Book Review — The Righteous Mind

I realize that I am very late to this particular party, and that almost everyone likely to care about this book has in fact already read it, so I’m going to go very quickly through everything except the couple of places where I had idiosyncratic reactions.


Very briefly, for those of you who haven’t read it:

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a pop-science-level book on evolutionary psychology, attempting to explain (a) where the human capacity for moral judgment came from and (b) how it works.  It’s largely coming from a place of “we’re going to tell you why conservatives are like this and liberals are like that” — the tagline is “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

For those of you who are (understandably) skeptical of all things evo-psych: Haidt, at least, acknowledges and understands your likeliest concerns.  He makes a point, more than once, of explaining how it’s not good science to account for existing human phenomena by telling Just So Stories about how natural selection might have favored them.  And in fact he doesn’t do that.  Which should be a comfort.

For those of you who are inclined to judge a book primarily by its social/political conclusions: well, first of all, shame on you.  That said —

1. Haidt is a social scientist.  He is not a political theorist, a cultural analyst, or a moral philosopher.  He basically has no idea how to engage with anything normatively; he can reveal that systems exist and analyze how they work, but he has no good methodology for drawing useful lessons from them, because his ideas of “should” are all extremely sloppy and ill-defined.  Of course, this doesn’t stop him from trying.  Pop-science books always have to talk about How This Thing Can Change the World For the Better.  And it does grate.  But the book’s meat lies in the brute phenomenal claims, not the normativity, and it can probably be best appreciated if its conclusions are mostly ignored.

2. Haidt’s political/cultural stance, such as it is, is a species of squishy can’t-we-all-get-along-ness.  He’s notionally some sort of liberal himself, but he spends a lot of time talking about how he learned Valuable Life Lessons from more spending time in conservative-style milieus, and he’s far less interested in any concrete policy outcomes or culture changes than he is in people coming together to understand one another better.

(The book is studiously even-handed in a High Broderite sort of way, but it’s clearly written for an audience of self-identified liberals, and there’s a constant trickle of thoughts that amount to “did you know that contemporary liberal ideology isn’t, in all ways, equivalent to human goodness?”  Almost anyone is likely to have reasons to find this irritating.)


The Righteous Mind is a book in three parts.

The first part is pretty much Social Intuitionism 101.  The basic message is: human judgment, particularly in moral matters, is totally dominated by intuitions and pre-coded reactions rather than by conscious cognition / abstract thought.  Your reasoning engine is in fact designed to serve as a rationalization engine, providing post-hoc arguments and justifications for the things you already wanted to think and do.

Evidence is presented for this, in the form of people’s reactions to situations to designed to put intuition into conflict with reasoning.  The evolutionary logic behind this phenomenon is discussed at some length.

If you’ve never encountered ideas like this before, this might well turn out to be the most mind-blowing (and disturbing) part of the book.  But I think that, by this point, we’ve spent a long time marinating in the knowledge that our ability to reason is not as pure and Olympian as we feel it to be.  The internet is filled with people talking about the ubiquity of cognitive biases and how hard it is to expunge them.  Hell, I remember reading about this stuff in Dilbert comics fifteen years ago.  My own reaction was a resounding “yeah, OK, we knew that already.”

(The second edition of this book contains a brief aside to the effect of “under the right circumstances, which mostly involve being forced to step back and wait and think, intuition can in fact be restrained and made to listen to reason.”  Which is a nice fillip of non-defeatism, for all you rationalists out there.)


The second section is Moral Foundations Theory 101.  This stuff is new.  Haidt and his collaborators pretty much invented MFT, and this book was the first place it showed up anywhere (outside academic journals).

The theory, in a nutshell: Our moral sense is not a single cohesive piece of mental software.  Rather, it’s several different mental modules that have been kludged together, each of them rooted in a different intuition.  Those intuitions evolved separately, for different purposes, and now they combine and interact with one another to form the foundations of our moral thinking.  

