Commentary on Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

We had the first of four symposia on Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind last night at Swarthmore. The hope is that we can demonstrate the distinctive advantages that a “liberal arts” approach can yield when many different scholars with different perspectives focus on the same object and join in conversation with each other. I thought we made some good strides towards that goal. Based on last night I’d say it’s going to be a conversation about different models of human agency and subjectivity, culture and sociality, morality and religion, and politics and political outcomes, with Haidt as the stimulus.

Last night’s theme was “the limits of reason” in relationship to morality. Haidt’s argument here is a largely consistent with the emerging consensus in much neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology that reason or consciousness are largely post-facto “storytelling” about our actions and practices, that most of what we do as people is “quick” and based on intuitive or subsurface thinking. The storytelling we do in our consciousness can complete a recursive feedback loop back into our intuitions, but in Haidt’s view, the storytelling or reasoning part of our minds does not govern most of what we think, do and say about morality and politics. (He uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider: our intuitive minds are the elephant, our conscious reasoning is a rider who creates narratives about why the elephant went where it did, but might occasionally actually steer the elephant in one direction or another.)

By the way, there’s an interesting discussion of Haidt’s book going on at the New York Times Stone Blog at the moment that’s very germane to what we’re doing at Swarthmore.

I chose to talk about the limits of Haidt’s arguments about reason, intuition, morality and politics when they’re seen in terms of a “much bigger N” of human societies and human personhood–both non-Western societies today and the entire set of all premodern cultures. So here are my remarks, more or less as I gave them. (Later on in the discussion that followed, I got really tangled up at one point because I was trying to talk about both intuitions and institutions: I think next time I’m going to try and use a different word for one of those concepts to keep myself from saying one when I mean the other.)


1. What I’m NOT going to do: make the conventional complaint that Haidt doesn’t have non-Western or premodern examples. Because, especially in the first half of the book, he does—and he has taken the need to do research outside of the United States far more seriously than most social or evolutionary psychologists. A major point of the book, in fact, is understanding the geographic, temporal and socioeconomic limits to what he calls “WEIRD” moral preferences (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic).

2. Three things I think he could learn from an even more extensive consideration of a “bigger N” of non-Western and premodern examples, however, in escalating terms of the degree to which they unsettle his argument.

a. In narrow terms, the argument of the second half of his book could be tested against a broader range of contemporary (and possibly past) examples. The argument is roughly as follows: that contemporary American conservatism is in his view more successful politically today because it appeals to the full range of intuitive moral “taste buds”, as he calls them, which are:

[care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation; liberty/oppression]

whereas liberal politics, he argues, rests on a strongly exclusive appeal to a much smaller repertoire of moral intuitions.

The next faculty panel at Swarthmore is going to talk about the extent to which they find this an accurate representation of the current state of U.S. politics. But I certainly think Haidt would benefit from asking comparatively: do political factions or movements elsewhere in the world (or in the past) achieve a greater degree of success in some respect (mobilization, legitimacy, etc.) when they speak to the fullest possible range of the moral intuitions that Haidt describes? It’s a very testable hypothesis, if you can define “political success” and measure with some rigor whether the followers of a party or movement respond strongly to the particular intuitions that Haidt has identified.

It’s possible that a “full palate” does correlate with political success, but I think the opposite is equally possible, maybe even more probable as I think on present and past political movements, that there are many successful political or social movements or parties that specialize in intense appeals to one or two moral “taste buds”.

Either because some of the moral intuitions that Haidt describes might mobilize smaller populations but mobilize them far more ardently or intensely (which is sometimes all you need to control political outcomes) or because most people, especially outside the WEIRD world, are very strongly satisfied by appeals to a very small subset of moral intuitions in the same way that a chocolate bar can appeal to most people just by being sweet and a touch bitter—it doesn’t get more appealing by adding sea salt and bacon, though it may gain more intense devotion from a smaller number of aficionados.

Haidt’s arguments about political and religious outcomes really require a huge “N” to be satisfying—the American exceptionalism of the second half of his book actually doesn’t pay off the universalism and attention to comparative analysis of the first half very well.

b. More ambitiously by far would be to consider how to read or interpret the nature of reason, morality and intuition on a bigger scale of comparison across time and space.

Haidt’s discussion of WEIRD morality makes clear that he’d welcome at least a modest version of this ambition.

He sees WEIRD morality as having a limited distribution not just in the contemporary world but as having a specific point of historical genesis, in the advent of industrialization, the rise of Western Europe, and the creation of modern social and political institutions after 1750.

Just in Haidt’s own terms, that means that major (and possibly minor) events can alter the distribution and influence of innate cognitive dispositions in human populations and the political and social practices that rest upon such distributions.

I don’t think his framework can offer much of a causal explanation for those events or exactly how they changed the distribution of cognitive preferences in human populations, but that’s ok, three centuries of frantic attempts to explain the causality of modernity by intellectuals across the disciplinary and philosophical spectrum haven’t led to any consensus on that point.

