Jonathan Haidt wrote a new book, The Righteous Mind. I haven’t seen the book, but I listened to an interview by Bill Moyers. I recommend checking it out. Haidt does have an insightful view, although I think his view would be even more insightful if he synthesized his own research with other psychological research about ideologies and with a larger context of data in general.
Haidt talks about two main things: uncompromising partisanship and lifestyle enclaves. The latter factor magnifies the problem of the former. Americans have become geographically isolated such as conservatives increasingly moving to suburbs and the wealthy moving to gated communities. Americans have become informationally isolated such as of the rise of hyper-partisan media that no longer holds to the standard of neutral or fair reporting. Combined together, all of this isolation increases uncompromising partisanship and it becomes a set of self-reinforcing reality tunnels.
This was in some ways inevitable. Haidt and Moyers discuss how the civil rights movement divided America. That is true, but I’d point out two things. First, Civil Rights was a social problem that had to be faced eventually, one way or another. Second, the seeming negative consequences of a split society are just a temporary situation of collectively seeking a new norm that includes all Americans.
Haidt is misunderstanding this as being something more than it is. This is seen in his bias against liberalism that is built into his research. He claims that conservatives have a more balanced sense of moral values, but he does so by ignoring most liberal values. He is, in fact, taking a conservative position by ignoring liberal values such as curiosity and open-mindedness (he attacks academics as clueless while praising the conservative Christian mistrust of knowledge, and he does this while entirely ignoring how science is the best method of dealing with confirmation bias; this is significant since most scientists identify as liberals and tend to hold liberal views; as a scientist himself, it is odd that Haidt doesn’t respect objective knowledge even as he bases his argument on scientific evidence — an internal contradiction?).
He essentially doesn’t see liberal values as moral values which is a standard conservative position. I would argue, however, that liberals are more aware of conservative values than conservatives are of liberal values. This is the seemingly irresolvable conflict that liberals face. Research shows that conservatives have less desire to understand those who are different than them and that liberals have more desire for this kind of understanding. Haidt doesn’t acknowledge this and instead rationalizes this conservative blindness even as he claims to be advocating better understanding and cooperation, the very values most strongly supported by liberals.
Research shows liberals put greater value on compromise and cooperation. Earlier in the 20th century when both parties included liberals (i.e., when both parties had two wings), both parties were able to work together toward the common good (data shows that now only the Democratic Party includes two wings — a big tent party — and it is Democrats who unsurprisingly still support compromise). Contrary to Haidt’s opinion, it is liberals that helped create a shared group identity for Americans in the past. It’s precisely because conservatives value group solidarity that they are so incompetent at accomplishing it on the large scale of a diverse society. Haidt, however, criticizes liberals for their lack of valuing group solidarity, despite liberals being better at actually accomplishing it.
To put it simply, Haidt is incorrect. He concludes that liberals don’t value group solidarity for the reason liberals don’t talk about it in the way conservatives talk about it, but this misses the point. Liberals take all of those conservative values and transform them through the liberal values that Haidt doesn’t recognize: compassionate opennesss and willingness/desire to self-question, intellecutal curiosity and honesty (research shows right-wing authoritarians as being the most hypocritical), compromise and cooperation, etc.
Haidt proposes 5 moral values (what he calls moral foundations):
- Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.)
- Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.
- Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
- Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.)
- Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.
Haidt claims that conservatives value all of these in a balanced way while liberals don’t, but that is obviously not true if one were to look beyond just Haidt’s research… or rather it isn’t as simple as Haidt presents it.
For example, openness to experience is the moral value that is opposite of purity. Haidt doesn’t recognize openness to experience as a moral value. He takes the biased position that liberals lack the moral value of purity instead of pointing out that conservatives lack the moral value of openness to experience.
As another example, consider the moral value of loyalty. Haidt doesn’t consider that to be loyal to one narrow group means to be disloyal to other groups. Liberals have a grander vision of loyalty that includes all of humanity and so in fact liberals value loyalty more than conservatives. It’s because liberals value loyalty to all of humanity that liberals seek care, fairness, justice, and respect for all humans, not just humans that are part of one’s group.
