Review of Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”. Haidt is a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. He makes three major points about moral psychology. First, for people moral intuitions are primary, and reasoning is secondary; second, there’s more to morality than harm and fairness; and third, morality binds and blinds. He draws on much research to defend these positions. An interesting metaphor he develops is that human morality is a man riding an elephant; that is, our reasoning about moral matters is a very minor part of our moral judgment, which is mostly automatic. He provides evidence to show that political liberals in the USA are largely motivated by their feelings about care, liberty and fairness, while political conservatives add to these motivations those of sacredness, loyalty and authority. He points out research showing that liberals are a lot poorer at guessing how conservatives would respond to particular moral questions than conservatives are about guessing liberal positions. (The reason is that the typical conservative has a broader range of moral motivations than a typical liberal).

He discusses evidence that suggests that human morality is both genetic and cultural in origin, and that religion in particular is likely to have some genetic components, given that religion has been around for a very long time, probably since before the origin of agriculture. After all, agriculture has had demonstrable effects on the human genome, (think about some human populations to metabolize lactose as adults, others not). Haidt is a scientist and he accepts that humans, including their morality, are the product of evolution. He gives a lot of credit to E.O. Wilson (The Social Conquest of Earth, 2012) for his views on group selection, and he thinks that group selection has a lot to do with the evolution of morality. This has attracted a lot of fire from biologists, most of whom do not accept group selection as an important mechanism in evolution. However, I don’t think it is essential for Haidt’s overall argument that group selection (at the genetic level) needs to be included. It only needs to be proven that genes could be affected by cultural evolution, and that group selection occurs due to cultural reasons. This is not heavy lifting. Thus it seems to me that Haidt’s conclusions should be taken seriously. In essence he does not think that there is much hope that those on one side of our political divide could offer up a rational argument that could persuade those on the other. He does not offer up much by way of practical means of resolving political disputes, but he does build on the idea of trying to establish intuitive relationships based on personal interactions before trying to persuade people on the other side of the liberal-conservative political divide. He does not say this, but I expect he would agree that we should pay attention to Lincoln’s statement that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Since writing this, I have also read A.C. Grayling’s “The God Argument” (Bloomsbury, 2013). I will review this book separately, but I would like to add a comment here, because Grayling indirectly answers Haidt’s idea that there is a strong genetic component to religious belief in humans. Grayling here agrees with Jerry Coyne, who, somewhere in his blog on Why Evolution is True, makes the point that most Western Europeans do quite nicely without religion these days. Grayling makes the even more telling point that the Chinese – a very substantial part of the human population by any standard – also do without religion. (Granted that there are some religious Chinese, the fruit of missionary activity, etc.). These observations suggest that the genetic basis of religion, even when saved by the strategy I mentioned above, is not a very strong one. This confirms the idea that religion is mostly a product of cultural evolution, and is either reversible or at least not an inevitable result of human social development.

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