by Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon, 2012, 419 pp.
“This book,” writes Jonathan Haidt in his introduction to The Righteous Mind, “is about why it’s so hard for us to get along.” His core premise is that moral psychology can sort out problems that moral philosophy and political theory cannot. In the end, however, the problem of getting along is not sorted out. Maybe it’s Haidt’s cheerful view of humanity that explains this failure. Some of us, especially on the left, believe that class inequality, poverty, greed, corruption, prejudice, orthodoxy, and ignorance divide us no matter how hard we try to see the other person’s point of view.
The Righteous Mind is not a recipe for ideological convergence. Still, it merits our attention as a plausible and interesting explanation of how we came to have moral categories—quite apart from which ones we have. It is best at making us think about the capacity of psychology to explain the evolution of moral norms. Haidt surveys the historical landscape, explaining how various institutions (mostly religious ones) evolved to regulate our behavior for the sake of the group. We are an inherently “groupish” species; here his argument is most persuasive, replete with insights, anecdotes, and case studies.
He takes his cue from Spinoza, who in 1676 wrote in his Tractatus Politicus: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.” In practice, anyone who would abjure laughing, weeping, or hating must hew to a very narrow investigative path. Every word we utter is a subjective choice; and the tortuous history of the regulation of human conduct doesn’t lend itself especially well to objective certainty. Analyzing without judging is a worthy goal in many contexts; but moral psychology alone cannot solve the problems that two and a half millennia of philosophical work have exposed.
Haidt admits to having studied philosophy as a young man in order to learn “the meaning of life.” No wonder he was, as he says, disappointed. Yet his reductionism entangles his theory in the philosophical thickets of his misspent youth. He has particular contempt for the approach to moral development in the rationalist tradition, from Plato to philosophical psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. Instead, he embraces the emotivism of David Hume—the elegant Scottish avatar of eighteenth-century empiricism.
Hume’s writing is a model of reasoned argument, albeit for a theory based more on experience than reason per se. It’s a better model for observational knowledge, and perhaps for eighteenth-century science, than for the interpenetrating realms of mind, value, and reality that are now considered philosophy’s purview. And Hume’s mor...
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