors by pure reasoning, nor should you search for it in scripture. There’s nothing transcendental about them. You’ve got to examine tongues. (115)
But if he really were restricting himself to description he would have no beef with the utilitarian ethicists like Mill, the deontological ones like Kant, or for that matter with the New Atheists, all of whom are operating in the realm of how we should behave and what we should believe as opposed to how we’re naturally, intuitively primed to behave and believe. At one point, he goes so far as to present a case for Kant and Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, being autistic (the trendy psychological diagnosis du jour) (120). But, like a lawyer who throws out a damning but inadmissible comment only to say “withdrawn” when the defense objects, he assures us that he doesn’t mean the autism thing as an ad hominem.
|From The Moral Foundation Website|
I think most of my fellow liberals are going to think Haidt’s metaphor needs some adjusting. Humans evolved a craving for sweets because in our ancestral environment fruits were a rare but nutrient-rich delicacy. Likewise, our taste for salt used to be adaptive. But in the modern world our appetites for sugar and salt have created a health crisis. These taste receptors are also easy for industrial food manufacturers to exploit in a way that enriches them and harms us. As Haidt goes on to explain in the third section, our tribal intuitions were what allowed us to flourish as a species. But what he doesn’t realize or won’t openly admit is that in the modern world tribalism is dangerous and far too easily exploited by demagogues and PR experts.
In his story about his time in India, he makes it seem like a whole new world of experiences was opened to him. But this is absurd (and insulting). Liberals experience the sacred too; they just don’t attempt to legislate it. Liberals recognize intuitions pushing them toward dominance and submission. They have feelings of animosity toward outgroups and intense loyalty toward members of their ingroup. Sometimes, they even indulge these intuitions and impulses. The distinction is not that liberals don’t experience such feelings; they simply believe they should question whether acting on them is appropriate in the given context. Loyalty in a friendship or a marriage is moral and essential; loyalty in business, in the form of cronyism, is profoundly immoral. Liberals believe they shouldn’t apply their personal feelings about loyalty or sacredness to their judgments of others because it’s wrong to try to legislate your personal intuitions, or even the intuitions you share with a group whose beliefs may not be shared in other sectors of society. In fact, the need to consider diverse beliefs—the pluralism that Haidt extolls—is precisely the impetus behind the efforts ethicists make to pare down the list of moral considerations.
Moral intuitions, like food cravings, can be seen as temptations requiring discipline to resist. It’s probably no coincidence that the obesity epidemic tracks the moral divide Haidt found when he left the Penn campus. As I read Haidt’s account of Drew Westen’s fMRI experiments with political partisans, I got a bit anxious because I worried a scan might reveal me to be something other than what I consider myself. The machine in this case is a bit like the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, and I hoped, like Harry Potter, not to be placed in Slytherin. But this hope, even if it stems from my wish to identify with the group of liberals I admire and feel loyalty toward, cannot be as meaningless as Haidt’s “intuitionism” posits.
Ultimately, the findings Haidt brings together under the rubric of Moral Foundations Theory don’t lend themselves in any way to his larger program of bringing about greater understanding and greater civility. He fails to understand that liberals appreciate all the moral dimensions but don’t think they should all be seen as guides to political policies. And while he may want there to be less tribalism in politics he has to realize that most conservatives believe tribalism is politics—and should be.
Resistance to the Hive Switch is Futile
“We are not saints,” Haidt writes in the third section, “but we are sometimes good team players” (191). Though his efforts to use Moral Foundations to understand and appreciate conservatives lead to some bizarre contortions and a profound misunderstanding of liberals, his synthesis of research on moral intuitions with research and theorizing on multi-level selection, including selection at the level of the group, is an important contribution to psychology and anthropology. He writes that
anytime a group finds a way to suppress selfishness, it changes the balance of forces in a multi-level analysis: individual-level selection becomes less important, and group-level selection becomes more powerful. For example, if there is a genetic basis for feelings of loyalty and sanctity (i.e., the Loyalty and Sanctity Foundations), then intense intergroup competition will make these genes become more common in the next generation. (194)
The most interesting idea in this section is that humans possess what Haidt calls a “hive switch” that gets flipped whenever we engage in coordinated group activities. He cites historian William McNeil who recalls an “altered state of consciousness” when he was marching in formation with fellow soldiers in his army days. He describes it as a “sense of pervasive well-being…a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life” (221). Sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to this same experience as “collective effervescence.” People feel it today at football games, at concerts as they dance to a unifying beat, and during religious rituals. It’s a profoundly spiritual experience, and it likely evolved to create a greater sense of social cohesion within groups competing with other groups.
