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.