September 7, 2022
Drawing on strands of political psychology, moral philosophy, religion, and sociology, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Haidt 2012) does a great service for those scholars hoping to further develop interdisciplinary bridges. Conveying a complex web of ideas in skillfully crafted and accessible prose which makes his book that much more brilliant, Haidt (ibid.) has convinced us that he is indeed a public intellectual. Grounding this work in evolutionary psychology, Haidt (ibid.) masterfully ties together moral and political psychology with Durkheimian (1998) explanations for the function religion plays for society to develop a theory of moral systems within our social and political worlds. Backed by a great deal of quantitative and qualitative data that Haidt (2012) expertly details within the book, he purports that his Moral Foundations Theory can provide insight into the coevolution of genes and cultures to provide an explanation for political and religious differentiation and polarization. A daunting task indeed that he mostly accomplishes by presenting an elegant theoretical framework supported by meticulously collected data from across cultures and disciplines. This is certainly one of my favorite books that I have read during my career in Academia.
Taking a Darwinian/Durkheimian approach, Haidt (2012) provides an excellent synthesis of the two. He insists that natural selection must be conceived of as a multilevel phenomenon, that as genes and thus individuals evolve in ways that suit their continued survival, so too do those interactions between individual members of a group. Like many other evolutionary psychologists, such as Richard Dawkins, Haidt (2012) asserts that individual genetic adaptations have entirely served to ensure survival and reproduction. However, he contests that these genes are not necessarily ‘selfish’, as Dawkins and others do, and questions how groups of individuals could come together to accomplish a common goal if genetic mutations were indeed entirely selfish. Consequently, he embarks upon a campaign to exonerate an evolutionary theory of group-level selection, using multiple sources of data to affirm that group-level adaptations have been crucial to the emergence of civilization. He proclaims that homo sapiens are now moreso homo duplex, “a creature who exists at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society” (ibid.:261). He asserts that Durkheim, contrasting Freud and other thinkers that mostly focus on individual psychology, presents a more accurate explanation for how human beings came to form cohesive groups. Durkheim’s (1998) vision of society was wholly organic. He claimed that society ought to be conceived of as increasingly complex sets of organisms. In other words, groups of human individuals are best viewed as organisms of interacting cells, much like our bodies, and that these superorganisms operate in much the same way as individual organisms; they evolve into evermore complex organisms much like Man. Haidt (2012), subscribing to Durkheim’s (1998) social organicism, expertly argues that our reality is indeed a dualism: that we are adaptive individual organisms necessarily constituting adaptive superorganisms.
Haidt (2012) takes this further to suggest that the selfish gene identified by many of the New Atheist intellectuals like Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens, is not merely selfish; yes, our minds have adapted “to contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers” (Haidt 2012:221), but this must be only part of the story. These same selfish genes cannot possibly explain why we have become so adept at promoting the interests of those groups to which we belong. Moreover, historically speaking, individual selfish genes cannot entirely explain why certain groups succeed in competition with other groups over scarce resources. We must also be groupish, he insists, good team players whose team is best conceived of as a ‘social fact’, a truly independent entity that exists separate from its constituent members. It is by belonging to a group that individuals can experience the emotion of awe, that transcendental awe constituted by “two features: vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilate into our existing mental structures; we must ‘accommodate’ the experience by changing those structures)” (ibid.:264). Haidt’s (ibid.) transcendental moments are clearly drawn from Durkheim’s (1998) explanation of religiosity when the Sociologist states men know well they are acted upon, but they do not know by whom. So they must invent by themselves the idea of these powers with which they feel themselves in connection, and from that, we are able to catch a glimpse of the way by which they were led to represent them under forms that are really foreign to their nature and to transfigure them by thought. (Durkheim 1998:113)
Following this, Haidt (2012) insists that religiosity is an historical adaptation towards social enmeshment to benefit human society by generating “friendships and group activities, within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness” (ibid.:321). An adaptation towards social cohesion; a Durkheimian (1998) social psychologist indeed. Whereas the New Atheists focus on how religious beliefs of individuals can prove harmful, according to Haidt (2012) they overlook how religiosity serves the group as an evolutionary advantage, providing grounds for solidarity, cooperation, selflessness, and a gateway from the profane to the sacred. Haidt (ibid.) does not necessarily argue for the superiority of religion, but, following Durkheim (1998), he suggests that religion does indeed serve a function insofar as it is an expression of social cohesion, of binding individuals together, which, he suggests, is a crucial example of how evolution is a multilevel process operating on the individual- and the group-level. Alongside this proposition, he claims that these processes are interdependent, that genetic adaptation in the individual effects changes in cultural adaptation and vice versa. In other words, as human beings became more capable of dealing with their environment, they formed groups to better deal with their environment.
