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Pierre Beemans

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt. Pantheon Books, NY, 2012, 420 pp.

In this highly readable and stimulating book Jonathan Haidt sets out and justifies his Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) and how it applies to the current socio-cultural and political environment in the USA. MFT postulates that humans in all societies are governed by six instinctive responses in their relations to their ‘moral environment’ and that these six responses are essential to a healthy balance both in the collective social order and in the individual’s engagement in society.

Haidt’s discipline is Moral Psychology, a fairly novel field in psychology although its cousin, moral philosophy, goes way back to Aristotle and Plato and beyond. Haidt builds his MFT around three principles: (a) that moral intuitions are innate, automatic and precede moral reasoning; (b) that morality is what binds us to our group, but also what obscures for us alternate moralities of other groups; and (c) there is more to morality than harm and fairness.

The latter principle is at the heart of MFT. Haidt posits that people have six ‘moral intuitions’ that are the foundations of their moral worldview and that shape not just their interpersonal relations but also their political, cultural and religious identities. These six foundational intuitions operate in tandem with their antitheses, thus:

• care/harm,

• fairness/cheating,

• liberty/oppression;

• loyalty/betrayal,

• authority/subversion, and

• sanctity/blasphemy (or purity/pollution).

Each of these is explained and developed in clear and lively language with fascinating anecdotes, illustrations and historical references. Along the way he looks at the dynamics of beehives, Balinese rice farming, Richard Dawkins’ New Atheism, 9/11, social capital theories, the evolution of the field of moral psychology, and dozens of other fascinating topics. As I said, the book is a delight to read.

The novelty of Haidt’s MFT lies not not so much in the six moral foundations he posits but in his claims:

(a) that these responses are innate, i.e., the product of genetically programmed emotions that have emerged in the course of human evolution, and therefore are primarily intuitive rather than rational. Thus, moral ‘reasoning’ is essentially an after the fact rationalization and justification of our genetically-based ‘intuitive moral instincts’.

(b) that these genetic changes took place in a process of ‘group selection of the fittest’ rather than individual selection, i.e., that collective or group behaviour over time can trigger the genetic modifications in the brains of individual members of the group which trigger the moral intuitions.

(c) that the circumstances in which an individual develops (physical, social, etc.) can lead to changes in the relative strength or influence among his six moral intuitions and how they govern his perceptions and behaviour;

(d) that ‘liberals’ in our Western societies respond overwhelmingly to the first three sets of intuitions and are relatively indifferent to the last three, whereas ‘conservatives’ have a more balanced distribution among all six, with the last three enjoying prominence;

(e) that in the USA these differences in moral outlook and priorities have accelerated in the last 50 years and account for the current animosity and red/blue divisiveness in American political and social life.

The book is fascinating and well deserves the attention it is receiving - most of which has focused on its application to the American political situation. There are many other angles from which the subject could and deserves to be considered, but three stuck in my mind.

1. The origin of our innate emotional intuitions

Haidt says that these are biological responses triggered by the organization and operations of our brain cells and nervous system - an organization which is the product of genetic development and modification of the human brain acquired in the course of our biological and social evolution. In other words, our moral instincts are a purely material biological phenomenon.

Perhaps because he is a psychologist not an ethician or a philosopher, or perhaps because he is the product of the secular liberal intellectual environment he so well describes, Haidt gives little or no space to other theories about the nature and origins of human moral systems. Notably, he ignores completely the rigorous and long-established traditions of both ‘natural law’ moral philosophy and moral theology. These would hold that human beings have both a material (the body) and a spiritual (the soul) reality and that Haidt’s ‘moral intuitions’ are the product of the interaction between certain general principles or laws inherent in the moral faculty (conscience) of the human soul and the organization of the human brain acquired in the course of biological evolution.

