A Short Review of Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

Professor Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind explores the psychological and evolutionary roots of our beliefs about morality. Haidt’s three main theses, which were the subject of the book’s three sections, are: TheRighteousMind1) our emotions drive our reasoning, 2) morality is based on more than just ‘harm’ and 3) human beings are “90% chimp and 10% bee” meaning that certain situations can enable us to experience a kind of “group consciousness.”

– Contains fascinating experimental data, particularly in the first section. For example, it can be shown experimentally that our moral judgments can be manipulated by entirely non-rational means, like exposing us to unpleasant smells.

– Haidt offers legitimate criticism of our naive optimism about our own rationality (he calls thoroughgoing rationalism ‘a delusion’ (p. 88)). We are far more irrational than we think and we tend to automatically affirm the ideas of our ‘tribe’ while automatically rejecting the ideas of the ‘other side’ without any critical reflection.

– He also offers an explanation for why there is such political polarization in our society. He argues that liberals and conservatives do not merely differ over issues of policy, or even over the content of moral truth, but over what constitutes morality. Data suggest that liberals view morality primarily or even exclusively in terms of ‘harm’ while conservatives view morality more broadly.

– Haidt gives great advice on ‘intertribal’ political dialogue: Learn to empathize. Develop intertribal friendships. Insist on diversity of thought, especially at universities, so that we can be exposed to intelligent people who disagree with us.

– Despite my strong agreement with Haidt on a number of issues including our tendency towards tribalism, our bent towards irrationality, and the need for viewpoint diversity, I think he greatly exaggerates his claims. For example, the central metaphor in the first section was that of a man riding an elephant (a spoof on Plato’s Chariot Allegory). The elephant is our emotion and the rider is our reason. He writes that “the rider’s job is to serve the elephant” (p. xxi) and that “The first principle of moral psychology is Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second… Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.” (p. 91) While Haidt recognizes that the ‘elephant’ of our emotions is sometimes open to reason, he tends to downplay this possibility.

– In using this metaphor, he overstates his case. For example, he points to an experiment in which subjects were hypnotized to experience disgust at certain trigger words and were then asked to judge the morality of a completely inoffensive action which invoked the trigger word. As evidence for his claim that our reason serves our emotion, he cites the fact that “subjects made up absurd reasons to justify judgments that had been made on the basis of gut feeling – feeling [the experimenter] had implanted with hypnosis” (p. 54). However, only 1/3 of the subjects engaged in this kind of rationalization. The majority of the subjects experienced the same disgust but apparently ignored it when they found that it conflicted with their reason. While emotions certainly bias our reasoning, they don’t always control it.

– I found Haidt’s reliance on hypothetical reconstructions of our evolutionary past to be distracting. Haidt bases a great deal of his analysis on group selection, despite recognizing that it was “banished as a heresy from scientific circles in the 1970s” (p. 191) and is still “controversial among evolutionary theorists, most of whom [believe] that group selection never actually happened among humans” (p. 199). I found many of his proposals unnecessary, especially when his conclusions could be supported by modern-day experimental findings.

– Most disappointing was Haidt’s insistence on viewing morality only in descriptive terms rather than prescriptive terms. In other words, Haidt described how various people and cultures view morality, but rejected as ‘fundamentalism’ the idea that there is any objective morality (whether the ‘fundamentalists’ were atheists or theists). While I agree that it may be possible to find common ground between liberals and conservatives on the basis of some shared moral foundations, there are times when that is impossible. For example, if discussions about abortion or euthanasia or incest rest ultimately on the ‘sanctity’ foundation (which liberals generally reject), then a discussion of whether ‘sanctity’ is actually, objectively an element of morality becomes unavoidable.

– Because of his commitment to the elephant-rider metaphor, Haidt doesn’t talk about personal, intellectual virtues as a way to overcome political enmity. If reason can never tame our emotion, then virtues like humility, critical thought, and self-reflection are pointless. But a more balanced view would see these virtues not only as helpful, but morally obligatory.

– Finally, throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Christianity addresses many of the problems Haidt mentions. Haidt sees our confirmation bias and tribalism as unavoidable results of out evolutionary history, but Christianity sees them -at least in part- as the consequences of sin. We ignore disconfirmatory evidence because we care more about being right than about the truth and we demonize other tribes so that we can justify ourselves. Those impulses are the consequence of our radically self-centered human nature. And they are destroyed by the humility that comes from recognizing our status as God’s creation and by the charity that comes from recognizing others as fellow divine image-bearers.

– Even more interesting, Haidt comments briefly on three conditions that promote “evenhanded consideration of alternative points of view… 1) [being] accountable before an audience [whose] 2) … views are unknown … [and who is] 3)… well-informed… When all three conditions apply, people do their darndest to figure out the truth.” Haidt laments that, unfortunately, these conditions are almost never satisfied (p. 76). But for the Christian, these conditions are *always* satisfied: 1) we are accountable to God, and 2) if the truth of an issue is unknown to us, then God’s views are also unknown to us because 3) God is always well-informed about the truth. So Christians always have powerful reasons to pursue intellectual virtues and to seek the truth even if, unfortunately, we usually fall far short of that standard.

– Conversely, if we reject objective morality, it’s hard to see why we are obligated to seek the truth. I can imagine many cases where pragmatic political concerns would strongly support deliberately suppressing the truth or engaging in group-think. For example, if politics is a zero-sum game and you are convinced that the other tribe is destroying peoples’ well-being, then why not refuse to concede even an inch of territory, even if they happen to be right?

The Righteous Mind is illuminating. It does an excellent job of examining the foundations of morality from a descriptive, sociological perspective. Additionally, it makes a powerful case for intellectual humility and ‘intertribal’ dialogue, grounded in experimental data. Highly recommended.

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