Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is well intentioned (or seems to be) and is getting much talk here, there and everywhere. The purpose of The Righteous Mind is ostensibly to help the American political left and right understand each other better. I don’t know if the book will achieve this. But more ominously, this book is one of a rash of modern tomes that ask us to look charitably on the views of the extreme religious right. I certainly don’t think Jonathan Haidt is a fascist, but I do think his book (like Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) could easily become the bible of a fascist regime. Haidt’s methodology is pretty straightforward; he is a psychologist who applies mostly Darwinian science to morality. What is typical of this kind of approach is that it ends up quite often being an apology for conservative right wing views.
I don’t know what Jonathan Haidt’s personal moral ideas are. He certainly makes a valiant attempt to keep them out of his book, and mostly succeeds. However he speaks briefly of a young woman overheard at a university cafeteria saying to another woman -- “Oh my God! If you were a guy I’d be so on your dick right now!” Haidt responds to her remark like this: “I felt a mixture of amusement and revulsion.” Hm. Revulsion. I don’t get it. If I overheard a young woman speak like that I would be nothing but happy. First of all it’s nice to see someone -- indeed anyone – speak in a sex-positive manner. Secondly, it takes a great deal of bravery for a young woman to talk in such a manner when there have been historically, so many pressures on young women to appear not to be sexual (the danger being they will be demonized as ‘whores’.)
So I don’t think Haidt likes sex much, or that he understands the oppression of women.
But more importantly, let’s look at his observation in the context of his central argument. Haidt uses it to prove a very important point about morality. He says, speaking of the same girl “how could I criticize her from the ethic of autonomy?” The ‘ethic of autonomy’ refers to John Stuart Mill’s notion that people should be free individuals, and judgments about right or wrong should only be related to hurt. In other words if we believe that ethics is all about weighing the harm that one person does to another, then a girl who talks in this manner cannot be morally criticized because she is hurting no one. The only reason we would be allowed to criticize the poor girl morally (and the more I think about Haidt’s book, the sorrier I feel for this young woman!) would be if we believe morality has to do with ‘instinctive’ reactions to the sanctity of the body. Haidt wants us to know that ideas of fairness, hurt and harm are quite particular to modern western morality, and that ideas of bodily sanctity and degradation are an integral part of the morality of many ancient western and non-western religions. Haidt is ostensibly saying both types of morality are in their own way right, or at least should be accepted as equal. This is despite the fact that fairness is something that we can justify through rational argument, while ‘sanctity’ is something we cannot.
I take issue with this. The problem with Haidt’s argument is that he is yet another ‘scientist’ (although as much as I think psychology is important, I still don’t know if it can yet be considered a science) using biological theories to bolster conservative views. His final conclusion is very revealing. The left and right are divided in the U.S.A. because “our minds were designed for groupish righteousness. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often build on different configurations of available moral foundations.” Haidt’s findings are not the least bit surprising. He is definitely not the first person to suggest that we are creatures of feeling easily swayed by group sentiments. What is ‘new’ -- only in the sense that people are speaking from this position more and more these days -- is to suggest that because humans are biologically constructed in a certain way, we must therefore be tolerant of their ignorance or prejudice and perhaps not challenge them (after all, challenging them can be ‘difficult’ and we are ‘hardwired’ to be like that). This is the same argument that many are use to justify heterosexism -- i.e. women have different brains than men, so they are programmed to act differently, so we must treat them differently. But of course no one would dare use this argument to justify racism (although that is a logically corollary of Haidt’s argument).
Are we not rational beings? Isn’t it pretty evident that we are animals, with
irrational feelings and desires, but also (thank God) with brains that can reason (yes with difficulty) to help us to control, understand, and weigh, our impulses, tastes and prejudices? One would hope so. But a new breed of scientists (mostly Darwinians) would have us tolerate the most irrational aspects of ourselves because they are after all, part of what we inherit from the animals.
It’s ironic that a Darwinian psychologist’s arguments could be so potently used to prop up the views of the religious right. Haidt argues essentially that we are animals programmed to have innate motions of sanctity. He makes a complex, paradoxical connection between logic and illogic.
If I were paranoid, I would say it’s all part of an elaborate plot to make some very antiquated, scary and fundamentally anti-human ideas seem modern, scientific and palatable.
Thank goodness I’m not.