November 21, 2013

The Righteous Mind By Jonathon Haidt: Critique Postscript


There’s so much to be said about moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). I have had my time upon the stage in my critique of the book and am grateful to those who read my post. Let me take things a bit further, however, and discuss one other matter that puts me off about Haidt's work, something I did not address in my critique.  That is, his interpretation of his data on the Left and why members of the Left score as they do on his tests.

Haidt’s portrayal of the Left is incomplete. His claim may be supported by his moral foundation questionnaire but he fails to explain why those on the Left hold the moral positions they do. For example, Haidt claims that members of the Left do not value loyalty as much as members of the Right. Yes, that is true. But the facts of his test result are not sufficient. The matter doesn’t end there. The reasons members of the Left score lower on the loyalty foundation is crucial to understanding the difference between the Left and the Right, and the nature of morality generally.


Members of the Left, at least in the American political domain, have learned from repeated experience that placing their loyalty in politically dominated social processes and institutions too often leads to a reduction in individual freedom or the continuance of outright oppression. To the Left such processes and institutions produce a society that is less flexible and therefore less sustainable in meeting the challenges of a continually and rapidly changing society and world. They believe that to conserve and restrict thought and variation in human behavior lowers the potential for adaptively modifying the processes and institutions of society.  Such adjustment, they believe, is needed to fit new, emergent socio-economic and technological circumstances. For example, the beliefs and values about race and society that were held by a majority of white Americans in the 1950s are not the beliefs and values that should be retained and imposed on an American society that is now more diverse and more highly educated about culture, race, and society than was the general populace of that era.

Members of the Left are acutely aware that too much of what those who tout as the status quo or tradition is intended to impede and control the expression and implementation of greater individual freedom. That is, they believe that giving their loyalty to such restrictive processes and institutions is to underwrite the control and blocking of liberating and growth processes.  Liberation and growth processes, they are convinced, are needed by individuals and societies in order to thrive when being swept along by a rapidly and ever-evolving, technologically-fueled, and global cultural change process. They ask: Why be loyal to political parties, governments, or persons who seek social and an ideological rigidity that addresses social circumstances of the past and present, and not the ever more immediate future?

The biggest mistake the Left makes is to assume it is a matter of common sense and therefore self-evident to all that what is best for America is the greatest possible amount of freedom for all individuals, and a national government that defends and helps the nation’s disadvantaged. It is under such conditions that the Left will unfailingly demonstrate its loyalty, respect for authority, and reverence for leaders, political processes, and institutions. Haidt would have us believe that members of the Left do not care as much about loyalty, authority, sanctity, and reverence as do those on the Right. This is not so. The important difference between the Left and Right in this regard is not their scores on Haidt’s test. Rather, the most important consideration is the conditions under which one is willing to be loyal, respect authority, and respect and revere the sanctity of political processes and social institutions, and when one is not. These conditions are for the most part learned from being taught and from experience, and manifest when acted upon by individuals in societies.  They are not encoded in our genes and neurons, and leaning and pulling us, as Haidt’s rider and elephant analogy would have it, in order to ensure that we are complying with our purportedly omnipotent and evolutionarily-proven primate emotive inheritance, as Haidt argues.


I have much more respect for a person who guards his loyalty closely and pledges it only after due and deliberative consideration in the hope of bestowing it upon social institutions and processes that foment responsibly liberating and adaptive change, than I do those who stridently extend their loyalty to institutions and processes that impede such adaptation. This approach is a common sense expression of a dominant theme in human history – accept and use the proven wisdom of the past but do not become wedded to it. Being bludgeoned into compliance with our prehistoric elders’ belief that Achulean hand axes are best for all needs and occasions would have been a disastrous approach when the people in the next valley were perfecting bows and arrows. Well, you get my drift.

Be loyal, says the Left, only when institutions, political ideologies, and leaders warrant it – when they enhance a responsible growth in human freedom and choice.  This the basic position of the mainstream Left. And, please, do not pony up the argument that the Right is likewise keen on responsible growth in human freedom and choice. I think it can be well-argued that in American society, particularly in the past fifty years, the Left has been more in tune with the basic nature of human cultural adaptation than has the Right. The mainstream Left has never sought anarchy, as the Right too often portrays them. The Left recognizes the need for retaining the best of what has worked in the past. Yet, they also believe in allowing for innovation and the expansion of human freedom to the greatest degree possible. They are very much capable of being loyal to institutions and sociopolitical processes – when such loyalty is warranted.

The Right, on the other hand, has typically had among its ranks the wealthy and powerful – those in society who can better control their wealth and power, and the processes and institutions that produce and support it, if individual freedom in the society is controlled and directed to their, the Right’s, goals and needs. The Left too has it agenda, but their worldview is broader in that it encompasses all members of the society, not only the wealthy and powerful. What is best for every person, they believe, is best for all.

Sure, the key issue here is: What do we mean by “responsible growth” in human freedom and choice? The approach of the Right has its place, as does that of the Left. However, I do not believe nor do I think it can be proven that we need an equal balance of each. I say this because the Right, being generally wealthier and more powerful than those on the Left, have proven to be more likely to do more harm to society and humanity than the Left if they, the Right, wield fifty-percent or more control of the societal and human agenda.

Humankind cannot adhere to the past and ride our planet safely into the future. Every day must be lived freely, effectively guided a little by the past but mostly by the present, and certainly not by a fear of the future where we are prevented from venturing to find betters ways of doing things.

What I’ve said above about loyalty also goes for Haidt’s findings about the Left not being keen on the sanctity and authority moral foundations. Our species does not survive and thrive because we have heapings of loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority. We survive and thrive because we take risks, try new things, build on the innovations and changes we inherit culturally. It is less useful to think of Left and Right political ideologies scoring higher or lower on moral foundations than it is to ask why segments of a population seek greater or lesser freedom of expression and action. Morality is a dynamic, social artifact of Humankind.  Its deep significance has little to do with our “intuition” or the purported encoding of our behavior in genes and brains. Morality is something that is learned and lived, not a biological drive.

Human morality is best treated as something provisional, evolving, and continually reinvented. Not a physiological imperative bubbling up from our deep prehistoric past, bursting out in our behavior, and varnished over by our reasoning. Our nature is to be responsibly inventive, innovative, creative, and risk-taking.  Their most important moral meaning and significance is made manifest as individual-in-society activities, not at the level of genetic protein coding or neuron electro-chemical processes.


The most important part of our nature, the vast majority of it, is learned. A bit of it vanishes with each of our deaths. Happily and more importantly for the survival of our species, the vast majority of what is our nature is retained in the memories of those remaining after an individual’s death.  This repository of the most important part of our nature is also a lasting legacy comprised of our scientific and humanistic understandings, and something that is discernible in all of our other artifacts. If every human being died tomorrow, the means of adapting to the every-changing physical conditions of Earth would still be available to any one or thing that came here and was sentient enough to understand and apply them. They would not need to look at our genetic code and brain cells to learn what human adaptation and morality are all about.

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