In this vein, Haidt (2012) points to a historical turning point, Homo heidelbergensis, the first evolutionary adaptation of man to “make complex weapons and then work together to hunt and kill large animals, which they brought back to a central campsite to be butchered, cooked, and shared” (ibid:243). This “shared intentionality” (ibid.:238) and “group-mindedness” (ibid.:240) was the critical element for mankind to burst forth across the globe and form societies. Using a large swathe of historical data, a compelling theoretical framework, and eloquent writing, Haidt (ibid.) makes an incredible case for exonerating group selection which had been “falsely convicted and unfairly banished” (ibid.:222) from sociological and psychological theorizing because it was believed that all group adaptations could be explained by individual adaptations.
Yet according to evolutionary theory, individual level adaptations have always derived out of self interest or reproduction, that individual level adaptations promote our own interests in competition with others. This concurs with a Hobbesian (2009) theory of man, which can explain how those individuals can outcompete others within the same group but cannot explain how one group outcompetes another. Yet recent history has been a dialectic of group conflict and the various winners have influenced the shape of civilization. It continues to this day in modern politics. Although Haidt’s (2012) discussion of evolutionary theory and group selection are perhaps the most compelling aspect of his book, he does discuss how these elements play into our political affairs, which is the proposed focus of his book. His Moral Foundations Theory is an extrapolation of the above evolutionary chain. He suggests that alongside the obvious individual physiological adaptations, group level adaptations occurred with respect to moral codes. Drawing on biological and neurological evidence that points to the roles of oxytocin and mirror neurons for facilitating ingroup coordination and cooperation, Haidt (ibid.) propounds a theory that morality is analogous to taste receptors; that, ethically-speaking, some acts are salty and some are sweet and we all have differently developed tastes.
From this he develops the idea that we contain some basic moral modules, like taste receptors, and that these modules are reducible to certain moral values, such as care and loyalty. According to Haidt (ibid.), depending on your genetic predisposition and the characterological developments of your youth, you will develop certain moral tastes. These tastes, he claims, become an intrinsic part of your character, a character that he compares to a rider and an elephant. This is a Humean analogy indicating that the passions, the elephant, direct the reason, the rider. To Haidt (ibid.), strategic reasoning is preceded and shaped by an intuitional response; that all reason is subject to the passions and is in fact only post hoc justifications for residing beliefs. These are your moral taste receptors, which are subject to change. Drawing again on evolutionary theory, he suggests that these ‘modules’ are not static, but can be ‘triggered’ by similar stimuli. For example, an evolutionarily imposed fear of snakes might be triggered by a ribbon or an oddly shaped stick. While subject to changes in possible triggers, these modules are largely set. Yet Haidt (ibid.) does not present them as a sort of continuous variable with an absolute zero, but instead as spectra, such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, and so on. By doing so I believe that he tries to avoid staking his claim that these characteristics are virtuous, that certain traits ought to be valued above others. Moreover, in his description of how these traits apply to populations of various political orientations, Haidt (ibid.) provides a trenchant and meticulous analysis. That is to say that he carefully develops his theoretical frame over the course of numerous data collection processes with multiple research instruments and, as such, it can be said that his inferences with respect to the moralities related to political orientations is highly valid.
