September 9, 2012

Critique - "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt

[The following are notes used by the author for a presentation at a meeting of the Blue Moon Group of freethinkers in Peachtree City, Georgia on September 9, 2012.  The author was invited by the leaders and organizers of the group to give a critique of Haidt’s book. Author's comments after extracts from Haidt are in italics.]

March 23, 2019
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt on politics, morality, and the coddling of the American mind.
Brian Gallagher
March 7, 2019

Above is an interview of Jonathan Haidt. It’s pretty good on some things like his latest book The Coddling of the American Mind. I think he may be better on this topic than “human nature” and things such as the evolutionary emergence of human morality, values he contends we are hard-wired and therefore compelled to express. 

The following excerpted statement of his from the interview caught my attention in that it is revealing in terms of my critique of his book, The Righteous Mind. He’s asked to account for the now Trumpian Republican Party. Haidt’s response raises this question: If his moral foundation theory is as powerful and useful as he leads us to believe in his book, how could one election and one president, Trump, in effect debunk it?

JH: “Trump has shifted a lot of things around. The Republican Party is no longer the social conservative party. I believe, in other research I’ve published with Karen Stenner, a political scientist in Australia, Trump is appealing to more authoritarian tendencies. It’s very hard to see how Donald Trump is a conservative. So the psychology that I just described a moment ago [moral foundation theory] no longer quite applies. [Italics mine.] The Republican Party, I don’t know what’s happening to it [shouldn’t his moral foundation theory provide some answers?], but it is bringing in elements that are overtly racist. It is bringing in desires for rapid change, which is not a conservative virtue, generally.”

Haidt hitching his moral foundation theory to evolutionary human nature remains a problem for me. 

Equally unsatisfactory is his claim in his The Righteous Mind that Democrats are less loyal and less patriotic than Republicans just doesn’t hold water. Since Trump’s election who, really, is proving to be the greater patriot, Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell?

I think a good theory of cultural evolution, one I’m working on, would tell us a lot more about how humans became what we are and why we behave as we do than Haidt’s moral foundation theory.



Professor Jonathan Haidt is a self-described moral psychologist.  I am neither a psychologist nor a neuroscientist.  As for being a moralist, no, I don’t teach morality but I am, regrettably, prone to moralizing.

Professor Haidt took approximately five years to research and write The Righteous Mind.  To conduct a thorough analysis of his work and the references he cites would take at least half that long.  I haven’t done that.  I have read the book twice and found certain methods and conclusions he has come to objectionable either due to his failure to use the best or most appropriate way to understand human behavior, or because of the language and argumentation he employs is a misleading or incorrect portrayal of Humankind.

Before I turn to that, let me say up front that I am a strong agnostic.  That is to say, if you drew a line in the sand and told me I had to stand on one side or the other, with either the religious believers or the atheists, I would unhesitatingly place myself among the latter.  I am also a secular humanist. 

I am not a Cartesian dualist.  Although I consider consciousness, mind, and self to be emergent properties of the various processes of the brain interacting with the environment via the five senses, I feel reasonably certain that when the body/brain dies, consciousness, mind, and person cease to directly exist.  I will address matters of the self, free will, and person later, in more detail.

As for science, it is not perfect in its knowledge or methods, nor is it immune from political manipulation or inhumane use.  Science produces a provisional truth that encourages skepticism and invites challenge.  A full, over-arching, grand theory or understanding of Life and Humankind cannot be derived from reducing all human behavior to physical and chemical determinism.  Given the complexity of human social and cultural life, past and present, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a theory of human behavior based on our history, and expressed in terms of future probabilities, not certainties or laws.  I’m reminded of the science fiction notion of “psychohistory” developed by Isaac Asimov’s character, Hari Seldon, in the Foundation novels.  Maybe we’ll live long enough to see such a theory and methodology become a reality.  Maybe.

Human language-based cultural behavior is an emergent property of mammalian, primate evolutionary history.   Our high symbolic communication and cumulative culture provide a domain of human expression that transcends (goes beyond) our genes, neural wiring and brain chemistry.  I am therefore fairly certain that the social and behavioral sciences of anthropology, psychology and sociology, or philosophy, will not be replaced by a science of humankind based exclusively on physics, chemistry and neurology.

Finally, I do not regard reductionism and determinism, that is, in the strict materialistic sense that is practiced in most quarters of the natural sciences, as the only valid and therefore best approach for understanding and explaining human behavior.  The nature of Humankind, that which unequivocally distinguishes us as Homo sapiens among all other animals, is most apparent from and best understood by examining and considering the interaction between the conscious, language and culture-bearing human person, and the social and physical worlds.

