Criticisms of “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

In this post, I levy several criticisms at Jonathan Haidt’s generally excellent book, The Righteous Mind. You can find my summary of that book here.

A few warnings and disclaimers:

  • This is a long post so I’ve put in the TL;DR upfront. I’ve also sprinkled some clips from The Simpsons to break things up.
  • The length of this post isn’t an indictment of the quality of the book. I enjoyed The Righteous Mind a lot, and agreed with Jonathan Haidt on many points. I also thought his intentions in writing the book were generally good, and I’m not criticising those. (See also Why I write criticisms of books.)
  • The Righteous Mind is mostly about moral psychology—i.e. how people actually operate. This post focuses on moral philosophy—i.e. how we should strive to act. While I think Haidt’s assumptions and statements on moral philosophy are worth challenging, there are no ‘right’ answers in this space.

TL;DR: Haidt’s message comes across as: “You liberals/WEIRD people only rely on 2 or 3 moral foundations because you overvalue rationality. You should actually care about all 6 foundations, and less about rationality, because the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations are part of what made humans a successful species.”

My stance is more like: “You liberals/WEIRD people rely heavily on 2 or 3 moral foundations because you place a lot of weight on rationality. But there are probably some things you feel are morally wrong that can’t be justified by rationality. Conservatives are like that too—there are simply more things they care about that aren’t justified by rationality.”

This post is divided into four parts. The first three address my main criticisms of The Righteous Mind:

  • First, Haidt assumes that “more is better” when it comes to moral foundations;
  • Secondly, Haidt unfairly dismisses rationalism; and
  • Thirdly, he makes too much of the differences between Conservatives and Liberals/Libertarians.

The last part of this post contrasts Haidt’s background with my own, as I wonder how much of the difference between us comes down to our different starting points.

First criticism: more foundations are not necessarily better

A prominent theme in The Righteous Mind is that there is more to morality than harm and fairness. By overlooking the other foundations, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) and left-leaning people are missing something valuable.

Haidt’s central analogy comparing the different moral foundations to taste receptors implies more is better. Five taste receptors really are better than 1 or 2, because they give you a richer culinary experience.

Another example of the “more is better” assumption is Haidt’s attack on ‘moral monism’:

moral monism—the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle—leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind
Is more always better? Homer Simpson in donut hell
Moral foundations aren’t donuts: more is not always better

In defence of the harm principle

Haidt engages in some rather circular reasoning when discussing the harm principle in the case of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Brandes:

If Mill’s harm principle prevents us from outlawing [Meiwes and Brandes’] actions, then Mill’s harm principle seems inadequate.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

Meiwes and Brandes’ case involved consensual cannibalism. Brandes willingly let Meiwes cut off his penis, kill him, and eat his body. Brandes even ate a little of his own penis before he died.

This is undoubtedly a shocking case. But it’s intellectually dishonest to argue that it shows the inadequacy of the harm principle because you could say the same for anything: “If Mill’s harm principle prevents us from outlawing homosexuality, then Mill’s principle seems inadequate”. Or “If Mill’s harm principle means we must outlaw slavery, then Mill’s harm principle seems wrong”.

Besides, the harm principle arguably is invoked, because Brandes was mutilated and killed. You can hold the view that harmless actions are morally fine without accepting that consent negates all harm.

Haidt also points out that WEIRD, individualistic cultures rely more on the harm principle than sociocentric cultures. However, there’s no reason to think the harm principle is incompatible with a sociocentric culture. In fact, one of the most common criticisms of utilitarianism (which employs the harm principle) is that it elevates the community’s needs over an individual’s.

In defence of utilitarianism and deontology

This takes us to Haidt’s criticisms of utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism basically argues that the right action is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. By contrast, deontology advocates following ethical rules and duties, even if that causes bad outcomes in certain cases.

Haidt makes much of the fact that the founders of these two philosophies, Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, didn’t seem to understand other humans very well and likely both had autism:

Deontology and utilitarianism are “one-receptor” moralities that are likely to appeal most strongly to people who are high on systemizing and low on empathizing. Hume’s pluralist, sentimentalist, and naturalist approach to ethics is more promising than utilitarianism or deontology for modern moral psychology.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

I agree neither utilitarianism nor deontology describes how humans form moral judgments. But they don’t claim to—neither are descriptive moral theories.

They are instead normative theories. They tell us how we should act, or try to act, even if we can never be perfectly moral. Haidt conflates the normative with the descriptive multiple times throughout the book. (He does this as well with rationality—which I address in my second major criticism.)1Haidt may dispute this. Towards the end of the book (chapter 11 of 12) he claims he had been “entirely descriptive” up to that point. I disagree and have supported this with several quotes in this post—most of which were taken before the relevant point in chapter 11.