In its initial formulation, there were five such foundations, expressed as opposed pairs of values/anti-values.  Care/Harm grew out of the evolutionary push to protect our offspring, and reflects a sense that it is better for people to be happy and safe.  Fairness/Cheating grew out of the evolutionary push towards a tit-for-tat instinct in cooperation-based situations (since that is the most effective strategy), and reflects a sense that contributors should be rewarded and defectors should be punished.  Loyalty/Betrayal grew out of the evolutionary push to form strong cohesive coalitions; it reflects a sense that things affiliated with one’s group (other members, symbols, etc.) are inherently morally valuable, and that disloyalty and treachery are especially bad.  Authority/Subversion grew out of the evolutionary push to fit into standard primate dominance hierarchies, and reflects a sense that it is better for leaders to be given obedience and respect.  Sanctity/Degradation…well, we’ll get to that one in a bit.

The important thing here, critically speaking, is that Haidt pulled these foundations out of his ass.

To his credit, he’s pretty up-front about that fact.  He literally sat around and said, “of all the evolutionary pressures that early hominids might have faced, which ones seem like they would crystallize into widespread intuitions about morality?”  Then he wrote up a bunch of studies to test his ideas, and discovered that, yup, people have strong moral intuitions about all those things (and that the intuitive attachment to each “foundation” varies between cultures).

This is the opposite of the traditional terrible evo-psych approach, where you start with the present-day phenomenon and try to conjure up the evolutionary pressure that would have generated it.  But it does present a sort of parallel difficulty.  How do you know that the things you’re talking about are real things, as opposed to artifacts of your own systematic biases and preferences?  The survey work tells you that you’re not just completely disconnected from reality, but it’s easy to imagine the situation in which you’ve artificially divided up two moral foundations that are in fact just parts of the same thing, and even easier to imagine the situation in which you’ve completely missed a moral foundation simply by not thinking of it and not asking questions about it.  If you’re trying to explain how human moral judgment works, this is a giant fucking problem.

And, indeed, Haidt ran into that problem face-first.  The first edition of his book led to him getting a lot of flak from people who’d thought that he had mischaracterized or misunderstood their morality, particularly from political conservatives who were outraged by his initial vision of Fairness (which had a greater emphasis on equality rather than defector-punishing).  This ultimately led him to postulate the existence of a sixth foundation, Liberty/Oppression, which arose much later in human history than the others — after we developed weapons that would reliably allow gangs of non-dominant humans to overthrow physically powerful alphas — as part of an evolutionary push to avoid being over-dominated and thereby suffering bad reproductive outcomes.  His notion of the Liberty intuition is an interesting one; he believes that the same fundamental “you’re not the boss of me” intuition underlies both the libertarian obsession with autonomy and the leftist obsession with fighting on behalf of underdog groups.  It would be nice if he actually provided some concrete evidence for this, which he doesn’t, because this whole thing is discussed in a relatively brief passage that’s meant to serve as a patch.  But it’s cool.

(If you go to and take the latest instantiation of the Morality Foundations Quiz, you’ll see that Haidt and co. are toying around with adding yet more foundations.)

Anyway.  Haidt goes on to explain that modern educated liberal Westerners have developed a culture that builds its morality on only three of these foundations — we WEIRDoes care an awful lot about Care and Liberty, and a moderate amount about Fairness, but really not about any of the others — while social conservatives and “most of everyone else in the world” uses all six foundations, and libertarians really don’t use anything other than Liberty.  This is why people fundamentally don’t get each other, and also why most previous attempts at moral psychology were bad and wrong.  These distinctions came into existence through divergent cultural cues, which can heavily modify the way in which psychological modules get expressed.


I have a strong sense that this analysis is missing something very important, and I even think I know how that happened.

Is this really the full spectrum of human moral judgment that we’re looking at here?  

At the very least, we can’t ever know that it is.  Haidt’s ass-pull-based methodology won’t ever allow for any kind of completist certainty.  But my suspicions go well beyond that.

My very first exposure to MFT came some time ago, when the Moral Foundations Quiz became faddishly popular on certain blogs I frequent, mostly so that people could say “science demonstrates that I am sooooooo liberal/libertarian!”  So of course I went and took it too.  And I scored very low on all the moral foundations.  In theory, I suppose, that could mean simply that I am not very inclined towards any kind of moral judgment.  But that seems…super wrong.