But why stop at one major event? If discrete events can change the distribution, intensity and expression of moral intuitions as Haidt describes them, then even relatively trivial or highly local events might be an important source of contingent political and cultural outcomes. Hold that thought—I’ll return to it shortly.

For the moment, let me point out that as soon as Haidt opens this door, two other kinds of variation come flying in. The first is the possibility that at some point in the past or in some place in the present, there are other “taste buds” in the cognitive palette or there is some other form of reason involved in mediating moral intuition. (In his NY Times post, Haidt makes more room for some form of ‘reason’ to modify moral intuitions than he does in the book.)

Let me briefly mention a famous debate between two anthropologists to get at this point: Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook and Sahlins’ How Natives Think, About Captain Cook For Example.

Obeyesekere said (crudely summarized): the Hawaiians’ couldn’t have thought Captain Cook was a god: that’s not rational; this is just a Western trope frequently used to organize and justify imperial conquest.

Sahlins said (equally crudely summarized): non-Western societies have had and still have their own forms of reason embedded in their distinct histories and cultures. We have to try and understand those forms of reason in their own terms to the extent to which we are able to do so.

There are problems with both books, but I’m going to go with Sahlins for the moment. What would it mean to try and think about Haidt’s analysis with much more attention to the specifics of some different ideas of reason, morality and intuition, past and present?

I’ll use the example of thinking about ‘invisible powers’, health, ‘witchcraft’, etc. in southern African societies in the last two centuries or so to illustrate the point.

i. Rough explanation of these dense and complicated ideas and assumptions: illness and misfortune have human agency behind them, but only indirectly so—people act against each other out of spite, jealousy, anger or the desire to enforce reciprocity, but it is believed that such action takes place through spiritual proxies (who are themselves often thought to be formerly human—ancestral spirits, spirits of unsettled migrants or indigenes, etc.). When you’re sick, someone else is responsible, but you might also be at fault because you’ve done something to offend or trespass. Managing health and welfare, including events that Westerners would usually characterize in naturalistic terms, is a matter of managing your social relations but also protecting yourself against vulnerability to malevolence and evil that uses spiritual or invisible power.

ii. These ideas could be plausibly translated into Haidt’s moral intuitions—fairness, loyalty and care are wrapped up in there somewhere. A lot of witchcraft discourse is about the maintenance of reciprocity.

iii. But the specific meanings and reasoning that many southern Africans use to talk about and interpret those intuitions produces strikingly different practices in everyday life. E.g., that they might have the same source intuitions is not really the interesting story here. The interesting story is about the content of different cultures, it’s about variation. The interesting story is, “Why were there episodes of witchfinding in northern South Africa after Mandela’s election in the mid-1990s” vs., say, “Why do majorities of voters vote against gay marriage initiatives in the United States in the last decade?” Talking about that comparison in terms of a universal underlying set of cognitive dispositions is at the very least overlooking what seems to matter most to the actual people involved in those actual decisions. Even if that’s the rider talking rather than the elephant moving. But what if that variation means that these are actually different animals altogether underneath the rider? Sometimes being ill or fearing illness in rural southern Africa occasions most of the same practices and outcomes, relative to resources, that it does right here in Swarthmore, but sometimes it’s a radically different experience with radically different outcomes.

c. This leads to my most far-reaching and unsettling challenge to Haidt.

There might be a way to usefully work out the relationship between universal cognitive or intuitive dispositions on morality and particular cultural and social discourses, expressions and practices about morality and politics across time and space. (and to decide which term in that relationship is most important or interesting for scholars to spend time describing or understanding).

But what if the content of morality in different cultures (and here I mean by that the practices and thinking that shape everyday life) is neither an outcome of underlying intuitions nor an outcome of philosophically or empirically rigorous reasoning that can be more and more perfected over time?

I mentioned earlier that Haidt acknowledges that the various changes associated with modernity made WEIRD morality more important and influential in human societies after 1750.

Throughout his book, he also takes note, sometimes implicitly, of the extent to which the specific content of prompts that provoke moral responses changes constantly, even within a given nation or society.

I’ll use an example of my own. When I was a kid, if I said that something sucked in the presence of my mother, she would visibly flinch and react with what I would say was intuitive moral disgust of the kind Haidt describes. This baffled me when I had no idea what that meant to her and many in her generation and I remained fairly indifferent even once I understood that she took it to be a very crass reference to oral sex.

The word stopped meaning that, but also even the referent became less likely to provoke a reaction from its transgression of a “sanctity” intuition in the wider culture. That’s not just WEIRDs vs. non-WEIRDs, it’s something more subtle about the way words, concepts, images and so on change fundamental aspects of their meanings, sometimes as rapidly as in a single week, a day, a conversation. A good metaphor (say, an elephant and its rider) can reorder or shift preferences in those that hear it–I think very possibly at the level of intuitive thought as well as conscious thought. (This is pretty much what theorists of “framing” argue, all the way back to Goffman, that a skilled persuader or performer can reorganize the underlying beliefs and thinking of his audience.)

