SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

By Matt Sheedy

Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, (2012) offers is a wide-ranging study that blends elements of philosophy and politics, with arguments from his own field of moral, cultural, and evolutionary psychology. In this sense, the book is perhaps best classified as a fusion of primary research in an area that he is well versed-in and well-respected, spiced with a more popular appeal to political sensibilities in the contemporary US, which includes the provocative thesis that conservatives are equipped with a broader “moral matrix” than liberals.

Haidt begins by rejecting the rationalist notion of the mind as a “blank slate” that is capable of being nurtured in the ways of reason. He argues that this common fallacy ignores the ways in which human beings are guided by their intuitions (emotions), and thus, for the most part, use their reasoning skills as post-hoc constructions in the service of justifying group-related moral preferences, be they liberal, conservative or libertarian. (xvi) Motivated in part to promote civility amongst people from diverse backgrounds, he argues that promoting good behavior is not simply a matter of producing good thinking, as with rationalism, but requires an understanding of social intuitionism, the idea that moral judgments are largely guided by innate impulses like disgust, shame and disrespect. (22) Rejecting the popular evolutionary paradigm that holds humans to be essentially
selfish primates (e.g., Dawkins’ “selfish genes”), Haidt follows the likes of E. O. Wilson in arguing that morality is a group-related adaptation (199), which, among other things, has enabled the expansion of “parochial love” beyond kinship ties towards creating bonds with
those who share enough in common with one another (e.g., a shared sense of fate) and are willing to punish free riders who deviated too much from the fold. (245) Enter politics.

Haidt links Bentham’s utilitarianism with Durkheim’s emphasis on the power of group-belonging as a counter-weight to the Western, rational, liberal focus on the foundations of care and fairness. Drawing on his own Moral Foundations Theory, he argues that educated liberals (i.e., his readers) need to first understand and then find ways to speak to those other Moral Foundations such as loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty/oppression that conservatives have long valorized and been able to tap-into when it comes to winning people over to their side. Enter religion.

Haidt sides with the likes of Atran and Heinrich, among others, who see religions less as parasitic memes (e.g., Dennett and Dawkins) and more as cultural innovations in their ability to bind groups together and make them more cooperative. (255) Accordingly, Haidt seeks to move away from models of religion that focus on belief (250), and move toward ones that account for the interplay between belonging, believing and doing, where social groups and practices are seen the driving force. (251)

As there is much to commended and critique in this book, I’ll limit myself to two points for each. On the critical side: Haidt hypostatizes such categories as “liberal” and “conservative”
without accounting for their social construction and contingent nature in relation to particular cultures/histories. Among other things, the critical scholar might ask, what is being privileged by his exclusion of such positions as the varieties of anarchism, Marxism, or even fascism and explore whether his psychological theory is compromised by his argument in favor of a more tolerant version of the (American) status quo?

Similarly, when talking about religion, Haidt does not acknowledge the history of the term, which leads to some familiar problems, such as the privileging of certain traditionalist understandings of sacredness (104), and the collapsing of religion into morality and
vice versa, without attempting to explain how it may be different from
other social formations.

On the positive side: Haidt offers a wide-ranging look at recent innovations and
controversies in the fields of moral, cultural and evolutionary psychology, including discussions on neuroscience, empathy and group-related adaptation and presents them in relation to questions of politics and religion.

The book marks an innovation/evolution of sorts from cruder popular
treatments of religion as with the New Atheists, by broadening the
analysis from “belief” to “social facts” (see footnotes 11, p.336) and
attempts to create bridges between a variety of fields, including
cognitive and evolutionary psychology with sociology and anthropology.
As a part of a broader group of influential public intellectuals
interested in religion
, Haidt’s book also represents an important aspect of “data” when it comes to discourses about religion in the public sphere that scholars would be foolish to
ignore.

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