The work of neuroscience and evolutionary biology is providing important insights.  However, a complete understanding of the nature of Humankind is not solely or ultimately to be found in the brain, its circuits or nerve cells, or in our genome.  To argue that it is or will be, is scientism.  Strong scientism produces dogma.  Dogma is an absolute, inviolable truth and is often associated with supernaturalism and totalitarianism.  It is the antithesis of the provisional truth of science.

Among the numerous unequivocally distinguishing characteristics of our species is human morality.  Let me now turn to Haidt’s book where morality is the major topic.

My goal in this critique is to persuade you to consider that a biologistic, reductionistic, and deterministic approach to morality and other complex human beliefs and behaviors, as Haidt offers, is not, by itself, sufficient.  Haidt believes it is.

I hope to persuade you that insisting on the primacy of such an approach, one that minimizes the influence of self, agency, free will, and the local and global community of minds, past and present, is inappropriate, dehumanizing, and dangerous.

I want to talk about four areas of method and findings in Haidt’s book that are inappropriate or unproductive ways for understanding and explaining human behavior.  These areas are:

I.          The Nature of Humankind
II.         The Biologism of Intuition and Reason
III.       Moral Foundations Theory
IV.       A Better Approach For Understanding Mind And Humankind

I.          The Nature of Humankind

Efforts to biologize human nature began in earnest with Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.  Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was one of the most profound achievements in the history of science because it convincingly established the earthly origins and inter-connectedness of all forms of life on the planet, including human beings.  It also established a scientific framework for understanding and explaining the origins and evolution of Humankind’s physical and behavioral characteristics. 

In the early-mid 20th century, a period of great scientific advances in physics and chemistry, an effort began within the social sciences, and in particular, psychology, to make the methods and results of the study of human mental activity and behavior more “scientific.” That is, more like the methods used and laws discovered by the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Beginning in the 1950s, the instinctual bases of human behavior were most notably popularized by books written by the following scientists and authors:  Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, and E.O. Wilson.  Their approach to the origins of and biological bases of human behavior is most often referred to as human ethology and sociobiology.  This approach has continued to be popular among the public and within academia as evidenced by more recent spin-offs from these pursuits include that evolutionary psychology, Darwinian anthropology, and human behavioral ecology.

Relatedly, neuroscience seeks the biological bases and determinants of human behavior in our neurons and in the brain.  This resurgence of neuroscience began in the 1990s and has since been strongly supported by funding institutions and popular book sales.

Very recent spin-offs of neuroscience include neuropsychology, neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neurolinguistics, neurohistory, neurolaw, neuroaesthetics, neuro-lit-crit, neurotheology, and more.

Sociobiologists and neuroscientists have gone to great lengths to persuade the public that human behavior is, for the most part, biologically, genetically, or neuronally determined.  That which we observe in our individual, social and international behavior, we are told, is driven by our biological instincts, as coded in our genes and unpacked by our brains - a process little different from those found in other animals.  The self or person, it is often said, is an illusion our brain “allows” us to egotistically indulge in, despite the fact that the brain is the “real” producer and controller of our lives.  It is the genetic codes and neural “wiring” that underlie all human behavioral expressions.  The behavioral expressions themselves are epiphenomena or manifestations of the driving compulsions of our genes and brains.  Our behaviors are said to be effects, not causes.  I’ll visit this notion in detail in the last part of my critique.

Sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists give relatively little importance to the cultural evolutionary origins and current expression of our morality.  They seldom concern themselves with the social actions taken by generation after generation of our ancestors to improve, diversely express, and diffuse throughout the world a unique an unprecedented type of animal morality.  Most recent efforts to achieve a global morality, for example, such as on-going efforts to enact international laws and conventions, and promote humanistic and environmental globalism, don’t warrant their attention unless, of course, these researchers or authors are trying to show that such complex human activity is determined by the molecules of our genome or the cells and organs of our nervous systems.

With the advances made in neuroscience in the 1990s and its subsequent popularity among the public, as well as the beginning of "evolutionary psychology" about the same time, there emerged a certain cachet to finding the "real" wellsprings of our behavior in our "ancientness" and in our "animalness".

Jonathan Haidt’s book is one of the latest installments in the current effort to put the mind, the self-actualizing person, and our social and culture milieu in the back seat of Humankind’s bus, if you will.  And to place the molecules of our genome and cells of brains in the driver’s seat. Or shall I say, elevate the study of the elephant to the near exclusion of the rider.

