Of Many Things

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is addressed to our national discontent. A study in moral psychology, it aims to explain why Americans are so polarized over politics and religion. Haidt’s explanation? “The righteous mind,” which means not only the human capacity to make moral judgments, but even more the tendency to be judgmental or “moralistic.” “Righteousness,” he argues, is essential to human society. Our overstated moral intuitions bind us in groups and divide us from others.

In the end, Haidt hopes to persuade conservatives and liberals to understand one another a little better and get along. Wisdom, he writes, “requires us all to take the logs out of our own eyes and then escape from our ceaseless, petty and divisive moralism.” Liberals and conservatives are “the yin and yang” of a healthy society; they should learn from one another.

Haidt’s insights go a long way toward elucidating the more vocal and unyielding attitudes we hear in everyday life. They invite us to think about moralistic behavior, a phenomenon we tend to overlook. They especially illuminate morally flat societies, like the United States today. Are we not the country where “Jersey Shore” is a pop sensation and “Survivor” allows middle-aged adults to play out the nightmare of Lord of the Flies? Ours is not a culture that values qualitative differences in moral judgments.

What is missing in The Righteous Mind is a sense of moral development, of growth and conversion in moral attitudes, of differences in moral perceptions that are rooted in differences in worth. After all, Mr. Haidt himself admits to a transformation from a liberal to a centrist persuasion in the course of his research. Mutual understanding and social harmony are more important to him now than when he was a straightforward liberal, valuing unhampered individual liberty.

How can we account for this change? In Haidt-land people can and do change their moral views under the weight of gossip or the intense pressure of outspoken neighbors. But moral convictions also change for better reasons and out of experiences of better and finer quality. Men and women evolve in their attitudes to particular wars, like the Vietnam War, and to war itself. It took a lifetime, but Robert McNamara eventually confessed he had been mistaken about Vietnam. More to the point, during the cold war Henry Kissinger and George Schultz were practitioners of deterrence; now they argue for abolition of nuclear weapons.

We are not inevitably doomed by untutored moral intuitions and our feelings of righteousness in the ways Haidt suggests. In these cases about nuclear abolition, moral conversion took a rational form. Facts accumulated, contexts changed, principles evolved. Reasonable people changed their minds. Moral conversion also results from profound shifts in consciousness. It can arise in a series of awakenings, as it did for William Wilberforce confronting the slave trade, or in the form of an inescapable call, as it did to Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott. It can be forced on one by an unavoidable decision, as for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Thinkers from Plato in the Symposium to Erik Erikson in Gandhi’s Truth have traced paths of ascent in moral awareness and responsibility. Their idealized plot-lines may over-systematize what in life may be more random personal narratives of growth. But such trajectories reflect the fact that we humans can and do grow in moral awareness and the exercise of moral responsibility. If “Survivor” is not to remain the image of American society, the narratives of real-life moral heroes, sages and saints must take their place again in popular culture; and their strategies of moral growth must be ratified by our cultural institutions.

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