(On a later edition of the quiz, incorporating Liberty/Oppression, I scored very high on that foundation and very low on all the others.  Which, by Haidt’s thinking, would make me some kind of libertarian.  That is even more wrong.)

I went back and looked over the questions, and realized that almost none of them had anything to do with the things that activate moral-type judgments in me.  There was nothing about truth versus error.  Nothing about distinctiveness as a positive good.  Nothing about internal consistency or self-awareness or psychological strength.  Nothing about beauty, let alone the specific constellation of tropes and techniques that I identify as “beautiful.”  Nothing relevant to sentiments like “I will martyr myself rather than use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.”

For a while, I thought that you could try to unify these things into a single foundation, one that would be labeled “aesthetics” or something.  But that would be a cheat.  Introspection suggests that the values I listed above aren’t all outgrowths of the same intuition; indeed, they’re often in direct conflict.  (My feelings about being totally unbeholden to anyone else’s priorities, and my feelings about English grammar, are very much at odds.)  “Aesthetically pleasing,” in this context, would just mean “things I think are very important in a way I can’t justify through any of the standard moral foundations.”  And if you tried to parcel in someone else’s aesthetic intuitions, which would be different, the problems would just get exponentially worse.  Meaningless catch-all categories are meaningless.

It seems that I’ve got a whole bunch of idiosyncratic “moral foundations” underlying my judgments.

Maybe I’m being a special snowflake here.  But I’m not that special a snowflake, not with regards to this stuff; you can easily find lots of people talking about all the things I’ve mentioned as being morally salient.  And, more importantly, the world is full of special snowflakes.  Especially in the liberal West, where that Liberty value pushes people away from consensus thinking and towards odd ethical priorities of their own.  I’m sure that it wouldn’t take long to find dozens and dozens of eccentrics for whom the “basic moral foundations of humanity” seem mostly irrelevant, or at least wildly insufficient.

(You can write off some of those “odd ethical priorities” as being instantiations of Loyalty; lots of groups demand allegiance to arbitrary weird beliefs as tokens of belonging.  But that works only some of the time.  Often enough, people will cling to their strange values even when it means isolation or disconnect.)

It would be absurd to do the evo-psych thing and try to find a Just So Story for every one of those weird podunk little moral foundations.  Indeed, it seems obvious…to me, anyway…that they’re purely cultural, that they grow out of individual or small-group reactions to specific intellectual or social stimuli.  This doesn’t particularly pose any problems for Haidt’s main contentions; all it means is that, under certain circumstances, people can overwrite their evolutionarily-supported moral intuitions with culturally-constructed value systems.  (I don’t have any data to suggest how this would happen, although my mind jumps immediately to ordinary conditioning.)  Indeed, this might help him flesh out the story of how some of us jumped from “standard morality” to “WEIRD morality.”  But the whole thing just goes totally unnoticed.  At no point does he ever even begin to consider that there might be a lot of moral foundations out there, or that some of them might have arisen differently from the basic ones.

Which is perhaps not surprising, when you realize that he’s using a cheaty catch-all category of his own.

The value that he calls Sanctity is more commonly called Purity, and on its own, it’s very clearly a real thing: the intuition that disgusting things are morally bad, created by the evolutionary push to avoid disease vectors.  But, for whatever reason, he decided that the opposite of this particular variety of badness wasn’t just “cleanliness” or “not-disease” or something like that, but something much vaster and more grand.  He uses the name Sanctity to reflect some extremely nebulous notion of “exaltation” or “glory,” and characterizes all sorts of things as being Sanctified — from the awesome majesty of nature, to the “inherent dignity of human life” as promoted by dudes like Leon Kass, to the abstract value that we place on great art and noble principles.

I can understand the temptation to think that all of these great things are “the opposite of disgusting,” but the idea that they are all literally triggers for the same opposite-of-a-disease-vector intuition is a big bold claim requiring a lot of support, and Haidt gives us absolutely nothing.