Most natural philosophers (and all theologians, of course) would hold that human beings are endowed with a spirit/soul by a spiritual creator (call it God or whatever), and that this soul has certain faculties and insights that define humans as humans, and that humans are subject to the purpose this creator had in creating them. Ascertaining that purpose and how it is to be achieved individually and societally is what most philosophy and all religion has been about for most of human history.

As a self-declared atheist and Darwinist, Haidt could not be expected to share the above perspective, but it is regrettable that his perspective is limited to schools of thought that have a trajectory of less than 200 years.

2. Internal consistency/inconsistency of Haidt’s MFT

Eloquent and persuasive as Haidt is, one can still feel that MFT may be somewhat of an oversimplification. The first version I found of his theory, dating to 2004, had four moral intuitions; by 2010, he had amended it to five, and it currently stands at six -- leading one to suspect that the moral universe of the human mind (and body) may reveal even more complexities.

I found Haidt’s analysis of the political application of MFT to be a bit circular: he begins (p. xvi) by defining ‘liberals’ as “those who follow progressive or left-wing politics” (and generally support the Democratic party), and ‘conservatives’ as those who don’t (and presumably favour the Republicans). Then, over myriad surveys, he finds out that those who are pro-choice, concerned about global warming, pro social welfare, etc. score disproportionately high on the ‘care/harm, fairness as equality and ‘liberty as freedom from want’ vectors, identify themselves as liberals, sneer at patriotism, decry institutional authority, scorn religion .... and vote Democrat. I.e., people who care about ‘progressive’ causes tend to consider themselves ‘liberals’.

Conservatives, by default, become the rest, who - while they may score well on care/harm - also give equal importance to fairness as proportionality, ‘liberty as freedom from oppression’, loyalty/treachery, authority/subversion and sanctity/ blasphemy …. and presumably vote Republican.

This doesn’t leave much place, however, for the many who consider themselves liberal, give as high a priority to loyalty/authority/sanctity as they do to care, ‘fairness as equality’ and ‘freedom from want’, and would never support a conservative party . Consider Martin Luther King and many of his followers who led the struggle for racial equality while being deeply religious and intensely loyal Americans, the many nuns engaged in social justice and anti-poverty work while bound by vows to religious obedience and prayer, or in Canada, the Baptist pastors JS Coldwell who founded and led the CCF and Tommy Douglas who ran a provincial government, and who were both loyal monarchists.

It would have been helpful if, just as he distinguishes ‘social conservatives’ from ‘libertarian conservatives’ from ‘economic conservatives’, Haidt had recognized that there is also a much broader range of ‘liberals’ than the secular, de-spiritualized, urban upper-middle-class sub-set he belongs to and focuses on.

Haidt has a similarly narrow take on truth when he says that reasoning is not about seeking truth and is not good at finding truth but rather is about justifying our pre-conceptions and emotion-driven intuitions, i.e., reason and moral truth are essentially subjective and relative. Truth, he maintains, is the product of ‘collective reasoning’ whereby people work together for a compromise among the differing ‘individual truths’. He seems to conflate truth and wisdom, which he says “comes out of a group of well-constituted people who have some faith and trust in each other.”

Well, to paraphrase Pontius Pilate, it depends on what you mean by ‘truth’. I doubt Haidt would make those same assertions regarding mathematical or empirical-science reasoning about the fundamental laws that govern physical and quantitative realities. But if you don’t believe that there are also fundamental laws that govern human nature, then of course ‘moral truth’ becomes subjective and positivistic, whatever consensus or the law says it is.

Haidt does, however, believe strongly in the importance of community and the social order that sustains it. For that reason, he holds that religion is important in a healthy society, as one of the strongest glues that binds community together, and that ‘liberals’ like Dawkins are wrong in disdaining or condemning religion as ‘mere superstition’ outdated in a progressive society. He stresses, nonetheless, that religion (and morality) not only binds, it also blinds since it sets us apart from others who do not share our beliefs, and can lead to intolerance and conflict.

