The Impotence of Partisans
Ed Key on Proteus

The Righteous Mind

Righteous-Mind Some researchers are of the opinion that emotions are the primary influence on our moral judgements – that “reason is... slave to the passions”, as Hume delightfully put it. Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “Height”) is one such person, and his latest book The Righteous Mind stands behind Hume in a bizarre attempt to stab three centuries of moral philosophy in the back while waving a triumphant flag for moral psychology. I suspect the book intentionally picks a fight with nerds (New Atheists also get a repeated poke in the eye) just to get them riled up and talking about the interesting collection of stories Haidt has assembled as his case.

Depressingly, the UK hardback edition of The Righteous Mind presented in a very ‘shouty’ way – a gigantic font size makes it look far bigger than it really is, and the front cover shows a hand giving the finger that made me slightly uncomfortable reading it on the train. I’m not squeamish about this sort of thing usually, but when I’m reading a book on morality I’d like it to be something I can show to polite company at least. I notice that the US cover is considerably more laid back (block text with a fake cut mark through the diagonal): did someone at the publisher think that Brits wouldn’t be interested in a serious work of moral psychology if it didn’t have something offensive to show off? I became seriously tempted to remove the dust jacket so that I could feel less inclined to apologise for what I was carrying around.

I’ve been following Haidt’s work now for at least four years, ever since his Edge article on the diversity of moral foundations in contemporary politics. He said much that I agreed with, and much that I thought was rash. His position has actually changed very little in the interim, although in the new book he writes as if he’s been through something of a transformation of perspective. Perhaps this is mere showmanship, it’s hard sometimes to know when reading popular science writers, and his acknowledgements make it clear that his agent has prepped him for the popular science audience. Foibles aside, he and I share similar goals – to improve dialogue between partisan groups – but our methods are wildly different and I’m far from convinced that Haidt’s approach is the best way at the problem.

Much of The Righteous Mind is concerned with discussing Haidt’s social intuitionist model (SIM), also called Moral Foundations theory, at length. There’s a lot of anecdotal discussions about his influences that adds a little flavour to the book, but frankly if you really wanted to get at the theories any one of Haidt’s papers would be a more efficient route than this book. A key part of SIM defended here and elsewhere is the claim that rational argument doesn't contribute as much to moral judgement as our snap emotional judgements. We have a moral intuition, Haidt claims, then justify it rationally only afterwards – at least most of the time. Furthermore, the book asserts that our intuitions can be influenced by other people in our social circles but only rarely by our own rational thought.

Haidt’s case is strong in places, but absurdly weak in others. Steve Clark (in SIM and the City) has already pointed out the chief problem with using Haidt’s model to undermine rationalist philosophy: according to SIM, our intuitions are shaped and trained by our social environment; if our social world appeals to rationality in its justifications, our moral intuitions will learn to react accordingly. We may not be born rational (Clark's argument runs), but we can be inculcated into rationality. Since Haidt’s model allows the arguments of others significant capacity for ethical influence, a well-formed rational morality is still theoretically useful, if that's really what we want. What Haidt doesn’t ever do is really consider whether or not rational morality is something we might want to endorse. He backs moral pluralism on pragmatic grounds, but steers clear of actually presenting any specific ethic viewpoint – despite (in the final chapter) wading in on politics having skipped the transitional ground entirely.

Haidt seems to have a strange compulsion to push philosophers under the bus. It’s no secret that academic scientists tend to love Hume and despise Kant, but then I’ve yet to find one who has actually spent any time understanding either. Haidt was an undergraduate philosopher who abandoned the field for psychology, but I’m not wholly convinced he really grappled with the moral philosophers to any reasonable degree. (Perhaps he didn’t get on with his tutors at Yale?) He makes a big show early in the book of turning against philosophy – and in some respects, this rejection is warranted in so much as twentieth century moral philosophy (as many philosophers now admit) was a disastrous rabbit hole of epic proportions. But his argument is weak for the ironic reason that he needs (and does connect with) philosophy at a few key places but only shows a passing grasp of it, leaving him vulnerable to a few common gaffes.

