Tucker's Reviews > The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
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Aug 07, 2012

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Read from August 07 to 18, 2012

This book was ultimately a mixed bag for me. There is one supremely interesting component, which comes in part two, and which consists in the elaboration of what Haidt calls Moral Foundations Theory. MFT is roughly the idea that our evaluative judgments of rightness and wrongness of action are guided by intuitions that encode the world in terms of six dichotomies (care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, respect/disobedience, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression). The idea that there is more to morality than harm and fairness seems to me to be quite right and interesting, as its at least common for some of us not to realize that, e.g., concerns of group loyalty and sanctity matter to us. By far the best parts of the book were those that illustrated broadly what it means to think out of concerns for sanctity. I think the book actually (accidentally) makes the compelling case that we all do this, although we westerners are less likely to think, e.g., that concerns of sanctity do or should belong to our understanding of the moral order.

The fundamental problem I have with the book is that the story the book tells to support Moral Foundations Theory suggests that these dichotomies should be universal, but a large part of the book is devoted to arguing that political liberals organize their moral judgments only in terms of three of them, ignoring the dichotomies of loyalty/betrayal, authority/disobedience, and sanctity/degradation. I wasn't at all convinced by the psychological evidence used to justify this conclusion (much of which seems to presume that there's just one way to encode rightness or wrongness in those axes, whereas you might think, as I do, that differences between conservatives and liberals correspond to what we encode as violating norms of loyalty, authority, and sanctity), and Haidt seems keen to use the conclusion to develop a narrative that lays the blame for the increasing polarization of the electorate squarely on the shoulders of the American left.

There are parts of morality that we liberals, supposedly, just don't get. The problem I found with this analysis is that it just seemed to me to assume a view of what it is to be sensitive to concerns of loyalty, authority, and sanctity that grants that the conservative point of view is right about what is sacred, what it is to whom one should be loyal, what authorities are worth being recognized. This is an easy trap to fall into, because a lot of language associated with words like 'sanctity,' 'loyalty,' and 'authority' have acquired connotations and associations with very particular conceptions of how one *should* respond to considerations relevant to these axes. If you step back, however, and consider the virtues of loyalty, deference, and reverence for the sacred more abstractly, my suspicion is that you would find that liberals and conservatives actually encode the world in these terms to exactly the same degree. The disagreement is, I suspect, purely and simply a disagreement in the *content* of ideals of loyalty, deference, and reverence. Unfortunately, this makes Moral Foundations Theory much less potent for generating prescriptions about how to heal our fractured political discourse. The problem is not as simple as teaching an uneducated listener how to appreciate jazz.

Unfortunately, instead, the apparatus of Moral Foundations Theory gets marshaled in the service of hippie-punching (a favorite past-time of fellow moral psychologist, Steven Pinker, and many, many other ardent ex-liberal centrists). I don't want to suggest that Haidt's criticism of the American left is entirely without merit: we could do more to highlight the ways in which our moral discourse *does* make contact with concerns of loyalty, deference, and reverence, and we could certainly think more seriously about how our Utopian ideals satisfy the constraints implied by those virtues. But I don't think Haidt makes a very convincing case that liberals (but apparently not libertarians or social conservatives) have a moral 'blind spot.' He can only entitle himself to that conclusion by assuming that certain conservative views are correct -- which he often does, for example, in describing the "failures" of liberal social reforms of the 60s and 70s (which supposedly destabilized and disrupted minority communities, schools, &c.) with next-to-no scientific evidence cited to support such evaluative judgments.

I'll also mention that Haidt's discussion of figures from the history of philosophy is pervasively misinformed (e.g. his discussion of Plato, which gets Plato's position wrong in basically every possible way) and sometimes just juvenile (e.g. his discussion of Kant is largely limited to several paragraphs of speculating about whether Kant may have been autistic, and how, if true, this could account for the content of his moral theory; true or not, it's a little insulting). This was a huge distraction for me in the first third of the book (which was also, I thought, by far the weakest).
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