Surprisingly, the altruism inspired by this sense of the sacred triggered by coordinated activity, though primarily directed at fellow group members—parochial altruism—can also flow out in ways that aren’t entirely tribal. Haidt cites political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, where they report the finding that “the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board” (267); they do give more to religious charities, but they also give more to secular ones. Putnam and Campbell write that “religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens.” The really astonishing finding from Putnam and Campbell’s research, though, is that the social advantages enjoyed by religious people had nothing to do with the actual religious beliefs. Haidt explains,
These beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon… none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. (267)
The Sacred foundation, then, is an integral aspect of our sense of community, as well as a powerful inspiration for altruism. Haidt cites the work of Richard Sosis, who combed through all the records he could find on communes in America. His central finding is that “just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.” Socis went on to identify “one master variable” which accounted for the difference between success and failure for religious groups: “the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members” (257). But sacrifices demanded by secular groups made no difference whatsoever. Haidt concludes,
In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally, particularly when those beliefs rest upon the Sanctity foundation. Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice. (257)
This section captures the best and the worst of Haidt's work. The idea that humans have an evolved sense of the sacred, and that it came about to help our ancestral groups cooperate and cohere—that’s a brilliant contribution to theories going back through D.S.Wilson, Emile Durkheim, all the way back to Darwin. Contemplating it sparks a sense of wonder that must emerge from that same evolved feeling for the sacred. But then he uses the insight in the service of a really lame argument.
The costs critics of religion point to aren’t the minor personal ones like giving up alcohol or fasting for a few days. Haidt compares studying the actual, “arbitrary” beliefs and practices of religious communities to observing the movements of a football for the purpose of trying to understand why people love watching games. It’s the coming together as a group, he suggests, the sharing of goals and mutual direction of attention, the feeling of shared triumph or even disappointment. But if the beliefs and rituals aren’t what’s important then there’s no reason they have to be arbitrary—and there’s no reason they should have to entail any degree of hostility toward outsiders. How then can Haidt condemn Harris and Dawkins for “worshipping reason” and celebrating the collective endeavor known as science? Why doesn’t he recognize that for highly educated people, especially scientists, discovery is sacred? He seriously mars his otherwise magnificent work by wrongly assuming anyone who doesn’t think flushing an American flag down the toilet is wrong has no sense of the sacred, shaking his finger at them, effectively saying, rallying around a cause is what being human is all about, but what you flag-flushers think is important just isn’t worthy—even though it’s exactly what I think is important too, what I’ve devoted my career and this book you're holding to anyway.
As Kahneman stresses in his book, resisting the pull of intuition takes a great deal of effort. The main difference between highly educated people and everyone else isn’t a matter of separate moral intuitions. It’s a different attitude toward intuitions in general. Those of us who worship reason believe in the Enlightenment ideals of scientific progress and universal human rights. I think most of us even feel those ideals are sacred and inviolable. But the Enlightenment is a victim of its own success. No one remembers the unchecked violence and injustice that were the norms before it came about—and still are the norms in many parts of the world. In some academic sectors, the Enlightenment is even blamed for some of the crimes its own principles are used to combat, like patriarchy and colonialism. Intuitions are still very much a part of human existence, even among those who are the most thoroughly steeped in Enlightenment values. But worshipping them is far more dangerous than worshipping reason. As the world becomes ever more complicated, nostalgia for simpler times becomes an ever more powerful temptation. And surmounting the pull of intuition may ultimately be an impossible goal. But it’s still a worthy, and even sacred ideal.
But if Haidt’s attempt to inspire understanding and appreciation misfires how are we to achieve the goal of greater civility and less partisanship? Haidt does offer some useful suggestions. Still, I worry that his injunction to “Talk to the elephant” will merely contribute to the growing sway of the burgeoning focus-groupocracy. Interestingly, the third stage of the Robber's Cave experiment may provide some guidance. Sherif and his colleagues did manage to curtail the escalating hostility between the Eagles and the Rattlers. And all it took was some shared goals they had to cooperate to achieve, like when their bus got stuck on the side of the road and all the boys in both groups had to work together to work it free. Maybe it’s time for a mission to Mars all Americans could support (credit Neil de Grasse Tyson). Unfortunately, the conservatives would probably never get behind it. Maybe we should do another of our liberal conspiracy hoaxes to convince them China is planning to build a military base on the Red Planet. Then we’ll be there in no time.