Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a really fascinating book. I don’t know where you’d categorise it — I’ve read people saying moral psychology, political philosophy, sociology, anthropology… As far as I can gather, Haidt gathers up research and thought from different fields in setting out this book. And what does he seek to explore? Well, not so much “why good people are divided by politics and religion”, as the subtitle would have it, but the more fundamental question: why do people make different moral decisions with the same information?
He pulls in a lot of research as he goes through this. The fact that disgust makes people more conservative; if you can portray something as dirty (Jewish people, gay people, whatever kind of sex you disapprove of, people of colour, people with disabilities) then you’re halfway to calling it immoral already. Particularly for people who tend to be more conservative anyway. In fact, more easily disgusted people are usually more politically and socially conservative. (I’m an aberration; now I think about it, I wonder if that’s because I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies causing my fear of germs and disgust responses, rather than actually thinking that way naturally.)
A lot of this, I’ve come across before, but not synthesised into a full theory like this. (Paul Bloom uses a lot of the same ideas, for example. Particularly in his Coursera course on Moralities of Everyday Life). Mostly, it worked for me. Some of Haidt’s analogies and examples are a little clunky. The elephant (emotion)/rider (rationality) metaphor gets increasingly ridiculous the more he uses it, despite the aptness of the metaphor in some ways. Likewise the ‘taste receptor’ analogy for moral issues. I don’t know how much he tested this out on people outside his field, but I think he does need to look for feedback on his imagery.
I tried to watch myself for knee-jerk reactions while reading this. Reading other reviews made me smile wryly, as other people reacted immediately to what they perceived as the thrust of Haidt’s argument without reasoning it through. The fact that Haidt divides morality up into six regions which are more or less relevant to every culture really annoys people right off, particularly when he then shows that research has liberals focusing on three of these areas while conservatives focus on all six. As a matter of fact, Haidt seems to hold fairly liberal views himself. He’s not criticising the goals of the liberal movement so much as a short sightedness that’s preventing liberal politicians making the gains they could.
It’s basically a validation of the positive sides of conservative and libertarian ethics. It’s mostly an American Democrat writing about American Republicans, and trying to uncover the way they think and the reasonable basis for their beliefs and moral decisions.
What I don’t think he’s doing is saying that liberalism is bad, that conservatism is automatically the answer, or that the core values of liberalism are wrong. He’s looking at the positive aspects of both sides, seeing them as a yin and yang system, rather than diametrically opposed systems on their own.
I’m gonna confess that my politics probably fall fairly close to Haidt’s, so I’m not the best person to pick holes in his argument. To me, some of it felt clumsy due to the imagery he employed, but most of it made sense. I’m now reading Sam Harris, who advocates reason and scientifically proven morality, which doesn’t fit into Haidt’s system well at all. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.
I will just note that from this, Haidt is capable of considering other people’s views. He makes a good response to Dawkins’ atheism, for example, and does a good job of laying out Dawkins’ position. Harris, on the other hand… This may be me projecting, but he has a kind of arrogance in the way he writes (and in the way he speaks — I’ve watched both of them lecture) that turns me off. I’m having a very hard time not knee-jerking in response.