A moral theory that engages multiple moral foundations runs into trouble when the foundations conflict with each other. Authority conflicts with Care when a master beats their servant. Loyalty conflicts with Fairness when your team member cheats. Sanctity foundation conflicts with Liberty when someone wants to access euthanasia.

Utilitarianism attempts to trade off different moral foundations by reducing them to the common currency of ‘utils’. It can still take Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity into account, but only to the extent they affect people’s utils. Similarly, the harm principle tries to balance Liberty with Care/Harm—actions are permitted so long as they don’t harm anyone.

That’s not to say utilitarianism, deontology, or the harm principle are perfect. I agree that motivated reasoning is a real risk for utilitarianism in particular. But it’s unfair to criticise them for being “one-receptor” moralities without offering a compelling multiple-receptor morality that can guide behaviour.

Is more better for moral persuasion?

Haidt repeatedly suggests that US Republicans understand moral behaviour better than the Democrats:

Republicans have long understood that the elephant is in charge of political behavior, not the rider, and they know how elephants work. Their slogans, political commercials, and speeches go straight for the gut … .

Democrats have often aimed their appeals more squarely at the rider, emphasizing specific policies and the benefits they’ll bring to you, the voter.
— Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

Haidt argues that the failure to tap into the Loyalty foundation has particularly hindered the Democrats’ election performance:

In the 1960s, the Democrats became the party of pluribus. Democrats generally celebrate diversity, support immigration without assimilation, oppose making English the national language, don’t like to wear flag pins, and refer to themselves as citizens of the world. Is it any wonder that they have done so poorly in presidential elections since 1968?
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (emphasis added)

Now, if Democrats genuinely don’t care about the Loyalty foundation, it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise just to get votes. But putting that aside, did the Democrats really do “so poorly” in presidential elections since 1968?

The popular vote record shows the Democrats indeed got trounced in 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. But they’ve won in every election since 1992, except for 2004. (2004 was the first election after 9/11 and even then, it was reasonably close). The Righteous Mind was published in 2012. So Haidt is simply wrong about the Democrats’ election performance.

Frankly, I wish all political parties played more to the rider than to the elephant. Which leads me to my second main criticism of this book.

Second criticism: Haidt unfairly dismisses rationalism

Haidt’s dismissal of rationalism is unfair because:

  • he (again) conflates the descriptive with the normative;
  • he is too defeatist about our ability to become more rational; and
  • finally, he doesn’t seem to believe that increased rationality is worth striving for

I agree with Haidt that humans aren’t all that rational. But I believe rationality is worth striving for, because I think it’s more likely to lead to moral progress. However, I also accept that rationality has limits.

Conflates the descriptive with the normative

In the very first chapter, Haidt describes a rationalist in two ways:

  1. Descriptive. Haidt first describes rationalists as believing that “morality is self-constructed by children on the basis of their experiences with harm”.
  2. Normative. Haidt then defines a rationalist to mean “anyone who believes that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge”.

These are two separate grounds. Haidt spends much of the book demolishing the first ground, and cites many studies showing how intuition dominates reasoning.

Later, in the chapter on religion, Haidt states:

The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2: Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses).

In chapters 2, 3, and 4, however, I reviewed a great deal of evidence against the Platonic view and in favor of a Humean view in which reason (the rider) is a servant of the intuitions (the elephant).
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (emphasis added)

When he describes the Platonic, rationalist view, he refers to reason’s potential “(or at least could be)”. That’s the view I think most rationalists hold, at least today. However, when Haidt refutes that view, he only has evidence to show it is descriptively untrue.

Haidt also writes:

[R]eason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

The underlying assumption is that things are only good for what they were “designed” for. But feathers originally evolved in dinosaurs for insulation; now they help birds fly. The Internet was originally designed for academic collaboration; now it’s used for shopping and entertainment.

Reasoning can lead to moral progress

Even if most people don’t prioritise reasoning, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to. Joshua Greene, a moral psychologist at Harvard, argues that the fact that utilitarianism sometimes points to unintuitive decisions is a feature, not a bug. Conflicts between our reasoning and our gut should make us reflect further. After all, a moral theory that completely aligned with our existing intuitions would be redundant.

Our gut can still serve as a check, because it might tell us something valuable we don’t understand. But it shouldn’t be a complete veto. For example, we may feel instinctive disgust towards people with visible lesions because, evolutionarily, this protected us against diseases. But we should override this disgust if we know the lesions aren’t contagious or if we’re otherwise protected.

Whacking day - the time honoured-tradition of beating snakes to death
Rationality can help us move past barbaric traditions like “whacking day”

I think of moral progress as being like the Overton window. Ideas unthinkable a thousand years ago—such as women voting or owning property—are widely accepted today. And ideas that sound crazy to most people now—such as caring about the suffering of artificial beings—might become mainstream in the future.

