Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist best known for his work on moral foundations, the basic dimensions along which peoples' moral intuitions vary. These include care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Interestingly, Haidt's research suggests that while conservatives bring all these dimensions to bear upon moral deliberation, liberals and libertarians use only the first three. His ''money'' plot shows how much people with different politics care about a given moral concern. Much of Haidt's new book, ''The Righteous Mind'' is devoted to explaining these dimensions and findings.
Haidt worries about acrimony between liberals and conservatives in contemporary America (his book is subtitled ''Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion''), and thinks his work elucidates this disagreement. We simply have different moral "taste-buds", he says. It is not just disagreement he is interested in however, but moral incomprehension, failing to understand someone on the opposite side, or why he isn't a moral monster despite his views. Here he places more blame on the liberal side. One reason is that the overwhelmingly liberal academy and cultural elite participate in group-think and ignore insights from the other side. In his last chapter calling for political understanding, Haidt brings up people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert Putnam, also insisting on the value of market libertarianism and spontaneous order. He notes that science itself can suffer from political considerations, a star witness being the sociobiology wars of the 1970s. One can push back here - shall we stock Biology Departments with creationists, mightn't conservatives have ''differing interests'' as they suggest with gender representation, etc. Nevertheless, I do think he has a point, and won't pursue this argument further.
Haidt's more interesting claim is that while conservatives deploy all the liberal moral criteria, liberals lack access to key conservative intuitions pertaining to loyalty, authority and sanctity. People from ''Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic'' backgrounds are disproportionately likely not to possess the full human moral palate. Hence, when asked to predict other peoples' moral responses, conservatives and moderates typically model liberals well. Liberals instead might be describing sweet-and-sour chicken while lacking sourness tastebuds. The left does often display cluelessness about rightwing motivations - consider only the post-2004 view that Americans were being 'duped' into voting for Bush, as if Kansans couldn't have non-economic, illiberal concerns of their own. Mind you, I suspect cultural Balkanization and homogeneity matter more here than any "palate" differences.
Haidt also reviews evidence that the mind principally responds quickly and intuitively , not via rational deliberation. The image presented is of an elephant (intuition and emotion) and a rider (the consciously reasoning mind) where the elephant is largely in control. I do not have much to say here, and will direct the review to the rest of the book, focusing on a few points. First, the question of ''moral tastes'' and possible ways in which this model loads the die. I then suggest some fairly obvious political questions Haidt might address with his framework. Then I get to ''the evolution stuff.'' This is the bulk of my criticism, so I quickly summarize it by saying that I don't understand why Haidt needs a biological framework, much less a group selectional one, that his conclusions acquire only Science-y luster from it, and that he's just pretending to obtain this framework from biology anyway.
A word on ''emotional'' matters: Haidt intends to challenge liberal complacency, so some liberal irritation is unavoidable. This is exacerbated by Haidt's unfortunate tendency to conflate psychological and philosophical claims where convenient. Much of the book implicitly suggests conservatives are ''right'', but backs away from direct argument (but note his opponents are everywhere called WEIRD!) Then at the end, Haidt switches open-faced to saying that his findings lead him to conclude conservatives are actually right, about happiness, community, welfare and diversity. I found myself shaking my head at the conversion narrative tone here.
The usefulness of Haidt-the-evangelist to your thinking will likely depend on your openness to his conservative heroes. People who think conservatives are monsters with no brains and smaller hearts, will learn to think better by persevering through their heartburn. Those instead, who're sympathetically acquainted with some of his great heroes (Hume and Durkheim everywhere, some Burke, Hayek and Smith), might find his presentation uncritical, bordering on cheerleading. Doubtless this dichotomy is fraught; practically speaking, the first group has a predominantly third person existence! Anyway, while Haidt's biases are significant, he is valuable for liberals looking to scrutinize their moral presuppositions. In reading, one does well to watch out for the irritation, consciously deciding case-by-case whether to follow or swallow it. Contra Haidt, an ''emotional'' reading of the book probably will be inferior to a ''rational'' one! Despite my positive rating (I end up with 3.5/5), the following content frequently won't be. Whether this is valid counterpoint or residual irritation, I cannot say. But let's begin.