Furthermore, Haidt is conflating a specific period of history with all of human nature. We are in a divisive time and conservatives are good at dominating during such times. Conservatives do so not by bringing Americans together but by turning Americans against each other.
Haidt has too narrow of a focus and is using too narrow of a set of data. His lack of a larger psychological and historical context causes him to offer conclusions that are so limited as to be limiting and maybe to offer solutions that are the opposite of helpful. Haidt does offer some useful insights, but his views are confused and represent only a small piece of a very large puzzle.
In studying Haidt’s view, discern the truths in his theory from the trash of his speculations. Take Haidt’s suggestion of being willing to listen by not responding to Haidt’s bias with an opposite bias. In this, Haidt is suggesting that one should listen to all point of views according to the liberal moral value of openness to experience. In being liberal-minded myself, I agree.
* * *
After writing the above, I checked out some book reviews. One reviewer discussed the specific moral foundations and it turns out that Haidt now includes 6 moral foundations in his model:
What was added is Liberty. That makes the model slightly more balanced and unbiased. Liberty is one of the liberal moral values that Haidt was originally ignoring or not noticing. Liberty would be closely related to the psychological trait of ‘openness to experience’, but it wouldn’t capture the full meaning of Openness (especially as it correlates to MBTI intuition and Hartmann’s thin boundary type). Openness is something that conservatives would consider amoral at best and immoral at worst.
Haidt claims that conservatives value all the moral foundations equally and that liberals only value three of them strongly. I just don’t see the evidence for that claim. First of all, I’m not sure what Haidt even means by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. If he is going by self-identified labels, then his research isn’t very useful. Data shows that many self-identified conservatives hold many liberal views. Many people don’t want to identify as ‘liberal’ in America because the label has become a slur. So, Haidt may be getting results of ‘conservatives’ being more balanced because that label in America includes not only conservatives but also many liberals, not to mention many libertarians as well. Self-identified labels are beyond useless if actual ideological/political views aren’t considered.
Even in this new and improved model with Liberty included, the same basic criticism remains. Haidt claims that liberals don’t value Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. He comes to this conclusion because he defines these moral foundations in terms of positive vs negative rather than as a neutral dichotomy or spectrum (as seen in other psychological research: MBTI functions and FFM traits). The opposite of Loyalty isn’t betrayal. Challenging authority is also a moral foundation. Authorities can tell a person to do something immoral in which case it would be moral to ‘betray’ Authority. If we reversed the last three moral foundations to be biased toward liberals (Independence as moral strength opposed to Blind Allegiance as moral weakness; Questioning opposed to Blind Obedience; and Openness/Curiosity opposed to Fear/Hatred/Prejudice toward what is new, different or ‘other’), then the opposite conclusion would follow: Liberals have a balance of all moral foundations and conservatives only value three moral foundations.
This brings me to a review that hits the nail on the head:
“One of the main difficulties is that the author is not straightforward with his premises. By the subtitle we know this book is going to be about “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. But the author does not tell us his hypothesis until we’re nearly finished with the book. Indeed, he admits on page 274 that he hasn’t even established a definition of `morality’ by that point. “You’re nearly done reading a book on morality, and I have not yet given you a definition of morality.” As a matter of fact, he never really does define morality (he offers a definition of `moral systems’, not `morality’), and so it is impossible to make a reasonable assessment of this argument, supposedly on morality.
“His rationale for doing this gives the show away: “The definition I’m about to give you would have made little sense back in chapter 1. It would not have meshed with your intuitions about morality, so I thought it best to wait.” In other words, he needed to prepare the reader by giving preliminary arguments, the assumption being that only after those preliminaries were done, the real argument could be understood.
