Against “The Righteous Mind”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (TRM) by Jonathan Haidt is a book that has been praised widely including by libertarians and conservatives.

Haidt is not explicitly insulting non-left-wing people or calling for them to be deplatformed, but this is the only good feature of TRM. TRM shares the same flaws as other psychology books: the author treats his moral philosophy as if it’s a factual description of the world while ignoring criticisms of his ideas. He describes libertarians, conservatives and lefties without explicitly explaining and discussing their ideas and pretends to be above the fray.

In the Introduction Haidt writes:

Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

So everyone’s moral ideas are just excuses for what they want to do anyway. According to Haidt the unenlightened non-psychologists are fooled into thinking there are important objective differences between their worldviews.

Haidt claims there are six types of morality:

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Haidt is implicitly assuming there are no moral explanations. All people do is mix different tastes. Trying to cram every idea into this model prevents him from considering arguments for or against different worldviews.

In Chapter Three Haidt writes:

The current triggers of the Fairness modules include a great many things that have gotten linked, culturally and politically, to the dynamics of reciprocity and cheating. On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation—wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden. This is a major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which I visited in October 2011 (see figure 7.5). On the right, the Tea Party movement is also very concerned about fairness. They see Democrats as “socialists” who take money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

Haidt completely ignores moral explanations that the welfare state hurts welfare recipients by making them dependent on government and encouraging them to envy and hate other people: see the description of Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Haidt also ignores explanations that say giving out welfare on the state’s behalf corrupts and harms welfare statists. For a description of this see the character of Catherine Halsey in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, who starts working as a social worker and changes as a result (Part Two, Chapter 13):

In the last few years, with her uncle’s help, she had become an able social worker. She held a paid job in a settlement house, she had a small bank account of her own; she took her friends out to lunch, older women of her profession, and they talked about the problems of unwed mothers, self-expression for the children of the poor, and the evils of industrial corporations.

“But that’s not all. There’s something much worse. It’s doing something horrible to me. I’m beginning to hate people, Uncle Ellsworth. I’m beginning to be cruel and mean and petty in a way I’ve never been before. I expect people to be grateful to me. I…I demand gratitude. I find myself pleased when slum people bow and scrape and fawn over me. I find myself liking only those who are servile. Once…once I told a woman that she didn’t appreciate what people like us did for trash like her. I cried for hours afterward, I was so ashamed. I begin to resent it when people argue with me. I feel that they have no right to minds of their own, that I know best, that I’m the final authority for them. There was a girl we were worried about, because she was running around with a very handsome boy who had a bad reputation, I tortured her for weeks about it, telling her how he’d get her in trouble and that she should drop him. Well, they got married and they’re the happiest couple in the district. Do you think I’m glad? No, I’m furious and I’m barely civil to the girl when I meet her. Then there was a girl who needed a job desperately–it was really a ghastly situation in her home, and I promised that I’d get her one. Before I could find it, she got a good job all by herself. I wasn’t pleased. I was sore as hell that somebody got out of a bad hole without my help. Yesterday, I was speaking to a boy who wanted to go to college and I was discouraging him, telling him to get a good job, instead. I was quite angry, too. And suddenly I realized that it was because I had wanted so much to go to college–you remember, you wouldn’t let me–and so I wasn’t going to let that kid do it either….Uncle Ellsworth, don’t you see? I’m becoming selfish. I’m becoming selfish in a way that’s much more horrible than if I were some petty chiseler pinching pennies off these people’s wages in a sweatshop!”

Haidt also can’t deal with economic arguments against socialism and government intervention in the economy, which are relevant to why conservatives, libertarians and Objectivists see problems with the welfare state. All of the arguments I have mentioned are relevant to understanding the thoughts and feelings of welfare opponents, so Haidt’s book doesn’t work as an explanation of those thoughts and feelings. As a result, it won’t help lefty people understand the right well and it hasn’t done so.

In addition to obscuring understanding Haidt’s approach requires harming the side that is in the right on any particular issue. To avoid taking a side he has to avoid stating their arguments. He also has to avoid stating arguments from the wrong side that make them look bad. The effect of this attempt at neutrality will bias the discussion toward the wrong side.

Haidt’s book has some of the same problems with explaining lefty ideas and motives. But Haidt is biased toward the left, as illustrated by passages like this:

Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical. Liberals marched for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and secularism. The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity. I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism. We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies out of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!). We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals.

So in Haidt’s view righties don’t care about reducing harm or increasing fairness because they didn’t support left wing coercive government policies that claimed to address these problems. But some right wing people think the state is one of the main reasons for a lot of the harms and unfairness in the world. The policies suggested by the left would give the state more power that it would use to harm people unfairly.

More from the Introduction:

A slave is never supposed to question his master, but most of us can think of times when we questioned and revised our first intuitive judgment. The rider-and-elephant metaphor works well here. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, but it’s a dignified partnership, more like a lawyer serving a client than a slave serving a master. Good lawyers do what they can to help their clients, but they sometimes refuse to go along with requests. Perhaps the request is impossible (such as finding a reason to condemn Dan, the student council president—at least for most of the people in my hypnosis experiment). Perhaps the request is self-destructive (as when the elephant wants a third piece of cake, and the rider refuses to go along and find an excuse). The elephant is far more powerful than the rider, but it is not an absolute dictator.

Haidt’s model of decision making is wrong. In reality, a person chooses some particular option when he makes a choice. That option is picked according to some standard even if the standard isn’t stated. That standard is doing the work in that decision. A man might make a choice to have bareback sex with a woman despite the risk of getting her pregnant or catching a STD because he is not willing to resist his desire to have sex if he is very horny. He has chosen to value being horny and to interpret his horniness as an indication that he should have sex. The strength of his sensations of horniness wouldn’t lead to sex if he chose to interpret them differently, as a sign of being sinful, say. In addition he could choose not to get into situations that he knows will result in him being horny if he didn’t want to be horny, as many married men do. So Haidt is actually picking his positions according to an unstated and uncriticised standard.

Many people are praising and quoting TRM because they think it gives them some understanding of people with different political views and preferences. It doesn’t. Pretending that TRM is a solution to current controversies or contributes much toward solving them is a very serious mistake. The only way to solve a controversy in any lasting way is critical discussion.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

One Response to Against “The Righteous Mind”

  1. People put so much work into avoiding rational debate.

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