Haidt’s (ibid.) findings, gathered from thousands of surveys, indicate that liberals tend to be universalists concerned with oppression and fairness as a matter of overall equality, whereas conservatives tend to be parochialists concerned with ‘circling-the-wagons’ and fairness as a matter of overall proportionality. In addition, Haidt (ibid.) expounds on his findings to demystify the stereotype of conservatives as those who strictly adhere to orthodoxy. He suggests that conservativism and orthodoxy are incompatible because orthodoxy “is the view that there exists a ‘transcendental moral order to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society” (ibid.:336); a moral perspective that can lead to radicalism, which is at odds with true conservativism. True conservativism ought to instead be seen as an adherence to an in-group, a loyalty to liberty of that group, and a conservation of the present moral order. Moreso than liberals, conservatives are concerned with maintaining or increasing what Haidt (ibid.) refers to as moral capital. Although I could rave about the brilliance, complexity, elegant simplicity, and overall value of Haidt’s (ibid.) book, this is where I take fundamental issue.
Morality is not a currency to be accrued. This contradicts Haidt’s (ibid.) palpable Durkheimian influence. Even Haidt (ibid.) makes this point: that moral capital, as he calls it, is the capacity by which groups adhere themselves to norms of selflessness and virtue; which is a shared good? How do transactions take place? An eminent professor of mine once told me that since the advent of social capital, everybody in academia is arbitrarily coming up with some form of capital or another. I think this is such a case. Whereas Haidt’s (ibid.) grounds for his Moral Foundations Theory are almost entirely solid, based on data collected through replicable and valid research instruments, this theoretical conjecture is flawed. Prescribing that individuals with particular political orientations are likely to have different cognitively based moral mechanisms because of their genetic makeup and subsequent socialization is one thing – it’s epigenetic politics – but to suggest that a group and its constituent members possess some moral currency is a truly problematic speculation. As a result, Haidt’s (ibid.) project both undermines and supports utilitarianism based on various sociopolitical circumstances (it works in a capitalist society but not elsewhere?), yet the strength of his Moral Foundations Theory is that the ‘greater good’ is different for people from different cultures and with different political orientations. To Mill (1990), happiness was entirely proportional, a principle of ‘fairness’ that Haidt (2012) attributes to conservatives. That is, he claims that liberals conceive of fairness as a universal equality, whereby everyone deserves the same chances and outcomes, while conservatives think of it in terms of proportionality, whereby each deserves an outcome in proportion to what they have put in. Consequently, albeit likely inadvertently, Haidt (ibid.) casts conservatives as utilitarians. Similarly, liberals are utilitarians as well because theyare primarily driven by the care/harm moral foundation, which can be clearly tied to Bentham’s (1990) principle of utility as that which brings pleasure versus that which brings pain. Although Haidt’s (2012) evaluation of data and subsequent theory construction is decidedly brilliant, it is highly problematic to introduce any form of capital within a discussion of a humanistic morality as an evolutionarily derived set of possible traits.
Haidt (ibid.) falls short in a number of other areas as well. Granted, his is a book about moral psychology (which bridges on sociology), but he overlooks valid insights from institutional sociologists, which renders his analysis somewhat reductionistic. Lipset (1990) sought to establish a firm scholarly hold on the difference between Canadian and American values. He attributed these differences moreso to the different institutional makeup between the two countries, the entrenched values of which are derived from the events of the American Revolution; Canadians remained monarchical and Americans sought their well-known individualism. Haidt (2012) focuses more (although not nearly enough) on the effects of the French Revolution, the enlightenment, and seems to forget that his countries’ institutions developed out of a revolution of their own.
Another issue I have with Haidt’s (ibid.) framework is that he explicitly relates morality to the individual. While he certainly outlines, in breathtaking scope, the possible moral values one might hold and the kinds of lives to which those values might apply, he does so in a primarily individualistic manner. Many moral philosophers would reject a theory of morality that focuses on the individual, instead insisting that “the basic principle of morality can be explicated in terms of the content of the unavoidable presuppositions of an argumentative practice that can be pursued only in common with others” (Habermaas 2009; emphasis added). That is, morality is a relational enterprise irreducible to individuals and their traits or proposed dispositions. Unfortunately, Haidt (2012) tends to reduce morality to social psychologically measurable phenomena within individuals.