Foundations: Equally Basic?
One issue with the ''taste-buds'' view of morality is that different cuisines differ in levels of sourness or which flavors mix, but they don't decide salty foods are unusable. Nor do cuisines restrict to single tastes, while even hedonistic utilitarianism has seemed plausible to people from different cultures and times. The taste-bud analogy allows for tastes differing in importance (most people prefer sweet to bitter) but not readily for tastes being rejected wholesale. Further, the omitted moral flavors have a certain specificity - there are schools relying largely on harm and fairness, or even just on fairness, but none relying only on authority, in-group loyalty and purity, to say nothing of idiosyncratic combinations like only liberty and purity or only fairness and hierarchy. I suspect this fact ties to an interesting feature of Haidt's ''moral dumbfounding'' studies. Haidt examines situations where he elicits strong moral responses from people, who are nevertheless unable to account for them:
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?
The point is clear - most people want to call this wrong, but by construction lack the needed reasons (Haidt would say rationalizations). They are ''dumbfounded'', unable to rationally justify their judgment but unwilling to reject their strong intuitions. The book provides many such enjoyable examples. Now Haidt notes that people differ in how much they need reason to ground moral judgment. ''Normal'' people basically don't reason much in dumbfounding tests, period, and are fairly comfortable with their intuitions. They say incredulously ''You're kidding right? What do you mean why is eating babby / burning Bible / bashing country wrong?'' Only some people desire rational argumentation to bolster deep-seated intuitions.
The puzzle here is the specificity in the moral bases reasoning people get dumbfounded about. No-one experiences discomfort when asked WHY juicing babies to make a refreshing smoothie is wrong - people shrug and say that the wrongness of harming the innocent is an appropriate first principle. The question is why more people don't do this while reasoning non-WEIRD-ly. Why don't they, thinking about a man having sex with a dead chicken before eating it, say: ''See, masturbation itself is icky. Dead, cold, raw meat is a really icky target for sexual lust. Plus it's a different species, which is extraordinarily icky. Add all that, and the total ickiness is way off the charts. We have then excellent reasons for strong moral disapproval.'' Such an ick-reasoner, far from being dumbfounded, would see himself as having argued from sound premises.
One reason for high overlap between the reasoning and the WEIRD subsets (one perhaps not to Haidt's rhetorical purpose) might be that reasons really do to pick out certain values, that thinking things through makes it harder to see purity as being valuable, or authority as having fundamental value. The two L's experience the tugs of loyalty and authority (and subversion!), but want to reduce them to deeper principles. They get squicked out too, but sometimes think that's irrelevant. It's true that liberals are less neat and tidy than conservatives, and less thrown by fart smells. But liberals do find chicken-sexing very icky, and most would proscribe bestiality using harm/consent based rationalizations. Instead, given social salience, there is conscious rejection over time of previously uncontested moral implications. As obvious example, I doubt there's dramatic change since 1960 in the psychological responses of liberals concerning men having anal sex. Indeed, Haidt's dumbfounding data show interesting patterns: in societies showing variation along moral dimensions, education, wealth, and adulthood all tend to turn down the non-WEIRD knobs. Maybe the other knobs are really for uneducated children in Hobbesian social milieus :)
Things to do with Foundations
Haidt administers detailed questionnaires to hundreds of thousands (!) of respondents, cataloguing attitudes and demographics. He then provides big-picture observations, like that libertarians value liberty then fairness then care, while liberals value care then liberty then fairness. Great, but this isn't news! What would be valuable is not such ordering, but breaking up along particular political and moral questions:
- Environment: with increasing interest in recycling (say), what happens to scores along Harm? Or in-group - maybe (non) recyclers are a group that hates outsiders! Conservative wags call ''Recycling'' a liberal religion built around defilement of the land. Well, how right are they?
