Jonathan Haidt and Our Multiple Moralities

I asked Pantheon to send me a copy of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion because I had every intention of blogging some interesting excerpts from it on Political Animal this weekend, and it arrived on Friday.

Alas, life interfered, and I am a measly 20 pages into the book.

But I am definitely going to read it, because Haidt is a very important thinker. Whether or not you’re familiar with his work, you should check out William Saletan’s review essay of The Righteous Mind in the Times.

Here’s a good rundown of the thrust of a bunch of Haidt’s work, which consists partially of laboratory settings in which he gauges people’s responses to queries about eating the family dog or having sex with a chicken or incest:

In the West, we think morality is all about harm, rights, fairness and consent. Does the guy own the chicken? Is the dog already dead? Is the sister of legal age? But step outside your neighborhood or your country, and you’ll discover that your perspective is highly anomalous. Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.

The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.

These moral systems aren’t ignorant or backward. Haidt argues that they’re common in history and across the globe because they fit human nature. He compares them to cuisines. We acquire morality the same way we acquire food preferences: we start with what we’re given. If it tastes good, we stick with it. If it doesn’t, we reject it. People accept God, authority and karma because these ideas suit their moral taste buds. Haidt points to research showing that people punish cheaters, accept many hierarchies and don’t support equal distribution of benefits when contributions are unequal.

The original paper explaining this idea of multiple moral dimensions is simply one of the best academic papers I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in politics, moral psychology, or both.

Should add that I believe it was Nick Kristof’s column that first introduced me to Haidt’s work, and he has a more recent piece about The Righteous Mind as well.

The more we learn about the human mind, the less merit there seems to be to the idea that changing people’s beliefs is simply a matter of convincing them that their views are irrational.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.