Too defeatist about our ability to be rational

Haidt may conflate the descriptive with the normative partly because he doubts our ability to be rational if we tried. This defeatism may be caused by his studies, which showed most people didn’t change their beliefs when given compelling reasons.

But Haidt himself admits that people vary in their openness to the reasons of others. Moreover, Haidt’s own numbers show quite sizeable minorities allow reason to override their intuitions:

  • 23% were willing to sign a piece of paper that claimed to sell their soul, in exchange for $2;
  • 37% were willing to take a sip of juice in which a sterilised cockroach had been dipped;
  • 13% thought that cooking and eating a fresh human cadaver was morally okay; and
  • 20% thought that siblings having consensual and protected sex was morally okay.

Even more encouragingly, after the experimenter tried their best to challenge participants’ reasons for refusing, the people willing to sign the soul-selling paper increased from 23% to 40%, and the people willing to take a sip of the roach juice increased from 37% to 47% .

Another study showed a significant number of people changed their minds on the morality of consensual sibling sex after they were given a strong argument and forced to reflect on it 2 minutes.

Yet Haidt’s conclusion is:

But most people in both [the soul-selling and roach juice] scenarios clung to their initial refusal, even though many of them could not generate good reasons.2I did wonder what counted as “good” reasons. People may have been unwilling to drink the roach juice, if they didn’t trust the experimenters or the sterilisation process (and may not have wanted to tell the experimenters that). As for the soul-selling experiment—I wouldn’t sign that paper for $2, either. Beliefs are probabilistic. Even though I don’t believe in souls, I’m not 100% certain. If I thought there was a 1% chance that souls existed, it wouldn’t be rational to sign that paper for $2 if I valued my soul at more than $200. Note, however, that the Pascal’s mugging problem can arise here—if I think souls have infinite value, so long as I rate the probability of souls existing at non-zero (even if it’s 0.000001%), it wouldn’t be rational to sign that paper for any amount of money.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

I come away from these results far more bullish than Haidt on our ability to change our minds through reasoning. These are impressive changes in incredibly short spans of time!

Would you sell your soul for $2?

Admittedly, these are experiments where the “stakes” of changing your beliefs were relatively low. I suspect people cling more tightly to their beliefs when changing their mind involves a broader identity change. Yet I’ve experienced this change myself and witnessed it in other people, too. It just happens far more gradually than lab experiments allow.

Increasing rationality and WEIRDness over time

A key reason why I believe rationality leads to moral progress is because it helps us move past parochial altruism. However, Haidt is pessimistic about this:

It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.
— Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

The people most likely to rely on reasoning in Haidt’s experiments were culturally WEIRD and individualistic. WEIRD/individualistic cultures are outliers historically, and are still a global minority today. Haidt points out these are the least representative people you could study to try to understand human nature.

I read Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous shortly after reading The Righteous Mind. What Henrich makes clear, as evident in its subtitle, is that no cultures started out WEIRD. Cultures became WEIRD. And although WEIRD societies are still the minority, they are “particularly prosperous” and have been growing.3In Haidt’s defence, Henrich’s book was published in 2020, many years after he wrote The Righteous Mind (2012) (Haidt referred instead to a 2010 article written by Henrich and others, which just shows that WEIRD societies are outliers, without seeking to explain how those societies became outliers.) But my points remains — though the numbers of people willing to override their moral judgments with reasoning is still a minority, it’s a growing minority.

It seems easier to become WEIRD than to stop being WEIRD. Many immigrate from non-WEIRD societies to WEIRD ones as WEIRD societies tend to be richer and open to immigration. Furthermore, the prosperity of WEIRD societies has led to cultural dominance—more people from non-WEIRD societies are exposed to WEIRD media than the other way around. One of Haidt’s studies found that well-educated people in Brazil and the US had more similar moral judgments than people from different social classes in the same city. Even non-WEIRD societies like China grow increasingly WEIRD and individualistic as they grow richer, especially in urban centres.

Henrich argues that WEIRD societies became prosperous because the Catholic Church’s taboos against cousin marriage disrupted the kin-based institutions that societies had previously relied on. This caused people to look further afield for mates and move away from their families. People who used to trust only those they had personal relationships with, soon learned to trust strangers and institutions. The growth in impersonal trust then facilitated the development of trade and markets.

Henrich provides considerable evidence to support his theory, and I found it compelling. And if he’s correct, maybe there is hope that we can become more universal and rational over time.

Rational policymaking is possible

Haidt also seems sceptical that policymaking can be anything other than a messy political process targeting people’s ‘elephants’:

Rationalists might dream of a utopian state where policy is made by panels of unbiased experts, but in the real world there seems to be no alternative to a political process in which parties compete to win votes and money.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

Again, I feel this is too defeatist. Haidt’s US-centric worldview is showing through. It is possible to limit political ads and spending, and many countries do. Parties still compete to win votes of course, but money plays a smaller role.