The first error – and this is incredibly common throughout academia – is to believe that the caricature of Kant’s ethics that gets thrown around represents Kant’s views of morality. It doesn’t. Allen Wood, probably the foremost scholar of Kant today, has called the excessive focus on the Formula of Universal Law version of the categorical imperative a ‘sausage machine’ ethics – and this is the face of Kant that Haidt chooses to show. Perhaps this was what was taught at Yale,  but digging into what Kant’s views on morality actually were, they are far more nuanced and (in particular connection with Haidt’s work) Kant employs a morality that touches upon all six of what Haidt calls ‘moral foundations’. Kant is a long way from being as dependent upon non-contradiction as The Righteous Mind suggests, and his sideline about whether Kant was autistic borders on insulting people with autism: why would having a highly systematic mind discount Kant’s views from consideration, exactly?

Apparently, Haidt wants to claim that philosophy has failed in the context of ethics (which, if we looked at the twentieth century moral philosophers might be defensible) yet at the same time he also recognizes that the great moral philosophers did have a role in shaping contemporary society. There is a tension here that is never quite resolved. When he comments that historians could tell a compelling story about how we got to where we are culturally, all I could think was “absolutely – and a number of moral philosophers would be key to this story!”. Alastair McIntyre’s After Virtue actually does tell this story rather excellently, and would have been useful reading for Haidt’s book. What a shame that Haidt has decided that philosophers couldn’t possibly have anything useful to contribute to the debate on ethics…

As many historians will attest, Kant’s work had wide-reaching effects in the transformation from feudal to contemporary society, and his influence can still be strongly felt both in contemporary commitment to Human Rights and also in the roots of the United Nations, not to mention the creation of the modern University. Neither is Kant the only philosopher to have had such social influence:  John Stuart Mill, for instance, actively worked to abolish slavery and to improve the democratic status of women. Trying to brush moral philosophy under the carpet with Haidt’s rather ill-chosen phrase “the rationalist delusion” seems to miss entirely the role of imagination in establishing ideals that ferment social change. Ultimately, he wants to bring about such social change too – he might find it a lot easier with a handful of good philosophers working with him!

A second error – and this is also common throughout a number of the sciences – Haidt is far too quick to turn to evolution for answers to questions that can be answered without it. There’s a huge amount I agree with in his presentation of contemporary evolutionary theories, including his defence of group selection (a similar argument appears in my next book, The Mythology of Evolution). For much of the discussion Haidt manages to update perspectives on evolution with a moderate degree of success, albeit sometimes as a part of overlong digressions. However, Haidt’s (scientific) partisan positions ironically distort his claims in a few places.

For instance, Haidt talks metaphorically about our “Hive switch” that allows us to work effectively in social groups. He states: “If the hive switch is real – if it's a group-level adaptation designed by group-level selection for group binding – then it must be made out of neurons, neurotransmitters and hormones.” This is a weird claim! Perhaps it ought instead to say: “If the hive switch is real then it must be made out of neurons, neurotransmitters and hormones – and it may be a group-level adaptation designed by group-level selection for group binding”. The ‘if’ in the middle clause is misguided because Haidt’s claim then becomes that the nature of the hive switch is determined teleologically by the kind of evolutionary interpretation we put on it.

Yet the empirical nature of the ‘hive switch’ is something to be determined by study of human behaviour, not by speculation about its plausible evolutionary origins. Except as an imaginative spur for research, the group selection aspect is utterly tangential here. The reason, it seems to me, that Haidt has to defend group selection is because the excessive focus on individual selection after George C. Williams (whose work is the basis of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene) made it far harder for scientists to be open to research that seems to run contra to that paradigm while it prevailed. But this is a failure of those particular scientists to separate their metaphysics from their work – Haidt can’t make this situation any better by doing the same but in reverse!

