Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt has written a book called "The Righteous Mind" which should be of interest to traditionalists.

Haidt is a "social psychologist" who until recently thought of himself as a liberal. He has a particular theory of morality; he believes that what really drives our moral beliefs is a "moral intuition," an immediate feeling of what is right or wrong, rather than our rational intellect.

Haidt studied the moral beliefs held within communities across the world and came to have a greater sympathy for non-liberal moral systems. A reviewer of Haidt's book summarised his position this way:
In the West, we think morality is all about harm, rights, fairness and consent....But step outside your neighborhood or your country, and you’ll discover that your perspective is highly anomalous. Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.

That's interesting. When I read it I immediately thought that liberal morality was very cut down compared to traditional morality. Of the twelve principles and related themes, liberalism only cares about the first three - and as we shall see, this narrower moral focus is recognised by Haidt.

The reviewer, William Saletan, goes on to address his liberal audience as follows:
The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.

In other words, individual autonomy is not made the sole organising principle of society.

Haidt makes a sympathetic defence of the non-liberal moral beliefs. That's unusual and welcome coming from someone who identifies as a liberal, but unfortunately his chosen defence is flawed:
These moral systems aren’t ignorant or backward. Haidt argues that they’re common in history and across the globe because they fit human nature. He compares them to cuisines. We acquire morality the same way we acquire food preferences: we start with what we’re given. If it tastes good, we stick with it. If it doesn’t, we reject it. People accept God, authority and karma because these ideas suit their moral taste buds. Haidt points to research showing that people punish cheaters, accept many hierarchies and don’t support equal distribution of benefits when contributions are unequal.

The problem here is that non-liberal morality is being defended not because it is rational or true, but because it fits an evolved human nature. Our moral sense evolved to like a non-liberal understanding of justice and therefore this preference has a basis within human nature. That is Haidt's position, according to Saletan, and as we shall see it allows Saletan to reassert the supremacy of a liberal morality.

But first, here is the quote from the book review which recognises that liberal morality is more cut down or reductionist compared to traditional morality:

You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.

This is what I've argued for many years: it's not that individual autonomy is necessarily wrong, but it needs to be balanced with a range of other goods. It cannot always be the overriding good in society.

I don't think it's right, though, that the Republican Party is committed to a non-liberal understanding of morality to the degree that Haidt/Saletan appear to believe it to be. Some of the Republican Party base might hold to the values of faith, patriotism and valor more than their Democrat counterparts, but there's not much evidence when it comes to policy direction that leading Republicans think all that differently on social issues than leading Democrats.

What follows next is a more detailed defence of traditional moral norms. Haidt agrees that for a society to hold together there has to be a level of cooperation (the moral capital of society) in which individualism is constrained:

One of these interests is moral capital — norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism. Toward this end, Haidt applauds the left for regulating corporate greed. But he worries that in other ways, liberals dissolve moral capital too recklessly. Welfare programs that substitute public aid for spousal and parental support undermine the ecology of the family. Education policies that let students sue teachers erode classroom authority. Multicultural education weakens the cultural glue of assimilation. Haidt agrees that old ways must sometimes be re-examined and changed. He just wants liberals to proceed with caution and protect the social pillars sustained by tradition.

Here traditionalists would certainly agree with Haidt. Again, I've argued many times that the more that the state steps in to provide for women, the more that the role of husbands within a family is undermined, leading to greater instability within family life. This is also a better defence of traditional morality than the "it fits evolved human nature" one, as it is effectively an appeal to reason and truth. What Haidt is really arguing here is that the logic of liberal morality is to dissolve forms of cooperation that are important for the functioning of society.

Haidt also puts the case for particular loyalties or what he calls parochial altruism:
Another aspect of human nature that conservatives understand better than liberals, according to Haidt, is parochial altruism, the inclination to care more about members of your group — particularly those who have made sacrifices for it —than about outsiders. Saving Darfur, submitting to the United Nations and paying taxes to educate children in another state may be noble, but they aren’t natural. What’s natural is giving to your church, helping your P.T.A. and rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.

Whilst I agree that it is natural to be more focused on serving those you have particular connections to and specific responsibilities toward (your own children, spouse, friends, ethny, conationals etc), I don't think it's sufficient to leave the argument at what is natural. The argument needs, at least, to be elaborated: what we feel particular loyalties toward, such as our family or ethny, have a distinct character and value - a goodness - that rightly inspires our love and attachment, and which it is therefore reasonable for us to want to uphold. We cannot easily substitute one loyalty for another, as (for example) my place within the larger Anglo tradition (my sense of ancestry, of a shared history, of language and culture) cannot be replicated within any other randomly chosen tradition - say the Chinese one. The Anglo tradition will necessarily be more meaningful for me than the Chinese one. Whilst I might like the Chinese tradition and wish it to endure, it is reasonable for me to want to primarily serve the tradition that is most meaningful for me; to which I am most closely connected; which forms a significant part of my identity; which most inspires my love and attachment; which I am best in a position to help reproduce (through children, contribution to culture etc); which is most likely to carry on what I love as distinctive features of my own ancestry and character and culture; and to which, therefore, I feel the greatest sense of duty and responsibility.

