Why We Can't All Just Get Along

Thursday, June 14, 2012
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The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt’s fascinating new book, re-energizes the study of moral psychology with a sweeping account of human morality in all its amazing diversity. Haidt looks across ideologies and cultures to find an array of moral standards that are barely (if at all) reconcilable with one another. Some folks on our planet treasure purity and sanctity. Others go to the mat for justice and equity. Some value autonomy and freedom; others prefer community and loyalty. Some believe in change and progress; others believe in respecting and preserving ancient traditions.

When such preferences translate into political positions (as in liberal versus conservative), these differences often devolve into animosity and invective. Each side attacks the other for lack of moral virtue. Haidt makes the case that all of these preferences count as moral beliefs, and thus they all deserve respect from those who hold different beliefs. So, Haidt asks—quoting Rodney King’s famous plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots—“Why can’t we all get along?”

 the righteous mind by jonathan haidt  
 Photo credit: righteousmind.com

Haidt’s expansive view of the moral universe is not only broadly inclusive but also vivid in its captivating detail. On both counts, The Righteous Mind is a refreshing change of pace for a field grown dreary from bloodless academic debates between over-intellectualized and narrowly-conceive theories. Haidt rightly criticizes the cognitivist school of Kohlberg and his followers for its univocal emphasis on reasoning as the royal road to moral growth. (Kohlberg made a point to oppose what he derided as the “bag of virtues” view of morality—as if ideas without the support of habits could ensure good behavior). Rationality or reflection, as Haidt convincingly shows, is a minor part of our everyday moral responses. Mostly, we operate on our intuitions, deciding how to act quickly, long before our reflections have a chance to kick in.

To illustrate this point, Haidt cites evidence from a collection of inventive experiments in which subjects are presented with morally abhorrent notions placed in a rational context. Some of these situations revolve around taboo sex. For example, a brother and sister (both adults) decide to have fully protected intercourse just once and keep it a secret between themselves. Is that wrong? (An even wilder scenario that Haidt suggests involves sexual relations with a dead chicken, again in private and without any apparent harm to others).

In such imaginary situations, Haidt observed subjects “making their moral judgments immediately and emotionally. . . . Reasoning was merely the servant of the passions.” Biological impulses shape moral responses; and the capacity for reason only justifies these impulses after the fact. This process (act-then-rationalize) is what Haidt calls “the intuitive dog and its rational tale.” Haidt’s takes this intuitive process—derived, he believes, from our evolved biological states—as emblematic of human moral action generally. In contrast to the hopeful idealism of the cognitive approach, this view is hard-headed, bordering on cynical: At one point, Haidt remarks, “the take-home message of the book is ancient. It is that we are all self-righteous hypocrites.”

Haidt's expansive view of the moral universe is not only broadly inclusive but also vivid in its captivating details.

The book’s message is also entirely relativistic. Its core biological determinism is set in a context of limitless moral diversity. Thousands of distinctive moral flowers bloom worldwide, all stemming from the foundational set of intuitions that we have evolved. Our biological heritage is adaptable enough for these inborn intuitions to yield a significant amount of diversity in the way moral standards are formulated and expressed across cultures. But whatever the moral judgment, wherever it is made, it must be considered legitimate by virtue of its biological foundations in our evolved moral intuition. The enemy of this intentionally eclectic view is what Haidt calls “moral monism” (the view that morality is “founded upon a single moral foundation”). He writes, "May I suggest that (readers should take away) a suspicion of moral monism. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places.”

Haidt’s application of his distaste for monism to the American political scene is among the most interesting and original features of The Righteous Mind. Haidt attributes the polarization that characterizes our present political scene to the failure of opposing partisans to recognize that the other side has compelling moral convictions too. Haidt’s assumption seems to be that if all parties gave each other due respect for having some moral foundations (even granted that they are different than their own), then hostilities among them would cease, or at least attenuate to a point of bearable civility.

Haidt is a self-declared liberal, but he gives conservatives more credit for at least some awareness of what liberal morality is than vice versa. Liberals are more committed to concerns of justice; whereas conservatives are more committed to concerns of tradition, community, order, and purity: This has been documented before by political scientists. But Haidt goes beyond these stereotypes by noting, for example, the distinctions between liberal and conservative views of economic “proportionality,” such as the strong desire of conservatives to see that people are fairly compensated for their contributions. In this way, The Righteous Mind does not cede the entire domain of justice to liberals. It asserts, instead, that the opposing positions reflect different assumptions about what is fair, each with its own moral justification.

While I find myself nodding in agreement with much of Haidt's analysis, the final message of the book does not persuade me. For one thing, the relativism of the analysis does not square with the concluding message. Haidt complains about the conditions of intolerance and incivility that he observes in our political discourse, and his book is full of implicit criticisms of views such as “righteous ends justify violent means.” But why are tolerance, civility, and non-violence held up to us as uniquely unquestionable moral standards? Haidt, of course, is not the first relativist to suggest that tolerance is the one moral standard that everyone should accept. But the logic of this exclusion always escapes me. If tolerance and civility are to be prescribed for us, why not other standards as well? And what do we do about situations where we confront conditions that we do not believe should be tolerated—or times (such as in warfare) when civil discourse does not suffice for taking a moral stand?

Why are tolerance, civility, and non-violence held up to us as uniquely unquestionable moral standards? What do we do when we confront conditions that we do not believe should be tolerated?

Except for short-lived interludes during periods of national consensus, American politics typically has been fiercely partisan. The genius of our democracy has been its capacity to regain a sense of solidarity, even reconciliation, after a resolution of divisive contentions among interest groups with opposing views. The struggles have not always been harmless, and they are almost always unpleasant to live through. But who is to say that noisy struggles have not been needed for steering the nation on the right course over the long haul? Sometimes a nation’s citizens must take oppositional stands in pursuit of a better way.

In taking stands for moral convictions, people do not need to feel that their principles are arbitrary, nor that these stands are wholly dictated by uncontrollable biological impulses. Some moral principles are rational, non-arbitrary, and widely-held. I agree with Haidt that “monism” can be limited and narrow-minded. But monism is not at all the same as a universalistic perspective based on principles shared by people everywhere—for example, the moral perspective contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which opposes practices such as slavery and government encroachments on religious, political, and economic freedoms. This document was drafted by representatives of multiple diverse cultures and passed without a single dissenting vote by the nations of the world. The Declaration searched for standards that all cultures have in common, and it focused on the moral concerns that people everywhere consider essential. Such universal concerns clearly exist.

Whether he admits it or not, Haidt tries to address these shared concerns in The Righteous Mind. His appeal to our common desire for mutual respect certainly must reflect a belief that such standards have value that goes beyond our own personal preferences. And if people are stuck with just their inborn biological intuitions, why write a book at all? Without the hope that reason can somehow trump, or at least improve, our moral-emotional impulses, what’s the point of trying to persuade people of anything through written discourse?

The writing of The Righteous Mind—a valuable book with much to offer its readers—is itself a testament to the hope that education and development can improve our moral functioning. The book will not, however, convince people to “just get along” with those who are behaving in ways they find morally unacceptable. Nor should it. There are times for consensus and times for opposition. Especially in politics, people, at times, need to take a stand.