Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ideological Divisions

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: 
Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion 
by Jonathan Haidt

“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”   ― Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

The title of this book suggests that it will contain information about the thoughts, and feelings that we have about what is morally right, and why there exist such a divergence of views about this subject. The author approaches the topic using psychological tools to determine the basis for this divergence. After a brief summary of the book I will discuss my misgivings about his project.

In the first section of the book the author discusses the idea that we use our intuition to first identify what is right and afterward apply strategic reasoning. The concept is summarized metaphorically by the image of an elephant and its rider with the elephant representing our intuition or "automatic" processes and the rider our rational deliberative mind. He goes on in the second section to identify five categories (later expanded to six) of moral issues using the metaphor of taste; based in part on the philosophical views of David Hume. In the final section he discusses why humans tend to form groups based around shared approaches toward moral categories. In this case the metaphor is the chimp and the bee, with the chimp representing the individual and the bee the group or "hive". The formation of groups is helpful in understanding the different viewpoints toward issues as each group emphasizes different categories of moral issues. All of this discussion is laced with observations of responses to hypothetical questions and situations by individuals and different groups.

I found Haidt's approach to be fundamentally flawed, yet I also found it fascinating and helpful both in enlarging and refining my thinking about the subjects he discussed. The fundamental flaw is the author's attempt to identify moral principles by using behavior and in the process of doing so eliminating the possibility that some moral principles may be foundational for any other activities. The result of his method is to conclude that good people can hold any combination of moral beliefs the difference between which can only be considered a difference in emphasis.  This may be useful for a relatively homogeneous culture but it does little to explain the fundamental differences between cultures for whom there are fundamental differences in moral principles. He also seriously underestimates the power of reason in our moral judgements.  While it is true that we sometimes make mistakes in moral judgement due to faulty reasoning;  our reasoning can be improved, resulting in better judgement.  In either case this is not sufficient ground to claim that there are no right or wrong answers to questions of morality.  The psychological approach used by Haidt leads him to these conclusions.

In spite of some specious eristics the book contains much useful information about the nature of the human mind, its development and actions such as decision-making. Reading it stimulated me to consider related works in philosophy, anthropology and evolutionary biology. This is one of the aspects that I value most in reading and The Righteous Mind was successful in this regard.

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R.T. said...

The book sounds suspiciously like an endorsement of moral relativism (which I reject) and a condemnation of moral absolutes. Or am I misreading something.

Brian Joseph said...

I love such philosophical musings on morality, motivations and actions.

As you allude to, it sounds as if the principles that Haidt are espousing are true some of the time but not all of the time.

Lory said...

It's good to see someone grappling with these important issues today, even if not with complete success. My first question would come up with the title, which refers to "good people" -- who judges them to be good? What is goodness? If "good people can hold any number of moral beliefs" what if some of those beliefs are in direct conflict with each other, thus causing them to be not-good in a different belief system?

James said...


Thanks for your astute observation. While Haidt's arguments lead to a presumption of moral relativism he does not explicitly condemn moral absolutes; but one cannot conclude otherwise. Despite his position on moral relativism, with which I also disagree, his book raises interesting points that are worth considering.
A useful criticism of Haidt's position is provided by Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. Haidt provides interesting observations that lead to equivocal conclusions about the nature and relative importance of moral principles.

James said...


You raise a very good question. Haidt does not specifically address this issue.
His view of morality is that is basically the way that people cooperate by regulating their self-interest. He does not discuss the issue of good versus evil directly and the presumption is that people (at least those he has observed or is writing about) are basically good.
He basically does not address the issue whether "alternative moralities are really good, true, or justifiable." (p 98).