Lastly, and on similar lines, I find Haidt’s support for E.O. Wilson’s early excessive claims in respect of sociobiology to be incredibly bizarre, and ultimately one-sided. Don’t get me wrong, I like Wilson's work – but it has got so much better since Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Haidt claims that Wilson was proved right about the “cannibalization” of social science by biology. Surely this is the partisan bias of a part-time evolutionary biologist! When I look at contemporary psychology et al, what I see is on the one hand a much greater willingness to accept cross-disciplinary data – my own work in game studies uses neurobiology, for instance – and on the other hand a rather bizarre insistence on turning to evolutionary speculation as a bolster to theories that actually rest better on empirical foundations. What I don't see is the cannibalization of any social science disciplines by biology: there are still an extraordinary number of sociologists, for instance. Either Haidt does see this cannibalization somewhere, and this is why he thinks Wilson was right, or he doesn’t think Wilson meant what he appears to say in 1975. Either way, this whole thread comes out rather less well in The Righteous Mind than most that Haidt chooses to pursue.

All these complaints may make it sound that this is a terrible book: it’s not. There are many worse books trying to take control of ethics on behalf of science, and few better books about the reasons that US politics ends up at a standstill. But it’s an incredibly uneven book, especially considering that it wants to see itself as the basis for a moral armistice between liberals and conservatives. Why would anyone aiming for peace write a book that spends so much of its time kicking various factions in the shins? Im certainly not a fan of excessive rationalism, but even I baulk at calling it a delusion – a move surely motivated by marketing issues and not by any concern for science or morality. It’s odd that a book that is so committed to moving past the partisan perspectives that have paralyzed contemporary democracy should itself be marred by incredibly tendentious views on so many subjects.

Published by Allen Lane, ISBN 978-1846141812.


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I see a connection in your perspective in this review and your point about Liberals being intolerant of Conservatives in your other recent post.

I'll pass over discussion about the more scientifically sided aspects of moral behaviour but I do think there is a lot to be noted in the importance of the tribalism of moral sentiments, or having a certain conviction.

Convictions have such big importance these days, and it has little to do with debate. The social acceptability of homosexuals and things like gay marriage, adoption, or women's reproductive rights pretend to come from a sympathetic reasoned point of view but seem to me to be a battle of identities rather than of discussion.

Being taught by the Jesuits helped me to see things in a multitude of perspectives, and the luxury of witholding judgment or not coming down on an issue is an intellectual delight, even if its a frustration for anyone asking 'what's your opinion on...'

As a metaphorically card carrying liberal and a former card carrying atheist (I literally had a card for the latter). I'm often interested in 'the other side'. Lately for instance I have been reading a book called 'The Road to Serfdom' by Friedrich Hayek, who I did not until later realise is considered an influential conservative figure.

If I found out about this before I read the book, I possibly would have been more disagreeable to the text, but having few prejudices (except for the positive prejudice knowing that he was a contemporary of Popper, a man I favour) I engaged with his ideas rather than identified with the politics.

This kind of discussion about tribalism is a roadblock to progress, politically and socially. When we are facing issues that are really large, we really should leave our egos at the door. Partisan identities make things difficult.


appendum: my post said that discussion of tribalism is a roadblock to progress. That's not what i meant! I mean to say, tribalism and the adherence to identities associated with moral perspectives (what is essentially being partisan) gets in the way. Not discussion of it, which is what you are doing and is a very worthwhile thing!


Michael: Yes, you're correct to flag the connection between this post and the previous ones - the most frustrating thing about Haidt's book is that I love his work, and have been positively influenced by his understanding of the liberal-conservative divide. Because of that, finding this book to be such a pugnacious troll was a real disappointment.

"...seem to me to be a battle of identities rather than of discussion."

Welcome to the 21st century! :) Yes, this is absolutely spot on. This is part of the theme I hope to be exploring in the next book, "Chaos Ethics", which explores moral experience as a clash of ideals, and ideals as sources of identities - hence a clash of identities!

All the best!

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