“Liberal” cultural psychologist foregoes science to accept the premises of the right wing

Several progressive friends of mine were raving about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which is about three years old, so I read it. In it, Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, extends a very important theory about morality in humans that is emerging among anthropologists and primatologists. But then he uses false reasoning and what looks like shoddy research to twist the theory into a wild assertion that people inherently respond more enthusiastically to rightwing arguments.

In the first part of The Righteous Mind, Haidt explores the idea that morality is hardwired into humans, a theory that has gained much ground over the past few decades. Haidt combines studies by cultural anthropologists and some primatologists to postulate that there exist five distinct foundations to morality and moral thought inherent in humans, all traceable to primates and other mammals. Haidt expresses each of the five as a dichotomy of good and bad behavior:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

Haidt shows how each of these foundations of morality evolved in response to an adaptive challenge, e.g., care/harm evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for the vulnerable young; sanctity evolved as a response to the need to avoid contaminants in food and elsewhere. This first part of the book extends research conducted by Frans de Waal, Jane Goodall and others that pretty much establishes that primates have morality, which means that morality is hardwired into humans, part of our essential nature.

Unfortunately Haidt uses the second half of The Righteous Mind to explicate a bloated theory that liberals concern themselves with only two of these moral foundations, care and fairness, whereas conservatives are concerned with all five. Haidt sees this so-called difference in moral emphasis as the reason conservative arguments resonate so emotionally with the electorate.

Haidt’s premise is that Republicans speak to all five moral foundations, whereas Democrats since 1960 offer a narrow moral vision, based only on the care and fairness moral foundations. We don’t even have to question his assumption that Democrats serve as stand-ins for liberals to see how Haidt jury-rigs his argument. The premise is false, because it posits that only Republicans talk about loyalty, authority and sanctity. What Haidt is really doing is accepting the Republican’s definition of these terms. Haidt contrasts how the Democrats and Republicans talk about fairness—the Dems focus on equal opportunity while the GOP focuses on the unfairness of taking money from taxpayers and giving it to the poor.

But to construct his argument, Haidt must ignore their differences in the areas of loyalty, authority and sanctity and instead state unequivocally that Democratic candidates don’t care about these moral foundations. It’s really utter nonsense. For example, Democrats often speak of the sanctity of life as the reason to have strong social welfare programs; they evoke “law and order” themes as much as Republicans do (see Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop for the sorry details). Haidt gives no example of Republicans’ so-called appeal to the loyalty foundation. Thus, Haidt uses rightwing definitions of two of the three moral centers Democrats supposedly lack and gives no example of the third.

Haidt never considers the other factors that have led to Republican election success in recent decades: He ignores the greater preponderance of cash that Republicans tend to have at their disposal. He ignores the fact that the mainstream news media—owned as they are by the wealthy—tend to pay more attention to Republican races and define political and economic issues using Republican terms. He displays every sign of not having read the works of C. Wright Mills, William Domhoff or Frances Fox Piven/Richard Cloward on how the ruling elite exercises control over elections and the electorate. He never considers the impact of racism, which makes people consider certain groups less than human and therefore not subject to the moral considerations reserved for those considered legitimately humans. Instead, Haidt reduces all the complexity of politics to the Democrats not appealing to three of five moral foundations, as defined by the semantics that Haidt borrows from the rightwing.

Ostensibly substantiating Haidt’s political theory are surveys he and associates have administered. These surveys supposedly show that those who call themselves liberal care much more about the care and fairness foundations than about the other moral foundations, whereas conservatives care equally about all five. But the surveys are full of ambiguous questions that can derive the same answer from both liberals and conservatives.

For example, the basic moral foundations test asks the question, “When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?” What follows are a number of factors, each of which the respondent must rate as very important to not very important as a consideration. Here are some of the factors, with brief comments on why these answers could misguide researchers:

  • Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency: Liberals will think it pure and decent for marriage to sanctify gay relationships, whereas conservatives will understand “purity and decency” as standards that regulate the behavior of individuals.
  • Whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group. Whether or not someone showed a lack of loyalty: What’s true betrayal or true loyalty?—to blow the whistle on unethical behavior by group leaders or to protect the group by concealing evidence it did something that transgressed its ideology or ethics.
  • Whether or not someone was denied his or her rights: Which right? The right to be served or the right not to engage in business transactions with someone whose race or way of life you disapprove of?
  • Whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country: Some believe Dick Cheney loves his country most; others would say it’s Edward Snowden.

I could spend another 20 pages analyzing the flaws and logical inconsistencies in Haidt’s absurd claim that liberals care about only two of the five moral foundations he and others have identified in primates. Before his flight of fancy into political theory, however, Haidt does establish that the five major strands of moral thinking are innate to humans, which argues against revealed religion as necessary for morality to exist. Anyone who reads The Righteous Mind should stop after the first eight chapters or be prepared to wade through some of the most manipulative and misleading nonsense written in recent years.


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