With that, here are some examples of Haidt’s take on human nature and his effort to dehumanize/animalize Humankind:

xii         “The human mind is designed to do morality.”

xiii        “human nature is intrinsically moral, moralistic, critical, judgmental.”

“an obsession with righteousness is the normal human condition; a feature of our evolutionary design”

xiv        “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (Haidt misconstrues intuition as something deeper than learning through teaching and experience.  Intuition has little to no meaning for humans devoid of its learned/shared cultural content.)

xiv        the morality of “righteous mind is like the six taste receptors” (animalization)

xv         “90% chimp, 10% bee” (animalization)

            “human nature produced by natural selection”

“righteous minds as primate minds with a hiveish overlay” (therefore, no part of which is human?)
45        “’automatic’ processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do, like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles.” (a fallacious comparison of the human mind to computers)

48        “….reasons are the tail that wag the intuitive dog.” (animalization)

59        “The bottom line is that human minds, like animal minds, are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive, and basing their responses on those reactions.  Within the first second of seeing, hearing, or meeting another person, the elephant has already begun to lean toward or away, and that lean influences what you think and do next.  Intuitions come first.”  (Fortunately, we have more than intuition.  We have beliefs and values that teach us to not judge a book by its cover, that it is the content of a person’s character, not his color to, guide us.  We are animated, agency-endowed persons interacting with the social world using learned culture to override intuition.)

61        “Moral judgment is not a purely cerebral affair in which we weigh concerns about harm, rights, and justice.  It’s a kind of rapid, automatic process more akin to the judgments animals make as they move through the world, feeling themselves drawn toward or away from various things.  Moral judgment is mostly done by the elephant.” (This gnores what takes place after initial reactions to people and events; a blatant animalization of Humankind.)

II.        The Biologism of Intuition and Reason

[Elephant-Rider Handout, Haidt's analogy for the relationship between human reason (the rider) and human intuition (the elephant).  Illustration using free photos and Photoshop work by the author] – Explain.  Haidt chose not a donkey, a horse, but an elephant, the largest and one of the most powerful land animals on earth.  And a very intelligent animal that, by the way, will express its intentions and agency quite readily.  I suppose Haidt could have chosen a bear or a gorilla….

45        intuition – “the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgments and decisions that we all make everyday” (These are loaded with cultural content and language-based reasoning.)

elephant and rider analogy:  rider – controlled processes, reasoning; elephant – “automatic” processes, emotion, intuition (This implies these do not involve quick reasoning or measuring or evaluating an observation or experience we are having against our beliefs & values - a false assumption.)

“’automatic’ processes have run animal minds for 500 million years, just like they run the human mind” (Haidt underestimates the power of language and culture-based reasoning to intervene on the workings of our “animal mind”.)

“Human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the first million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer.  Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant.”

46        The rider “sees further into the future than the elephant; acts as spokesman for the elephant, even though it really doesn’t know what the elephant is really thinking; fabricates post-hoc explanations; finds reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.” (A spokesman? Doesn’t know what the elephant is “thinking”?  Haidt omits notion of agency, proactive, engagement with the socio-cultural present.)

“Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm.” (a gross diminishing of the role of the reasoning mind)

Diagram on Pg. 47:  “…independently reasoned judgment is possible in theory but rare in practice.  …the rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant.” (This is simply not the way a person engages the socio-cultural world.)

63        “But the rider’s job is to serve the elephant, not to act as a moral compass.”  (This ignores reasoning as an act of a conscious mind interacting with a socio-cultural world of other minds in a domain of beliefs, values, and aspirations.)

“…infants are born with some knowledge of physics and mechanics…”  (okay) “…infants come equipped with innate abilities to understand their social world as well.  They understand things like harming and helping.” (Recognizing harming and helping is a very small indicator of “innate abilities to understand their social world”.)

64        “the capacity to evaluate individuals on the basis of their social interactions is universal and unlearned.” (Preposterous!)

“…by six months of age, infants are watching how people behave toward other people, and they are developing a preference for those who are nice rather than those who are mean.  In other words, the elephant begins making something like moral judgments during infancy, long before language and reasoning arrive.”  (Fortunately, the emergence of morality in an individual does not stop here.)

67        “E.O. Wilson prophesied in 1975 that ethics would soon be ‘biologized’ and refounded as the interpretation of the activity of the ‘emotive centers’ of the brain.”  (This refers to Haidt’s my diagram of Haidt's location of the mind in the brain, that is to say, where we should look to understand the living person, the self, the mind. See below.)