- Obesity: break down concern along emergency care (fairness/care), feeling superior to the fat (in-group), body-as-temple (sanctity), the economic profile of obesity (hierarchy) and attitude to fat taxes (liberty)
- Liberals often distrust business where libertarians distrust governments. Are the underlying moral profiles here the same, just with different targets? How (much) do they differ?
- Sensitivity to age/power differentials in sexual relationships. How does this vary with politics, also the hierarchy foundation? Is disgust (fifty year old men sleeping with women half their age) implicated?
- Anti-globalization: across groups (particularly liberals), how does Loyalty compare with Care? Are liberals opposed to globalization as internationalist or is there extra in-group preference?
I imagine as you read you'll think up innumerable relevant questions. Well, tough, there's just that one high-statistics plot. To be sure, it's hard to make causal claims, but even relatively uninterpreted lexical orderings would be fascinating. Or just provide demographic break-ups! Do women and men weigh foundations differently? Do baby boomers differ from the ''me generation''? City dwellers from exurbs? The information provided is very useful, it just leaves one thirsting.
The Evolution Jazz
Haidt has conducted surveys, uncovered patterns in responses with numerical analysis, and found labels (like 'harm' or 'loyalty') that he can loosely map those patterns onto. He gives a rich description of human moral variation. It's fine for his model to be largely phenomenological; what matters is how much is explained about the world with a reasonably tractable conceptual scheme. Indeed, Haidt suggests some candidate extra dimensions peeking out of the data besides his current ones: they include ''honesty'', ''property/ownership'', and ''waste/inefficiency.'' This sounds fascinating; I wouldn't have relegated it to an unremarked-upon endnote.
Haidt wants to tie his framework to something deeper though, and the go-to shiny thingamabob is evolutionary biology. He tries to bubble the foundations out from facts about human evolutionary history, so Care comes from parental investment in offspring; Fairness is about managing cooperative projects; Loyalty is about handling threats to your group, you get the drift. The most obvious issue here is that these explanations are frankly not that interesting (Hierarchy is about dominance hierarchies? You don't say.) With the exception of the 'purity' dimension (more on this later) nothing clever seems to follow.
The Evolution of Foundations Theory
The bigger problem though is how the foundations-evolution link is presented. From his book, you can see that early on Haidt used three moral dimensions: Autonomy, Community and Divinity. Later he augmented to Suffering, Hierarchy, Reciprocity, and Purity. Then a colleague pointed out the value of breaking Hierarchy into Loyalty and Authority, so he came to: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.↑ But libertarians felt their moral concerns weren't being represented well in 5D. So he broke up Fairness into Fairness (fairness-as-proportionality) and Liberty (freedom-from-oppression). He has an excellent discussion about how these differ psychologically, how different groups differ in sensitivities to proportionality and freedom, how liberty-as-freedom itself may be conceptualized in ways prioritizing being treated equally versus wanting to be let alone. But for Haidt such conceptual/quasi-empirical argument is insufficient. He invokes an interesting hypothesis for how Liberty evolved from Fairness as humanoids acquired tools:
Imagine early hominid life as a tense balance of power between the alpha (and an ally or two) and the larger set of males who are shut out of power. Then arm everyone with spears. The balance of power is likely to shift when when physical strength no longer decides the outcome of every fight. That’s essentially what happened, Boehm suggests, as our ancestors developed better weapons for hunting and butchering beginning around five hundred thousand years ago, when the archaeological record begins to show a flowering of tool and weapon types. Once early humans had developed spears, anyone could kill a bullying alpha male.
