Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Righteous Mind

I want to point to two reviews of Jonathan Haidt's new book, which has the title of this post. It brings exceptional clarity to the definition of contemporary liberals and conservatives, and argues that it is the liberals who are not getting the point. First, some clips from Kristof's comments:
Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, argues that, for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity...Those latter values bind groups together with a shared respect for symbols and institutions such as the flag or the military...This year’s Republican primaries have been a kaleidoscope of loyalty, authority and sanctity issues...Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three...Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters.

From Saletan's review:
Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments...We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided...The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others...Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.

We acquire morality the same way we acquire food preferences: we start with what we’re given. If it tastes good, we stick with it. If it doesn’t, we reject it. People accept God, authority and karma because these ideas suit their moral taste buds. Haidt points to research showing that people punish cheaters, accept many hierarchies and don’t support equal distribution of benefits when contributions are unequal...You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.

Is income inequality immoral? Should government favor religion? Can we tolerate cultures of female subjugation? And how far should we trust our instincts? Should people who find homosexuality repugnant overcome that reaction?..Haidt’s faith in moral taste receptors may not survive this scrutiny. Our taste for sanctity or authority, like our taste for sugar, could turn out to be a dangerous relic. But Haidt is right that we must learn what we have been, even if our nature is to transcend it.
Haidt's book references a number of experiments noted in MindBlog posts, on differences in the psychologies and autonomic nervous system reactivities of conservatives and liberals.

By the way, in this same vein, I might point to Chris Money's comments on his book "The Republican Brain," which he almost called "The Science of Truthiness," which asks why very intelligent Republicans deny scientific realities such as evolution and climate change.


  1. Thomas Friedman's recent op ed piece 'Elephants Down Under'

    points out that there appears to be a fundamental difference between the stark conservative mindset seen in the USA vs other parts of the world.

  2. Democrats don't value loyalty? Is Kristof kidding? Or is a subtle dig at a distinction between "blind loyalty" and "thoughtful loyalty"? Most Democrats I know have robustly developed senses of loyalty ("I need to do this even though it does not accord with my primary values because I have a conflicting value of a past public identity to a group or a relationship to a person or group of persons.") If Democrats were less loyal, I suppose this implications would be: greater incidence of conscientious objection when going into war; greater incidence of "resistance" when non-Democrat is in power; more resistance and non-compliance to paying taxes, etc. I'm sure there are many others measures... the point being that I think reasonable people would say the incidences of adherence is larger for some things for some -left-right divides, smaller for others, so it's a wash.

  3. Anonymous10:49 AM

    I don't think it's a matter of whether Democrats value loyalty or authority or sanctity, but that they don't SPEAK about those things, giving the impression that they don't.

  4. Anonymous7:22 AM

    "By the way, in this same vein, I might point to Chris Money's comments on his book "The Republican Brain," which he almost called "The Science of Truthiness," which asks why very intelligent Republicans deny scientific realities such as evolution and climate change." -

    Just asking. What is a "scientific reality"? Something agreed by "scientists" as forming a "consensus view" held by the same "scientists"? For example, does a "consensus view" by "scientists" about the existence of God become a "scientific reality"? Implying that "scientific reality" is a report on the subjective attitudes of a professional group towards some part of the greater universe? As a conservative scientist I fail to see any objective evidence for the objective reality of "global warming"; and as a scientist I see "evolution" as nothing more than a working hypothesis that may one day be replaced by something better. A good line of further research would be to ask why liberals more so than conservatives are prone to treat science as a kind of religion whose practitioners should be worshiped. Could it be because ultimately Marx made a fetish of his own pseudo-scientific methods ("scientific materialism"), and liberals follow lock-step behind.