71        “The elephant (automatic processes) is where most of the action is in moral psychology.  Reasoning matters, of course, particularly between people, and particularly when reasons trigger new intuitions.  Elephants rule, but they are neither dumb nor despotic.  Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story.

“But the bottom line is that when we see or hear about the things other people do, the elephant begins to lean immediately.  (okay) The rider, who is always trying to anticipate the elephant’s next move, begins looking around for a way to support such moves.”  (This makes rider (reason) ever anticipating the intuitions position;  then, rider is placed in a secondary, supporting or justifying mode.  In reality, reasoning, weighing, evaluating, contextualizing, empathizing, etc., are “embedded” in almost all the actions of our conscious lives.)
Why do we have this weird mental architecture?  As hominid brains tripled in size over the last 5 million years, developing language and vastly improved ability to reason, why did we evolve an inner lawyer, rather than an inner judge or scientist? Wouldn’t it have been most adaptive for our ancestors to figure out the truth, the real truth about who do what and why, rather than using all that brainpower just to find evidence in support of what they wanted to believe?  That depends on which you think was more important for our ancestors; survival: truth or reputation.”  (We did not “evolve” (verb) anything, much less an inner lawyer vs. an inner judge or scientist. This shows a incomplete understanding of how evolution works.  What “emerged” was a consciousness that was able to conceive of itself as part of a social network, and the ability to speak with others about the complex characteristics social and physical world using language; a lawyer, judge, or scientist was not needed, nor was figuring out the “truth, the real truth”; survival meant not responding to, supporting, or wrestling with instincts, it meant proactively, successfully navigating the human world of beliefs, values, and strategies.  Truth or reputation?  No, learning, fitting in, cooperating was what counted most.)

u [Haidt’s Notion Of Mind, A Diagram by the author] – Explain.

III.       Moral Foundation Theory

xiv        “there’s more to morality than harm and fairness” (Haidt’s first effort to mis-portray the liberal left.)

xii         “morality made civilization possible”

xv         “Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors – harm-suffering or fairness-injustice.” (mis-portrayal of the liberal left)

22        “innate moral intuitions about disgust and disrespect”

25        “moral reasoning is a servant of moral emotions”

130      “We’ve advanced a lot since the 1970s in our understanding of the brain, and now we know that traits can be innate without being either hardwired or universal.

[Handout. Table Of Haidt's Moral Foundations by the author, available upon request. See Haidt, pg. 125 and following.]

153      Haidt defines “’innateness’ as ‘organized in advance of experience,’ like the first draft of a book that gets revised as individuals grow up within diverse cultures.  This definition allowed me to propose that the moral foundations are innate.  Particular rules and virtues vary across cultures, so you’ll get fooled if you look for universality in the finished books.  You won’t find a single paragraph that exists in identical form in every human culture.  But if you look for links between evolutionary theory and anthropological observations, you can take some educated guesses what was the universal first draft of human nature.  I tried to make (and justify) five such guesses (his “moral foundations).”  (Here’s a better definition of “innate” from Webster’s:

1: existing in, belonging to, or determined by factors present in an individual from birth : native, inborn <innate behavior>
2: belonging to the essential nature of something : inherent
3: originating in or derived from the mind or the constitution of the intellect rather than from experience

(Of course particular rules and virtues vary across cultures. “Educated guesses” means, it seems, the inheritance of primate brain “modules” that later became moral foundations and matrices, that were selected for by natural selection?  A ghastly reductionism based, in large part, on the straw man argument that morals vary from culture to culture so we are better of speculating that “brain modules” exist, and that they produce the actively engaged social life of conscious human beings endowed with agency and intentionality?  Hmmmm.)

154      “I showed how the two ends of the political spectrum rely on each foundation in different ways, or to different degrees.  It appears that the left  relies primarily on the Care and Fairness foundations, whereas the right uses all five.”

IV.       A Better Approach For Understanding Mind And Humankind

u [Extract From Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis (2012)] – Ask them to read.

u [My Mind Diagram] – Explain.  Self is an emergent entity that may be "found" (and best understood) not in the physiology and chemistry of the brain, rather where the brain-generated consciousness engages the content of the natural environment, and society and culture via language.  When the body housing the brain and consciousness ceases to live, the mind/self/person ceases to actively, directly exist.  The legacy of an individual mind/self/person has a chance of becoming eternal only in artifacts and oral history.

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