The self-righteous mind, or, why some very fine people on both sides are divided by politics and religion

I am writing while the chaos of the US presidential elections is peaking, and then shortly after Joe Biden is probably confirmed as president-elect. As I have recently been trying to write something about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, it struck me how much this book – hailed 10 years ago, when it was published, but still now, as an insightful explanation of general political phenomena – has aged.

Its central message is that both main political positions of the US – liberals and conservatives (plus right-wing libertarians)) – have their part of truth, thanks to accenting different axes of moral concern about the world. While Haidt is focusing on the particularly American debate, he thinks his findings are more or less universal, because the discovered axes of moral concern, deployed in politics, are extensions of evolutionally ingrained adaptive strategies, inherited from our ancestors. Intercultural variance is mainly due to different emphases on different individual axes or their combinations. One astonishing discovery to which this analysis led Haidt was that American republicans (model 2010) practically cover the whole width of politically expressed moral concerns about the world.

Haidt’s model was criticised shortly after the book’s publication. Haidt himself – and many of his admirers, including those identifying themselves as liberals – seems to have ignored or dismissed most of these criticisms as voiced by narrow-minded, overly touchy liberals. (At least none of these criticisms managed to dethrone Haidt from the position of someone providing deep insights into the contemporary life, private and political). Yet if we go through few of the most typical criticisms, we can see that they still hold, now even more clearly than then.

  1. Haidt seems to confuse the overview of contingent political rhetorics of one time and one country – and his assessment of which rhetoric is the more appealing one – with the discovery of a universal spectre. As a result, on the political map drawn by him, there seems to be no real place for political phenomena of the kind that do not exist in the U.S.. Social democratic politics of the Scandinavian type, positive political values of secularism such as in France, Latin-American forms of socialism, the semi-authoritarian political regimes of post-communist countries in Middle Europe, to name just a few.
  2. Haidt seems to confuse conformity to established convention, which he calls “enculturation”, with morality. As a result, on the political map drawn by him, there seems to be no real place for a truly morally motivated criticism of dominant, ingrained and widespread political tendencies, if that criticism is issued from a marginal, or dissident point of view without wider support.
  3. Haidt seems to confuse a political standpoint motivated by a moral concern with such that is motivated by the person’s self-identification as a representative of (what she/he thinks is) a moral concern. As a result, on the political map drawn by him, there seems to be no real place for distinguishing between genuine morality and, say, racist prejudices, if only they are genuinely embraced, widespread and ingrained enough. Consider Jim Crow laws and living by them.

The combined force of these assumptions leads to what he calls descriptive moral pluralism. A liberal “snowflake” decrying the oppressive nature of norms and habits prevalent in a patriarchal society simply does not understand that the others do have a morality on their own, vitally important for sustaining their society. For Haidt, there simply seems to be no good reason to reject another conception of morality as morality; when I don’t understand I just have to try harder to understand.

Now, how would this work in practice? Are you, as a liberal, worried about the practice of forced “gay conversion” therapy, because it is at odds with the values of individual rights and individual autonomy? Perhaps you just don’t understand the underlying values of sanctity and deference to authority. The trouble is, in cases such as those, the differing underlying moralities clash in such a way that there seems to be no imaginable possibility of their reconciliation, of a compromise. In his critique of Haidt, Lawrence Blum points out that this may be because the values of loyalty to community, or of deference to authority are no unconditionally moral values at all (unlike the values of not harming another, or of justice and fairness), no matter what their advocates claim. There is simply only so far that one can go, in an attempt to understand the morality of some “very fine people” marching with torches as morality. To be able to see their standpoint as morally motivated, or rather to be willing to explore such a reading of their standpoint, might mean to compromise one’s own conception of morality, if one cares about equality or doing no harm. There is something smug in Haidt’s suggestions that one should not recognise, or set oneself, a point beyond which she simply cannot go to understand the other.

I am not saying it is always easy to locate the point, and often it may be elsewhere than where one thinks it is. But constructing an elaborate theoretical model, one of whose purposes is arguing that there is no such point, seems myopic.