It's important to elaborate the sense in which it is reasonable to have particular loyalties rather than global ones, because otherwise it leaves things open for a liberal like Saletan to argue that we should transcend what is natural in order to adapt to the different conditions of the modern world:

Traits we evolved in a dispersed world, like tribalism and righteousness, have become dangerously maladaptive in an era of rapid globalization...

If we can harness that power — wisdom — our substantive project will be to reconcile our national and international differences. Is income inequality immoral? Should government favor religion? Can we tolerate cultures of female subjugation? And how far should we trust our instincts? Should people who find homosexuality repugnant overcome that reaction?

Haidt’s faith in moral taste receptors may not survive this scrutiny. Our taste for sanctity or authority, like our taste for sugar, could turn out to be a dangerous relic. But Haidt is right that we must learn what we have been, even if our nature is to transcend it.

See? It hardly makes a dint in Saletan's commitment to liberalism to argue that traditional morality fits better with human nature. He has an easy "out" which is to argue that we are to use reason to transcend an evolved nature. If it's just a question of what "fits" he can argue that what fitted a premodern society no longer fits, or may even be maladaptive to, a modern society.

We challenge liberals more effectively by exposing the arbitrary underpinnings of their own morality, on which their sense of what is just is based, and by defending our own positions as being not only true in the sense of being objectively moral, but as being rational and necessary for the long term functioning of society.


  1. Haidt's book is really quite good. In it he effectively argues that ethics is built-in to the human mind. Coupling with other modern psychology, it's pretty easy to argue: Experienced morality in humans appears to be (is well explained-by / predicted by the theory of) 6 distinct modules in the mind, each of which fires under certain circumstances.

    However, I do think you're correct in that Haidt's ethics is not a substantial challenge to the liberal line. On the other hand... to the extent that Haidt becomes's an even greater threat to the standard conservative line: Evolution gave us the ethics that we would want to design if we were iterated-game-theory playing monkeys...and it's built-in, not acquired (much) from either society or religiosity.

  2. Strip the largely superfluous cog-sci dressing and most of what you describe here for Haidt (and Saletan) was articulated in the work of David Hume: morality as subjective intuition or sentiment; the artificiality of rights; the illusory nature of autonomy, choice, or equality as standards; a natural attraction to differential treatment of individuals according to status, age or caste; the origin of religion in the natural sentiment of morality, the need for maintaining moral "capital"; the thoroughgoing partiality of human nature; etc. etc. All this without adverting to any grand theory of human evolution or mental machinery, which really muck up the issues at hand more than illuminate.

    One of the things that comes out of grappling with Hume is that the "long-term functioning of society" point that you make here at the end is a rather tricky business. Hume's answer is that the catalog of human behavior in history is our only arbiter. But clearly, history has sanctioned all sorts of things in functioning societies that we ought, as western traditionalists, to reject. The answer, I think, is to insist on a sense of nature and "function" that Hume (or likely Haidt) would not allow. That is, we must recover the good old classical Greek sense of social functioning as subject to degrees of fruition or excellence, and of human existence as inherently -- rather than incidentally or adventitiously -- purposive.

  3. Jonathan Haidt's new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both in intuitive and learned behavior. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual." Here are four paragraphs from it:

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

    The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

  4. "rational and necessary for the long term functioning of society"

    But Liberal morality doesn't care about the long term functioning of society. It doesn't care about the good, but rather the right.

    I can't think of a good moral argument against adopting the ultimate morality, only practical ones.

  5. So then, according to Saletan, it is within our nature to transcend our nature?

  6. I think I recently heard Jonathan Haidt refer to himself as a "centrist". Whereas usually he called himself a liberal.

    Either way, he is a breath of fresh air in the stifling groupthink of academia.

  7. Haidt also made a recent TED Talk ...
    Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence.

    "Psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks a simple, but difficult question: why do we search for self-transcendence? Why do we attempt to lose ourselves? In a tour through the science of evolution by group selection, he proposes a provocative answer."

  8. RE: [Saleton] has an easy "out" which is to argue that we are to use reason to transcend an evolved nature.

    If he believes this then he didn't absorb one of the messages of the book. Reason is for winning arguments, not for finding the truth. In fact, except in rare circumstances, reason is terrible at finding the truth. The vast majority of what we think and say and do comes from instinct and intuition. Reason comes into play only as post hoc rationalization of what we've already decided.