The Righteous Mind

Morality is not rational

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, argues forcefully that morality is not primarily a matter of rationality. We use rationality to defend our moral choices. Occasionally we change our minds based on rational argument, but for the most part our moral decisions are made through intuition.

In Plato’s Republic Glaucon argues that human beings are only moral because they fear for their reputations, and that given an invisibility ring most people would behave immorally. Haidt backs up this view with modern psychological research. “I’ll praise Glaucon for the rest of the book as the guy who got it right - the guy who realized that the most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.”

Unlike Plato, who assigned Reason the role of ruling over the passions in the well-ordered individual (and city), Haidt argues that reason actually functions more like a lawyer or press secretary. Much like the press secretary reason does not actually set policy, it just defends it to others. “We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in that judgment”

The only philosopher whom Haidt paints in a good light is David Hume, whose theory of moral sentiments is one of the few theories in moral philosophy to make the role of feelings central. Hume’s understanding of the self is actually much more accurate than the classical enlightenment view of thinkers like Kant, according to Haidt.

Haidt also critiques the utilitarian and modern economic views of the self as an autonomous, rational, self-interested utility maximizer. “‘Economic Man’ is a simple creature who makes all of life’s choices like a shopper in supermarket with plenty of time to compare jars of applesauce. If that’s your view of human nature, then it’s easy to create mathematical models of behavior because there’s really just one principle at work: self-interest.” As I wrote about with Sandel’s book, The Moral Limits of Markets, what we have here is not so much a critique of economics, but rather a critique of the application of the economic model of decision making to non-economic decisions. We simply don’t decide on everything in the same way that we do at a grocery store or in other economic marketplaces.

Thus far I agree with Haidt’s critique of both the over-glorification of reason by philosophy and the critique of the economic view of the self. Next I’ll look at Haidt’s moral foundations theory (including a look at how I score on his five moral categories of Harm, Fairness, Authority, Loyalty, and Purity).

Six Moral Foundations

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt argues that there are six moral foundations that are active (to various degrees) in people’s brains. The six foundations are:

  1. Harm
  2. Fairness
  3. Liberty/Oppression
  4. Loyalty
  5. Authority
  6. Sanctity/Purity

When we appeal to people morally we can appeal to any of these six foundations that are found in the human brain. The difference between liberals and conservatives is the degree to which they are concerned with each foundation. Liberals tend to be much more sensitive to appeals to the first three foundations. Liberal morality is based around not causing or allowing harm to others, fairness as equality, and a strong sensitivity to the oppression of the weak by the strong. Conservatives care about these three foundations (although not as strongly as liberals) but they are also significantly more likely than liberals to pick up on appeals to loyalty, authority and sanctity. Below you can see my scores (green) liberal scores (blue) and conservative scores (red) on each of 5 foundations of morality (The liberty/oppression foundation is left out because it was added to foundation theory later).

Moral Foundations

Conservative but not Republican

Reading The Righteous Mind brought forth a thought that’s been playing around in my head for a while; in many ways I am very conservative. I am risk-averse, I believe in incremental changes, I want to conserve nature and I have a somewhat romanticized view of small towns and the importance of family connections. When I took Haidt’s test on moral foundations I scored much higher than the average liberal on concerns about loyalty, authority and sanctity.

With foundation scores like this, one would expect me to be either independent or perhaps independent with a slight liberal lean (harm and fairness are still my two highest scores). But in actual practice I almost never agree with Republican policy. I even find this troubling because I would prefer to consider myself a centrist who recognizes good ideas regardless of the party that proposes them. To understand how I could be at least moderately conservative and still not at all Republican, I turned to Haidt’s analysis of conservatism.

Haidt says he was stunned when he stumbled across the book Conservatism by Jerry Muller:

Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the view that there “exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.

Muller makes a few key claims about conservatives (summarized here by Haidt):

Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by historical experience. Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder.

If those are the core conservative beliefs, then I am in fact a genuine conservative. But I believe the Republican Party, while not completely abandoning conservatism, has become increasingly a party of orthodoxy. The Republican Party has adopted something along the lines of a libertarian vision of the moral order. (It is also combined with some conservative Christian Orthodoxy, but based on current policy proposals I believe the libertarian vision is the driving force behind the party). They are advocating radical change based on a reasoned theory that ignores historical evidence and removes constraints and accountability from both individuals and corporations. The three current planks of Republicanism are tax cuts, deregulation, and spending cuts. These are not actually conservative principles, particularly when pushed to the extremes that the current Republican party is taking them. I believe a genuinely conservative response to the recent financial crisis would involve incremental tax increases (loyalty, helping the country recover from a shared crisis), gradual spending cuts (loyalty again, shared sacrifice for the country) and slightly increased regulation (based on a distrust of unaccountable individuals and groups). But perhaps I’m wrong, after all, I just recently found out that I’m conservative. What do you think?

Nate Kratzer
Senior Data Scientist

My research interests include poverty, inequality, and data science.

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