We might look for strong or relatively invariant images, words or concepts that are more strongly tied to persistent cognitive intuitions. It is hard to believe that the image goatse (DO NOT GOOGLE THIS IF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN IT) will ever stop transgressing against sanctity. But in fact historians of the body know that practices most Americans today take to be instinctively, deeply revolting were once common or are common elsewhere—ingesting or applying fluids from the bodies of medieval saints, for example.

Haidt knows that these changes take place, but I don’t think he can account for why there should constantly be both minor and major changes in the content of moral sentiment, intuition and practice.

The argument that such changes stem from progress in either (or both) our philosophical and empirical understanding of what is moral has more familiar strengths and limitations.

What if some changes in the content of moral sentiment and practice are just an epiphenomenon, an emergent consequence of complex social structures?

Think of it this way: in Haidt’s sort of framework, early in human history, cognitive dispositions towards individual and group morality would be the outcome of evolutionary processes. (The “era of evolutionary adaptiveness” in evolutionary psychology.) At some point, those dispositions would have influenced the structure and content of the early social institutions characteristic of sedentary, agricultural and trading societies.

Let’s take one of the characteristic examples of such an institution: law. Which in those early societies in the Mediterranean and Near East clearly had a very dense, complicated relationship to morality, religion and politics.

If one of the outcomes of that relationship was a code—the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi’s code, Solon’s reforms—then that marks a point at which the expressive outcome of cognitive dispositions became something external to and somewhat independent of human cognition but which governed moral practices. Not necessarily because they were rational or intuitive. Just because, at some point. Don’t wear this color; don’t eat that thing; don’t make that gesture; don’t go to that place. Don’t marry that kind of person, don’t talk to that other kind.

Practices engender practices, sometimes without routing through intuition or reason.

Institutions become an environment to which some people adapt—e.g., some institutions create their own moral environments and grant power to certain agents to maintain the fitness landscape they establish. Law is a fantastic example of this. Inspector Javert no longer has his own moral intuitions in Les Miserables, save perhaps an overriding loyalty to the idea and institution of law. In Melville’s book Billy Budd, Captain Vere has to punish Billy Budd even though he knows Billy is innocent, because there’s laws and rules that are outside of him that force him to act in a particular way. Law, punishment, prison and so on are not really derived directly from the moral reason or moral intuition of other human actors. Institutions are shaped most crucially by the history of institutions. They’re path-dependent. They have their own form of non-human agency over the moral and political decisions that human beings make.

You could say that when sociopolitical institutions are too alienated from underlying cognitive preferences (or rigorous reasoning about preferable outcomes), they run the risk of sparking revolt or spurring reform—that intuitions (or reason) are a baseline or foundation. But that still means that institutions that address and regulate morality (law, churches, expressive culture, etc.) can become semi-independent of human will and thought even if they once upon a time emerged from them.

Those institutions change in ways that are caused neither by deep cognitive dispositions nor reasoning and evidence. My mother would have gotten a ruler across her hand from a teacher for saying something sucked, I got only an increasingly powerless motherly scolding or a red mark on a school essay, and my daughter gets nothing at all.

Sometimes singular events and stories in the public culture of a society—trials, scandals, performances, speeches, battles, traumas—are enough to shift the way that institutions interact with the content of moral life in everyday practice. And most such events are unplanned, unrehearsed, uncontrollable—full of contingency.

If in some sense the enforcement or regulation of our moral lives by our institutions can turn on singular, unplanned acts and events—and thus the expression of our moral intuitions or moral reasoning can change—then what we’re riding is less another animal with a mind of its own and more a sled hurtling down an endless, unpredictable slope in a moonlit winter night. It might be fun, it might be something we can steer now and again—but who knows when a bump might toss us skyward—or a tree halt our flight?

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1 Response to Commentary on Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

  1. Hestal says:

    If Charles Darwin were still alive, I think that he would say that Edward O. Wilson is one of those “naturalists having sound judgment and wide experience,” that we should listen to. Wilson has written many important books on various topics concerning evolution. His latest, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” may well be his most important. In it, he explains how human evolution has resulted in a fundamental conflict between behaviors that favor the success of the individual human and behaviors that favor the success of groups of humans. He says that these two conflicting behaviors have a genetic basis:

    “Alleles (the various forms of each gene) that favor survival and reproduction of individual group members at the expense of others are always in conflict with alleles of the same and alleles of other genes favoring altruism and cohesion in determining the survival and reproduction of individuals. Selfishness, cowardice, and unethical competition further the interest of individually selected alleles, while diminishing the proportion of altruistic, group-selected alleles. These destructive propensities are opposed by alleles predisposing individuals toward heroic and altruistic behavior on behalf of members of the same group. Group-selected traits typically take the fiercest degree of resolve during conflicts between rival groups.”

    Wilson’s conclusion is that this conflict, this struggle between two kinds of humans, has only one outcome:

    “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

    … In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.”

    I don’t know how this fits into what you are discussing, but it seems to me that morality has a genetic basis. I say, and I think that Wilson, Jimmy Carter, John Quincy Adams, John W. Dean, the American Psychiatric Association, Martha Stout, and others are saying that there are two kinds of human beings and they hold two different views of morality.

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