Expanding further on possible philosophical errors, Haidt (ibid.) neglects to consider the Derridian (1990) secret, that manifest circumstance which does not manifest because of an actor’s refusal to act or respond “[that] would be neither sacred nor profane” (ibid.:213). In other words, we will often indicate on a survey or questionnaire that we would act in a certain way, yet when confronted with the actual circumstance, we act in another way. A potential nonresponse contains a response. That a potential disruption exists behind each possible choice escapes Haidt’s (2012) analysis and he instead provides a theory of human motivation that is primarily focused on the causes of human behavior as though these causes are static and measurable; that there is no secret behind each unspoken word that could entirely redirect a human life. Or, as Derrida (1990) puts it, “as soon as there are words – direct intuition has no chance” (ibid.:216). In other words, contrasting Haidt’s (2012) model, words precede intuitions. We cannot have imagery for the latter without first having the former. Human beings are inherently symbolic creatures before they are intuitive creatures. Although Haidt (2012) provides a compelling argument as to how intuitions are derived from adaptive life-saving mechanisms like face recognition and inferences of agency, intuitions are also born of symbols, which are necessarily dependent on language (Mead 2015). Words come first. We answer surveys based on words we know, not necessarily a priori intuitions, which problematizes Haidt’s (2012) main premise.
Additionally, Haidt’s (ibid.) Moral Foundations Theory is just that, a study of what he believes are the foundations of morality, the inclinations individuals have towards action, their belief systems, as opposed to a theory that can explain ethical action. Kant (2009) would be displeased for this is what he believes to be the foundation of morality, “that the necessity of acting from pure respect for the practical law is what necessitates duty” (ibid.:225). Of course, to Kant (ibid.), the practical law was reason, whereas to Haidt (2012) reason is preceded by intuition. The two would disagree on moral foundations, but at least Kant (2009) connects ethics to action. What actions can be considered right versus those that can be considered wrong? Whereas utilitarianism would assert that these questions can only be answered by evaluating the consequences of those actions and their effects on utility or overall happiness (Bentham 2009; Mill 2009), deontology would assert that “when moral value is being considered, the concern is not with the actions, which are seen, but with their inner principles, which are not seen” (Kant 2009). Both still focused on action, which Haidt (2012) seems to neglect, focusing instead on beliefs and principles of actors.
Kant (2009) insisted that the right principles for action could be discerned through his categorical imperative, the process of turning one’s possible action into a universalizable principle to judge its ethical ground. Clearly, Kant’s (ibid.) formulations are considerably difficult to perform for the average person and numerous scholars have attempted to address this in order to refine deontological ethics into a more accessible and manageable philosophy (Frankena 2009;Ross, 2009). But perhaps this is another point of elegance in Haidt’s (2012) work, that he not only presents the means for excavating these a priori principles against which we judge whether an action is or is not moral, but that he does so soundly and scientifically to show that morality is not a static objective list, but ought to be conceived of humanistically as a varying set of affectually-based responses that are strategically organized a posteriori in a variety of ways.
In conclusion, although I have pointed to some problems with Haidt’s (2012) theories, his book does a great service by providing a means for seeing both sides of the increasingly polarizing political spectrum. He advocates that compassion and understanding for the ‘other side’ will go a lot farther than insulating political parties and beliefs. He illustrates how interdisciplinary scholarship, in his case, moral and political psychologies mixed with philosophy and functionalist sociology, can go a long way in helping to explain important conflicts in the contemporary moment. He asserts that we must accept that all political views and the tensions between them are necessary components for governing an increasingly globalized world. Much like Buckminster Fuller’s (1961) theory of tensegrity, derived from his observations that the push-and-pull of cosmic structures mimic those of atomic structures and that, consequently, tensional integrity must be a fundamental law of the universe; the liberal and conservative views act as a necessary push-and-pull mechanism for maintaining the structural integrity of society. As a result, Haidt (2012) argues, to avoid increasing polarization and hostility, it would serve each side and our society well to understand the foundations upon which they base their decisions.
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