“But this is to conceal the point being made until after it has been made, and so no one can properly assess that point in the process. This amounts to a rhetorical trick to get people to accept the argument’s foundation and thus have a harder time denying the argument when it is finally presented. In the meantime, the objective reader will be left confused and a little frustrated–What point is he trying to make? Why is he being so elusive? Why doesn’t he come out and say what he means?
“This approach does conform to the theory, itself, however, one of whose main points is to diminish the role of reason and rationality. According to Haidt, people don’t really pay attention to reasonable arguments anyway, rather making decisions based on emotions and intuition. As such, he spends most of the book bypassing a reasonable argument.
“It is a shame because the theme is fairly interesting and deserves to be fleshed out in a good, straightforward argument. The argument, summed up by the definition of moral systems that Haidt offers (on page 274), is as follows:
“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”
“Basically, morality is an artificial construct geared toward making society work. Once we arrive at this thesis, we actually have something to work with and much of the material leading up to this point finds its place. Of course, one will still have questions about the thesis and the various proofs offered in defense, but at least one has substance to reflect on and test.”
The reviewer clarifies his criticism in a comment below the review:
“Though, it is also par for the philosophical course to begin with definitions of the relevant terms. Without this crucial first step, it is possible to build arguments around movable goals, which is nothing more than sophistry.”
The above review caused me to look for some other critical reviews. Here is one review that, among other criticisms, points out a flaw in Haidt’s defense of religion (specifically conservative religion as Haidt apparently doesn’t deal with liberal religious/spiritual views, practices and institutions):
“Haidt asks later “Why are conservative and religious people happier and more generous than liberal and secular people?” but neither of those claims is quite true. In fact, Wikipedia’s look at religion and happiness notes the following:
“The individual level of happiness and religiosity correlations show up when measuring within the United States, a predominantly religious country where people without religion are outsiders. According to a 2007 paper by Liesbeth Snoep in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness in the Netherlands and Denmark, countries that have lower rates of religion than the United States so that being without religion is not unusual. According to the Gallup World Poll survey conducted between 2005 and 2009 Denmark is the happiest country in the world, and the Netherlands rank fourth.”
“I would suspect that belonging to many demographic groups (Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.) is related to happiness to the extent that those groups also comprise the majority of their society. One could make a reasonable assumption that life is easier for those whose life situations are most readily acceptable in their society, leading to increased individual happiness. I’ll quote here from a previous post on cross-cultural studies to point out how poorly religion does on measures of societal happiness:
“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies…”
“As far as the “more generous” claim, it is also less straightforward than Haidt’s statement might make it seem. Boston Globe’s Christopher Shea suggested, after reviewing the 2006 book Who Really Cares? that ignited the “stingy liberal” stereotype, that we look closely at the numbers before believing the conclusion. Evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber looked at the issue here and here, noting that older people have more disposable income and more time to volunteer. He points out that “when age is statistically controlled, there is no difference between religious and nonreligious people in the value of their gifts to secular charities.””
And here is another review that confronts Haidt’s two part claim that conservatives are more intuitive about morality and that intuition is superior to intellect:
“He thinks morality is predominantly intuitive but it’s not quite clear in Marc Perry’s account why this leads Haidt to feel that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”
“Human nature may indeed consist of moral imperatives “etched into our brains” through evolution but evolution is a process and simply because some people retain a sense of morality based on mankind’s earliest conditions doesn’t mean that those feelings are confined to those narrower, original concepts. Reasoning comes from experiences and as the human condition changes those experiences broaden our understanding and allow us to see things outside the original box.
“The more intellectual conservatives use reason to explain their so-called intuitive morality as opposed to the “grunt” conservative whose sense of morality is more a gut-level reaction – “I can’t explain it but I know it’s wrong”. Yet this was pretty much the path taken by liberal Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on his ruling regarding a case about hard-core pornography. The subjective nature of hard-core porn is one of those issues that lacks clearly defined parameters and beyond what had to that point been attempted to describe it in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, Potter simply declared that “I know it when I see it”.”
[ . . . ]
“What it does suggest is that if there is an intuitive gene for morality it is not something that makes us more politically conservative.”