Notice how ad-hoc this is (and weaker chimps cannot bash alpha-chimp without tools? Really?), and also how little it buys, at least if the goal is to characterize variation in moral responses. The problem here is not that N keeps increasing: there's no fundamental fact about how rich survey data will be. You stop breaking out new dimensions when a) respondents feel adequately characterized and b) when you've pegged them well enough for your purposes. Nor does this reveal some flaw in evolutionary argumentation - evolution doesn't really care about the numerology of distinct Platonic categories anyway. The point rather is how Haidt actually did his work - he spoke to colleagues, looked at anthropological literature, analyzed data and administered tests. Acting like evolutionary argumentation deeply shaped his thought seems like prestige-seeking, and that in a rather cargo-cultish way.
Nor is evolutionary ethics novel - philosophers spend much time talking impenetrably about how the evolution of an intuition might affect our assessment of it. The fundamental issue is to connect natural history to ethics - that morals evolved, I take it, is not disputed. Katharine Hepburn stated a perspective here that sharply contrasts with Haidt's! Haidt sidesteps with typical humble psychologist schtick, but here especially we should be skeptical, since he seeks the imprimatur of Science for his normative preferences.
Group Theory, With Ding of Gould
The most distinctive feature of Haidt's evolutionary method though is his emphasis on group selection. He wants to explain not just human selfishness, but also altruism or groupishness. Group selection is clearly a useful handle if available, but is also famously controversial. Central for Haidt is what he calls the Glauconian question: whether it is better to seem or be virtuous. I was surprised here at Haidt ignoring an obvious move: others try not to be taken in by us even as we try to take them in. They run the same ''hardware'' as us, and have extremely well-trained methods for avoiding deception. People even take inability to "read" someone as reason to distrust. Selection might then shape our motives, not just our moves, since being is at least a pretty effective way of seeming.
Haidt also mentions Robert Trivers on reciprocal altruism several times, and notes the problem of one-off altruism toward strangers. In a section titled ''We Lie, Cheat, and Justify So Well That We Honestly Believe We Are Honest'' he notes:
People didn’t try to get away with as much as they could. Rather, when [Dan] Ariely gave them anything like the invisibility of the ring of Gyges, they cheated only up to the point where they themselves could no longer find a justification that would preserve their belief in their own honesty.
Surprisingly, he does not here or elsewhere reference Trivers on self-deception - before fooling others it helps to fool yourself, because they are trying to catch you out. Generally, I didn't find Haidt adequately granting the power of ordinary, non-group dynamics, even suggesting that homo economicus does not understand gratitude:
Suppose a coworker offers to take on your workload for five days so that you can add a second week to your Caribbean vacation. How would you feel? Homo economicus would feel unalloyed pleasure, as though he had just been given a free bag of groceries. But the rest of us know that the bag isn’t free. It’s a big favor, and you can’t repay your coworker by bringing back a bottle of rum.
Speaking purely as a layman, I am unsure Haidt is steady enough here to write a book.
Regardless, the last third of the book leans heavily on group selection. It buys therefrom people cohering and losing themselves in a group purpose, particularly via religion (and there's sanctity for you.) On the way, Haidt stops to discuss evidence that, contrary to Steven Jay Gould's somewhat political reassurances, evolution didn't stop 40k years ago, that it might even have sped up with agriculture, population growth and civilization. This is intriguing, and may leave some liberal scientists (and many anthropologists and sociologists) with egg on their faces. However, again he suggests some deep connection between this and group selection. That evolution did not stop is just common sense though, ditto that social/cultural niches are perfectly cromulent targets for selection. As for rates, and impact, I'd assume these are empirical questions. Since Haidt's point here is not primarily scientific, he might have used the ''natural'' hook instead: any moral system can generate sacred concerns, and academics should avoid political monocultures.
