Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (Pantheon) is a book 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,” not only the human capacity to make moral judgements, 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. They make us “groupish,” he writes.
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 U.S. today, where a demotic culture fosters moral relativism. 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 judgements. It is no wonder that our political and even religious discourse mimics, in a shallow and distorted ways, the genuine article.
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 differences in worth. After all, Mr. Haidt admits himself to a transformation in the course of his research from a liberal to a centrist persuasion. Mutual understanding and social harmony are more important to him now than when he was a straightforward liberal, valuing unhampered individual liberty. What accounts for the 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. For example, the “silent scream” turned abortionist Bernard Natanson into a leading pro-life activist. People’s attitudes toward wars like Vietnam evolve. It took a life time, 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 passionate feelings of righteousness in the ways Haidt suggests. In the case of nuclear abolition, the Cold Warriors’ moral conversion took a rational form. Facts accumulated, contexts changed, principles evolved. Reasonable people changed their minds. Contrary to Haidt, reason is not always the slave of passion supplying convenient rationalizations for what we already want to do. It sometimes subdues and re-directs it. People do reason their ways to new moral positions, develop new moral outlooks and find their moral feelings changed.
Even more, attentive, honest moral reasoning can sometimes open up a wider range of moral “intuitions” than Haidt’s theory allows. Moral conversion can result from profound shifts in consciousness. It can arise in a series of awakenings as it did for William Wilberforce confronting the slave trade, or as an inescapable call as it did to Martin Luther King during the Montgomery bus boycott. It can be forced on one with an unavoidable decision, as for Franz Jaegerstatter, who refused to serve in Hitler’s wars, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who joined the plot to assassinate der Fuhrer.
Another route to altered moral awareness consists of patterns of moral development. 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. The absence of moral awakenings and moral development as part of his theory deprives the landscape of the Righteous Mind of depth and richness. While he is correct about the strength of conservative values, inattention to the variety and depth of moral experience leads to underestimation of the sources of moral change and of the liberal role in society.
One of the strengths of The Righteous Mind is Haidt’s attention to the values to which conservatives are especially attached: loyalty, authority and sanctity. “Republicans,” he writes, “understand moral psychology. Democrats do not.” Their advantage, he argues, is that conservatives can appeal to the whole range of moral intuitions described by his Moral Foundations Theory, including care and fairness, the only two values that liberals attend to. Of course, what motivates them more strongly are loyalty, authority and sanctity. What’s awry in Haidt’s theory is that his thin empiricism rests on what the phenomenologist Nicholas Hartmann called “strong values,” values that push us to defend our homes and countries, values that fill us with revulsion at cannibalism and incest. But he neglects “higher values” like generosity, service of others, nonviolence and love of enemies.
Haidt can explain why lepers were regarded as “unclean,” but not why Saint Francis would declare kissing a leper “perfect joy” or why Mother Teresa rescued the dying from the streets of Calcutta. He can explain wartime jingoism but not pacifism; anti-migrant violence but not the sanctuary movement. He understands human fear, but not aspiration. His notion of sanctity is a case in point.
Sanctity, for Haidt, is synonymous with taboo. It is about the avoidance of pollution, repugnance at unnatural acts (abortion, suicide, euthanasia, genetic manipulation). It corresponds to one aspect of Rudolf Otto’s experience of the Holy, the mysterium tremendum, the sacred as a pervasive and perduring sense of fear, but not the other, the mysterium fascinans, a center of intimate and all-embracing love. Haidt’s empiricism is too thin. Yes, fear, loyalty and deference to authority are strong passions, but they are not often our best passions. Loyalty can inspire occasional acts of heroism, but not a lifetime of service.
Moral Foundation Theory has no room in it for Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and “peak experiences,” ideas about positive and expansive experiences that in the 60s and 70s united humanistic psychology with traditional philosophical and spiritual traditions of moral growth. There’s no room either for Erikson’s homo religiosus (Gandhi) as a person whose object of care became all humanity. He misses the religious experience of “peace” which Alfred North Whitehead called the crowning experience of civilization.
Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory accounts for our demons and the lesser angels of our nature, but not the better ones. It accounts for a narrow range of religious experience, those parts of it most evident in the culture wars, but not the transformative experiences of mystics, spiritual masters and religious founders like Benedict, Ignatius, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Dorothy Day whose foundations altered history.
The Righteous Mindilluminates the sources of our cultural discontent, but it lacks the resources to heal it. The empirical and theoretical foundations are too feeble for that. The way out of this cultural low depends on rediscovering our moral highs.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.