He is right about all that, but it is a purely utilitarian Enlightenment notion of religion which ignores the essential nature and role of religion as a system which helps humans to understand the basic existential and transcendental realities and relationships which give meaning and purpose to their lives. Of course, if you don’t believe in a transcendental or divine reality, you’re bound to have a pretty limited view of religion. Haidt is considerably more open-minded on religion than Dawkins and Hawking, but he is constrained by the same inability to recognize (not necessarily to accept) the legitimacy of the religious paradigm. When he says in his interview with Bill Moyers, “Sacralization blinds you”, he should have added as well that “Secularization blinds you”, since it is in many ways an analogue of religion.

3. How does MFT apply to North America (and internationally)?

This is what Haidt really wants to get at in the practical side of his book and what almost all of his media interviews have focused on. It is also the most stimulating part of the book for political junkies: for instance, when he turns his sights upon the current ‘red/blue’ cleavage in American politics. Building on his characterization of American liberals and conservatives today along MFT lines, he sees three turning points for the hostile and exclusive divisiveness that has developed south of the border:

* the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that turned southern Democrats into Republicans and started the division of political parties along mutually exclusive ideological lines;

* the baby boomer generation that jumped on the ideological and moralizing bandwagons of the 1960s, has never got off, and continues to view the other side in manichean right/wrong good/evil terms;

* the “Matrix” structure of America today, which “has become a nation of life-style enclaves where people associate with like-minded and lose the ability to see and live with other points of view”.

One might hazard other explanations of so complex a phenomenon, but Haidt certainly makes a good case for his own.

It is interesting to speculate as to whether and to what extent MFT might apply to Canada. How has our history and politics (e.g., Quebec and the French fact, a three-party system, parliamentary government, the absence of slavery, multiculturalism policies, etc.) made us different in the nature of our left/right split? Do we have a different set or a different mix of moral foundations? Are we slipping into the American model, to wit: the Reform/Alliance takeover of the Conservative Party and the purging of Red Tories, the collapse of the Liberals as a national party and the rise of the NDP, the disappearance of centrist politics, the ‘new nastiness’ in our politics, etc.

Can the political environment in North America turn around? Can Democrats (and the Liberals) rebuild? I.e., can they regain the centre or are they too ideologically hamstrung to redefine their basic messages? Have they been captured by ‘liberal elites’ that are unable to resonate with broad American/Canadian values and unable to change? What are the mechanisms and options for new thinking or for renewing the party’s ideology? Where are the Liberal think tanks in Canada to parallel the Conservative ones?

Haidt believes that improvements in the political climate should start with agreement on the need to develop norms about things/behaviours that are ‘beyond the pale’, i.e., unacceptable and not to be tolerated by either side. He suggests two things to start with: an agreement by political leaderships to put an end to (i) ‘demonization’, i.e., attributing bad motives to every action by the other side, and (ii) corruption, i.e., the indebtedness and obligations that politicians have to assume vis-à-vis private financial sources in order to fund the vast expenses of getting elected today. One is entitled to question whether these are the nudges that are likely to start changing the norms that govern the course of our political culture.

On a broader canvas, how legitimate is it to apply MFT internationally? Various op-eds on the Pussy Riot phenomenon in Russia suggested that a similar divide between a tiny liberal elite and a deeply conservative mass exists there, but does Haidt’s hypothesis apply in Russia in the same way as it does in East Coast USA? Does MFT even make any sense in places like China or India, or in deeply Muslim societies - is MFT really just an interesting and useful model for looking at American (and perhaps Western European) society? Certainly Islam attaches very high value to care (e.g., zakat, or tithing), fairness as proportionality, loyalty (primarily to family/clan/tribe), sanctity, etc., but these notions are understood in a different way than ours, and a Muslim Haidt might find different core values in his world than Haidt found in ours.

All in all, no lack of food for thought and discussion in this book, plus innumerable bon mots and eye-catching pronouncements. Definitely an A.


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