Back to groups. Haidt makes much of something called a ''hive-switch'', which supposedly turns on tribal cohesion in people through transcendental experience. There follows a long discussion demonstrating that people have such "switches", invoking drug-induced feelings of oneness with universe, the phenomenon of awe ♠, and how raves are similar to energetic tribal dancing. I daresay, but we don't need persuasion that we experience such feelings, do we? A fact of introspection, surely. I am rather surer that people can experience cohesion through transcendental experience than I am of Haidt's evo musings, or that there is a physical or conceptual brain ''switch'' for the purpose.
Religion, With Ding of Dawkins
Haidt's conception of society and religion is Durkheimian: understanding individuals doesn't exhaust social analysis, the social/sacred level is meaningful with its own facts, people in societies experience feelings of oneness, wholeness and togetherness from which if you estrange them you create anomie, etc. For someone boosting ''non-standard'' moral foundations, this is a very sensible approach. He strongly dislikes the attitude of the ''New Atheists'' [NAs] to religion, and explains that religion helps people achieve cohesion and social capital, charity and ultimately happiness. The NAs do tend to underplay results finding value in religion - charity data most obviously. It seems likely too that religion played a considerable role in history, and probably wasn't just a ''side-effect'' of something else.
Like many opponents of the NAs though, Haidt thinks (against their actual arguments, about opening religion to strong public criticism, making the atheist community politically salient, and raising consciousness) the NAs expect to wipe out religion in short order via forceful writing. Also, should we - especially after so much group talk - ignore the intuitive trend that more religious societies worldwide tend to be worse off? Instead, the only cross-national (or cross-temporal) comparison I saw from Haidt involved the falling birthrates of European societies. The secular liberal, looking back upon three centuries of dismantling/transforming traditional structures and producing enlightenment-enriched societies, might well feel complacent despite anomie and first world problems. Anyway, the meat of Haidt's analysis comes from Durkheim pure, not from his plodding, selective retconning of Durkheim into Darwin. Determining whether religion benefits society is a job principally for social science, not biology, still less speculative storytelling. The Putnams and Moynihans stand on their own, so to speak.
Allow me some tongue-in-cheek deconstruction here. Why Haidt might wade into these waters, before even fully analyzing the juicy data he's sitting on? I think it's Bhubaneshwar. Dude went there in the eighties, and had a lovely time living with people obsessed with rituals, purity, hierarchy and spirituality:
My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and dissonance. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen, not speaking to me the entire evening. I was told to be stricter with my servants, and to stop thanking them for serving me. I watched people bathe and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms.
It only took a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me…Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, protecting subordinates, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important.
This Elizabeth Gilbert moment affected him deeply. Ever since he's felt very uncomfortable with Ugly Americans, and has been moonlighting as Kevin Costner. He too protects his beloved Indians from secular criticism, especially of the really nasty atheistic variety. Unfortunately, unlike with loyalty, it's hard to convince good liberals that there's anything noble about all this pollution/purity stuff. The unreformed liberal might even respond to Haidt that conservatives have accumulated dirt which obscures the central business of ethics! Durkheim goes somewhere, but to properly protect anything these days, you need Science. And not just any science - there's no uplifting story to tell about purity and disgust that involves bugs, hygiene or incest - ergo the connection between Durkheimian religion and group selection. Then he can truly bash meanies like Dawkins and Sam Harris (who, to be fair, is the Ringo of the NAs. There's not much going on upstairs, whether about religion or about anything else) having the Science stick at hand.
Let me sum up. The first two-thirds of the book, especially the middle dealing with his Foundations, is intriguing and provocative. Indeed, what I'd really want is for this portion to be doubled with analysis - think too how many more TED talks and book contracts Haidt would get out of thirty more topical plots! The first portion I have only casually remarked upon. It's useful as counterbalance to someone who acts like reason is almost all of ethics. The last four chapters though were substantially speaking wastes of time for me. Reading nice things about conservatives and religion is good tonic for godless liberals, but could no-one at his publishing company stop Haidt from generating (lossy?) compression of the two Wilsons? I rate overall at 3.5 stars out of five, say 4/5 4.5/5 and 2/5 for the three parts.