Honestly, I believe that this is just Haidt being very sloppy.  He had all these random awesome things that aren’t adequately supported by the standard liberal care-plus-freedom model of morality, and he wanted to show how “traditional morality” could support them better…so he just stuck them in under an umbrella foundation, which was hidden by also being a totally legit foundation having to do with purity.

But you lose a lot of insight when you do things like that.  There are important ideas to be explored regarding the nature of weird culturally-constructed moral judgments as opposed to widespread rooted-in-human-nature moral judgments.  We don’t get to have that conversation, though, because NOPE IT’S ALL ABOUT NOT GETTING SICK.


Finally we get to the part about “groupishness.”  The tagline for this section is “we are 90% chimp and 10% bee.”  The essential idea is that, under certain conditions, we can be driven to drop our self-obsession and become almost-fully-engaged members of a collective superorganism, like bees who are totally devoted to the hive rather than to themselves.

The first subsection here is the has Haidt explaining under what circumstances this “hive switch” can be thrown (collective crises, psilocybin, bonding rituals like raves or rallies) and how it could have come to be (which requires some defense/rehabilitation of the idea of group selection, which took a heavy blow in the late twentieth century due to gross misapplication).  All good stuff.  Much of it is pretty obvious if you know anything about anthropology, but a useful summation nonetheless, and I knew little enough about the fight over group selection to find Haidt’s discussion valuable.

Then we get to the subsections on religion and politics, the last fifth or so of the book.  I spent the entirety of this part in angry tears.

…which is dumb, I know.  Like I said earlier: Haidt is not a philosopher.  There’s really no reason to take his thoughts on this stuff seriously.

But.  But but but.

Pretty much everything he says revolves around the idea that this groupishness is an almost- unilaterally good thing, and that we should be structuring our society around triggering the “hive switch” as often as possible, because Community and Togetherness and Losing Yourself In Something Greater etc. etc.  And, like…this is evil, right?

Or maybe you think it’s not.  You have your own values.

Speaking for myself, though — I value individual identity above almost all other things.  I value the fact that people have different, competing preferences and priorities.  I value the narratives that emerge from multiple perspectives engaging with one another.  The thing that happens in military units and pep rallies, where you cease to regard the boundaries of your own selfhood as important, is a bad thing.  It may be a necessary bad thing under some circumstances, because hives are pretty good at warding off existential threats, but it’s not something you invite into your home.  Interacting with other people is often good, but the best interactions are the ones that emphasize the distinctive non-overlapping natures of the various parties involved.

To be clear: the thing I’m saying here is not “groupishness can be abused for dark purposes!”  (We might call this the “fascism argument,” and Haidt does at least try to address it.)  It’s something much bigger and more fundamental: “groupishness is a dark purpose.”

And seeing someone just absolutely steamroll my values — not argue with them, not even vilify or sneer at them, but just take it for granted that everyone must think the opposite — is kind of terrifying.

Especially coming from a book whose subtitle contains the phrase “Why Good People Are Divided.”

Book Review — The Righteous Mind

2 thoughts on “Book Review — The Righteous Mind

  1. Idomeneus says:

    It’s funny, when I first saw that you interviewed this book, I thought “fine, I guess I should read it for myself”, but reading the post convinced me I didn’t need to. Mainly, the 5 (or 6) categories don’t seem plausible to me, and you know I have my own categorizations. But! If someone has done the actual empirical research to find that these are the valent spectrums, well, at least you should read their evidence.

    And then you claim he pulled it all out of, er, nowhere. So I suppose I can dismiss the conclusions without gathering more information.


    1. So, like…his foundations aren’t *completely* unreal. He totally did studies demonstrating that, yes, people take all these things seriously in moral terms, and, yes, which ones people care about are reliably correlated with their cultural/political affiliations. Certainly, in comparison to the naive theories of moral development to which he’s responding — the “morality = not hurting others, and we learn this natively as we grow up” stuff — his work contains all sorts of empirical truth.

      But he could definitely have drawn his lines much, much better.


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