Over the holidays, many liberals are brought together with their conservative relatives. If they’re lucky, politics are avoided, so tempers are kept in check. Recently, a conservative psychologist who claims he’s a liberal, Jonathan Haidt, has become the trendy new star in academic circles with theories that state liberals don’t understand conservatives, are not as morally developed as conservatives, and that he can help us all just get along. He’s also been showing up in the mainstream media like the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian or the New York Times and on places like the Colbert Report in large part because of his bestselling book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.
Claiming to have been more liberal up until the 9/11 attacks, Haidt maintains that his move toward understanding conservatism came as he became “enlightened” by terrorism, or as some might call it, scared into becoming one of them. He concludes there are six basic elements to moral reasoning: caring, fairness, liberty, group loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt says that liberals only emphasize the first three while falling short on the rest. Conservatives, of course, are morally developed, because they value all six of his key moral foundations.
There is no doubt that he is well-read, that his experiments are novel, that he synthesizes information in marketable ways through masterful use of metaphors, or that it takes sharp minds to effectively criticize his arguments, which are slippery under attack. In other words, when one wants to assail his theories, they are often difficult to pin down, because one must have knowledge of history, philosophy, psychology, religion, evolution, and a whole host of topics to properly do so. Perhaps that is why so many, from academics to the media to the general public, are giving him too much credence.
Haidt’s research confirms that rather than using reason for moral decisions, people use intuition and emotion. Based on his research studies, he may be right that the first gut reaction people have to a situation drives their moral behavior. His research findings have been interpreted by him to mean “we should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.” However, he then makes the assumption that what people actually do is what they should do. By his logic, the fact that people are prone to chronic stereotyping is laudable. Yes, cognitive scientists have shown that all humans stereotype and it’s a useful tool in many areas of life for the purpose of categorizing and analyzing the world. That doesn’t mean it is either adaptive or commendable across a whole range of social situations. As a matter of fact, it is typically a hindrance to accurate analysis and good social relations.
Haidt turns the world on its head by encouraging readers of his popular book, written for nonacademic audiences, to consider their unchecked moral intuitions worthy and wise, effectively discouraging people from recognizing the value of morality or ethics learned through education. James Baldwin wrote:
“The paradox of education is precisely this-that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which [one] is being educated…But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of [themselves] as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies chance.”
What Baldwin is eloquently pointing out is that society often resists its enlightened outliers, who nonetheless advance society significantly. These educated seers frequently become our moral leaders and call on citizens to overcome their inferior knee-jerk reactions to moral questions. In Haidt’s mind, conformity as practiced by conservatives is a more admirable moral attribute than dissidence such as exemplified by Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. By actively exalting loyalty, sanctity, and authority, Haidt disparages society’s most moral leaders. Clearly his theories show disdain for the whistleblower who usually agonizes extensively in uncertain deliberation before coming forward. This whistleblower that cleans out the rot in pockets of society is disloyal and defies authority in Haidt’s model.
He praises belonging to “hives” and acting in self-interest because he believes these attributes were favored by evolution. Even if we accept this premise as true, which is questionable, there is the immediate critique popularized by philosopher David Hume that Haidt is committing the naturalistic fallacy. He is assuming that because something is occurring in nature, it is good, although he repeatedly and wrongly claims that he never succumbs to this fallacy and he even claims to be an avid fan of Hume.
In fact, Haidt’s approval of some of the worst aspects of human behavior shows his own characterological weaknesses. He seems to badly need the comfort and approval of belonging to a group. While some people might think of belonging to a crowd at the football game as akin to being wrapped in a warm blanket of humanity, others would recoil at the imagery and think of the hair-trigger impulses of crowds to react to vague threats and their propensity toward mob mentality or uncontrolled stampedes. He elevates hierarchy onto a pedestal fondly speaking of the role everyone plays in its structure, especially convenient as he occupies the highest positions in each hierarchy he describes. For example, he writes approvingly of the oppressive sexism and caste system of India by saying it has “a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires.”
Haidt’s theories are dangerous because they present liberalism as associated with an inferior form of morality while exalting clearly dangerous forms of “morality” such as obedience to authority and group loyalty that he associates with conservatives. Fortunately, liberals have been firing back at his aspersions. Some have rightly questioned his basic six moral categories and whether they should even be considered the crux of human morality. Chris Hedges’ essay is quite effective in countering Haidt’s theories. But overall, liberals should become familiar with this psychologist, because he is spreading questionable ideas that conservatives have already begun using as ammunition against us.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.