Review: The Righteous Mind

By Damien Pace

“Why good people are divided by politics and religion.” Damien Pace reviews Jonathan Haidt’s work.

Jonathan Haidt traverses the realms of psychology, anthropology, evolutionary science, ethics and philosophy in his comprehensive claim that morality is derived from biological causes and that these moral pillars underlie our political world Haidt’s claims are several. Firstly that our individual decision making is largely based on impulsive moral instincts rather than considered reason. Secondly that morality is based on biological impulses that have the effect of enabling human cooperation. Thirdly that morality can be traced to six core concepts within all societies. These and their opposites include: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation. Fourthly right wing morality is more developed than the left because it taps into all six moral drives, while left wing morality only addresses the first three.

Haidt, a psychologist, uses many examples and survey findings to support his arguments. For example the following: A man buys a fresh chicken, takes it home, has sex with it, cleans and sterilises it, then cooks and eats it. Is there anything wrong with this? Such questions are designed to demonstrate that our instincts can lead us to conclusions that our reason might not be able to support and that in practice reason operates to justify already made decisions. Another hilarious cited example is that personal knowledge of morality doesn’t improve behavior. Ethics students are more likely to steal books from the library than any other category of student.

The implications of the work are several. Homo economicus, the idea that we are rational maximisers of our individual good is undermined in the face of evidence that we are driven by moral and instinctive impulses. The Western priority on individualism is weakened as we’re demonstrated to be also instinctively communal. Very importantly right wing or conservative thought is given evolutionary legitimacy. It’s correct to be patriotic, respectful of authority and aware of matters of the divine as these are all impulses that create necessary group cohesion. New Atheism is also attacked on the grounds that the “sanctity” impulse is crucial for successful social unity and individual self-sacrifice.

Overall Haidt’s is an important contribution. We live in a reality where politics is commonly partisan and resistant to reasonable argument. His attempt to remove friction by saying that partisan opponents are followers of different moral priorities, rather than people who are simply mad, illogical, traitorous or evil, is praiseworthy. Having said this not all of Haidt’s claims add up. Left wingers are not purely focused on three of the six moral foundations. Ask a unionist at a picket line whether they care about loyalty/betrayal. Attend an environmental rally and you’ll hear religiously derived rhetoric that would impress an evangelist. Haidt’s biggest problem, as with all evolutionary psychology thought, is that it confuses the concepts of “is” and “ought”. Humanity might act in certain ways but is it “right” to do so? Aren’t some ideas of morality superior to others? Isn’t there more to morality than social cohesion? Can’t we overcome our baser impulses through will and moral education? In spite of unanswered questions, the work is highly insightful and I would recommend it for everyone interested in understanding human behavior.

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