RDN on Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

RDN ploughs through this celebrated personal and intellectual exploration – and exoneration – of the moral psychology of the right and the righteous, and finds it surprisingly light on moral or any other kind of useful thinking. The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion
Jonathan Haidt
420 pages
Allen Lane

If you are a right-winger, you can perhaps be pleased by this overlong book, and happily join in the chorus of approval that has greeted it. (Ian Birrell, for instance, produced a useful and sympathetic review for the Observer which would be a useful counterpoint to my more sceptical view.) Jonathan Haidt has, after all, provided a reasonable and evidence-based account of the journey by which he has gained in patchy empathy with the right and even come to see how the right has understood vital things about society which the left is inclined to discount. To cut to the chase: he says the right understands, in particular, a sacredness in life and, in general, the value of social capital. Even as I write these words, I find my distaste for the book – my righteous anger at its message and style – coming bubbling to the fore. Let’s see if I can nail them properly to the page.

The book fails at what it most triumphantly declares its success. It does not explain how some people fall toward the right and others fall toward the left. I mean that it does not get to the opinions, circumstances, pathologies or whatever that first incline people to left or right. It is quite a good account of some of the reinforcing mechanisms by which people put all their red ducks, or all their blue ducks, in a row (how, as he puts it, morality “binds and blinds”); but that’s not the same thing.   Moreover, the book is not good at explaining a modern peculiarity: that in the US especially, but perhaps also in the UK, people’s left or right orientation seems to be becoming less negotiable. We see elections which are more or less hung, as two equal-sized tribes face each other in hostile antagonism. To a Martian, these tribes might appear familiar and more similar than ever, and yet their mutual antipathy seems increasingly toxic. Nothing in Mr Haidt’s analysis explains how these divisions seem to be becoming more pronounced. (I suspect he might reach for The Spirit Level, and I’d head that response off by pointing out that the American rural poor seem as Republican as the urban poor is Democrat; likewise, the Wall Street rich are as Republican as the Hollywood rich are Democrat.)

There is one element to Mr Haidt’s enterprise which is irritating on a trivial level, but on reflection is seriously debilitating. Our author takes us on his personal journey through various developments in moral psychology. This seems a rather self-indulgent approach; at any rate, it will perhaps appeal to younger readers who are schooled in sharing this sort of exploration (there’s a decent comparison with the similarly irritating approach by Tom Holland in his In the Shadow of the Sword).

The profounder problem is that “moral psychology” has elements of the oxymoron about it. As a discipline, it purports to deploy evolutionary psychology to get at the workings of morality. But moral thinking cannot get far if it is marooned in discussing how individuals and groups – or genes – find it handy to make members of a species take an interest in the well-being of others, or combine with them to achieve this or that.  It is entirely plausible (though much less certain than Mr Haidt supposes) that “righteousness” was evolved in people. But righteousness is very different to morality. Indeed, in the degree to which people feel righteous (as in “self-righteous”) they are likely to be missing the point of morality. Moral thinking is about what one “ought” to do, and it almost always begins with going beyond the convenient, the comfortable or the clubbable. Mr Haidt begins his book by dishing Bentham and Kant and their rationalism (which he hints is autistic until he self-censors himself) and hooking up with Hume’s “intuitionism”, based as it is on empathy. (I rather doubt his reading of Hume is well-rounded, but I haven’t done the re-reading to prove my point.) This is of a piece with the book’s mission to take moral thought and locate it in the inherited gut of nature and even nurture rather than the thinking brain of the autonomous person.

Jonathan Haidt describes various moments in his tracking toward an approval of elements of the right. The first was his discovery, in 1993 (page 101), that India has people who, by the standards of a liberal American, “brought up Jewish”, were blatantly illiberal but were also imbued with a decent approach to life. He doesn’t seem to notice that this widening of his circle of empathy is really no more than an understanding that one sort of liberal multiculturalism or pluralism is indeed quite challenging to bossy liberalism. Anyway, he then rattles off on an exploration of the kind of society which likes “loyalty, authority and sanctity”. This is, he rightly notes, a feature of rightish thought and feeling. Rightly, he supposes that such a society often favours the “hierarchical, the punitive and the religious”. He advances a long and not wholly convincing account of the evolution of religion, rooting it mostly in the communal usefulness of faith. And so he arrives at a happy approval of the thinking of Robert Putnam and others as they describe society’s need for people joining with others for their own and wider social well-being. I have no idea at all why Jonathan Haidt is comfortable, as he seems to be, with the unspoken corollary that the left (rooted in the complaining rights of individuals) is not as good at developing social capital.

It is a seeming oddity that a right-winger such as me should complain that Mr Haidt’s acceptance of the right is based on his realisation that prejudices, loyalties and so on are natural. It is indeed a feature of right-wing thinking to accept and build on the crooked timber of humanity as it is, not as it ought to be. That is why the right is inclined to celebrate what Mr Haidt calls parochial empathy, and it is part of the reason why it disparages the airy ambitions of universal liberalism.

Late-ish in Mr Haidt’s intellectual journey, he lights on the idea of reading some right-leaning authors. We are at about page 288 and the date is 2005 and the process is ongoing. This is where Jonathan comes across, for instance, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek. He likes them, though he parenthetically lets us see where  he‘s coming from: “Please note, I am praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party”. So here we have the core misunderstanding at the heart of Jonathan Haidt’s case. He sees how what Sam Tanenhaus calls the Republican “movement” is based on valuable instincts. But he doesn’t really share them. He’s not a Republican and one supposes he is even less Tea Party. But he really gets the politer, brighter thinking right, especially if it isn’t corporate and is rather liberal. He wants to comprehend the right, but not embrace it; he wants to have sussed it out, and accord multicultural and even condescending sympathy, but to hold his nose when he’s near its troops – and indeed its hearts and soul.       The Haidt approach thinks (probably wrongly) it can explain how a narrow right-wing righteousness evolved, and why it works. But it is more interesting to see – as Mr Haidt is unwilling or unequipped to do – that the right has taken an analysis (not merely an impulse) about self-reliance and showed how it is valuable to wider society. It is the creed which parlays individualism, and even prejudice, into the strength of society and even more widely, humanity. However, it falls to right-wingers, once they have celebrated the self and selfishness, and instinct, to then show how the right will handle the problem of the weak and the feckless who have failed to respond to its tough creed, and may need love (perhaps quite tough love), or other sorts of help, to thrive. In short, the right has to deploy proper moral thought to go beyond the righteousness which may produce strong societies but which needs moral mitigation. The right has no real claim to moral superiority over the left: clearly there are thoughtful people of goodwill on both sides. The right claims, and has the job of explaining why, its view of society is more realistic than the left’s and that it has a decent claim to being moral in its intentions and its effects.    In short, whilst the gutsy, evolved, explainable, natural, realistic, righteous right-winger is of interest and value, the most interesting moral questions about the creed remain as strictly moral concerns. Mr Haidt’s moral psychology doesn’t begin to address them. Evolutionary psychology hasn’t got and probably couldn’t get to grips with the questions which confront the conscience of a highly-evolved human. They are, actually, precisely the questions which remain after evolutionary psychology has answered all the questions it pretends to answer.

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Publication date

19 December 2012