The role of unbiased experts in policymaking also varies significantly across counties. In most countries, the Judiciary is not politicised—judges are not affiliated with political parties, and appointed based on merit. The US is an outlier in this respect. Many countries also have a stronger civil service than the US does because they value ‘political neutrality’. Heads of public departments are career officials who remain constant regardless of which party is in power. Departments can give advice that best serves the public interest, rather than the Government of the day.

Haidt’s portrayal of policymaking as inherently beholden to political interests overlooks the alternatives that do exist in other countries.

Doesn’t seem to believe rationality is worth striving for

Underlying much of Haidt’s views seems to be a general distrust of rationality itself. For example, Haidt claims that Western philosophy has been “worshipping” reason for thousands of years and calls this “the rationalist delusion”.

Haidt also praises parochial altruism. He seems to believe that trying to broaden one’s moral circle will backfire:

… our ‘parochial altruism’ is part of what makes us such great team players. We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

This, however, is a bit of a strawman. We have different groups for different purposes. We can extend our “Care” foundation very broadly—even to other species—while maintaining a smaller circle of close friends. You don’t have to invite everyone and their dogs over for dinner, even if you want to protect them from harm.

Haidt refers to a 2007 paper which found that high immigration and ethnic diversity seem to reduce social capital. I accept these findings, but I think much of this is just growing pains. It’s much harder for first-generation immigrants to assimilate than it is for their children and grandchildren. In the grand scale of human history (arguably 70,000 years ago), large-scale immigration is an extremely recent phenomenon (a few decades, or few centuries at most). People need time to get used to change, but I believe rationality can help steer us in the right direction.

Reasoning in groups vs reasoning individually

One thing I agreed with Haidt on was that rationality can be dangerous because of motivated reasoning. He therefore seems to favour reasoning in groups (which I also support):

[E]ach individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons.

But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

Yet Haidt vacillates on this. On one hand, he criticises the idea that there should there should be a rational “caste” with more power:

The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

On the other hand, Haidt thinks we should design our environment in ways such that ordinary humans, acting intuitively, will behave more ethically:

You can make minor and inexpensive tweaks to the environment, which can produce big increases in ethical behavior. You can … design institutions in which real human beings, always concerned about their reputations, will behave more ethically.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

Now, “caste” is a loaded word. But putting that aside, I don’t see how we can get carefully designed institutions and environments that produce “big increases in ethical behavior” without granting greater (policymaking) powers to a rational group or caste. Otherwise, how do you work out what the ethical behaviour is and how to align people’s intuitions with it?

Overall, I feel like Haidt twists himself into knots arguing against rationality and utilitarianism before ultimately conceding that utilitarianism is still the best moral system we have for collective decision-making.

I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good. I just want Bentham to read [Émile] Durkheim and recognize that we are Homo duplex before he tells any of us, or our legislators, how to go about maximizing that total good.4I know Haidt is not being literal, but Bentham couldn’t read Durkheim’s work because he died before Durkheim was born.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

This acknowledgement that there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism for public policy only comes at the end of chapter 11 (out of 12), after he’s spent most of the book calling out utilitarianism and deontology for being deficient.

That said, there are limits to rationality

Having said all this, I don’t mean to suggest that rationality is the be-all-and-end-all. It’s true that our biases can contaminate our reasoning. Moreover, reasoning cannot answer all questions—there aren’t any ‘right’ answers to questions of population ethics or why we should even be moral. And paradoxes exist.

Even when reasoning does give us an answer, sound reasoning is not enough to change most people’s minds. Haidt is right to point out we are much more open to arguments from riders of “friendly elephants” than hostile ones. This beer commercial, which won a Stanford University competition to strengthen democracy, is a great example.

I got the impression that Haidt has encountered some overly dogmatic and not-particularly-friendly rationalists in the past. I can sympathise. But instead of arguing against reasoning and resorting to pejoratives like “the rationalist delusion”, I wish he’d just pointed out that none of us are perfectly rational and that treating others with respect is more likely to be effective than bullying them with rationality.

Third criticism: Haidt exaggerates differences between Conservatives and Liberals

My last major criticisms of The Righteous Mind is that it paints the differences between Conservatives and Liberals as being more fundamental or irreconcilable than they really are. While I appreciated Haidt’s good intentions in trying to get people to stop talking past each other, I worry his approach is counterproductive. Haidt himself recognises that well-intentioned efforts to bridge gaps can backfire when they emphasise differences rather than similarities:

The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity. Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less.
— Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

In my opinion, the reasons Haidt offers for caring about the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations are simply not that persuasive. I believe it would have been better for Haidt to focus on the foundations everyone values—Care, Fairness and Liberty—and build upon that common ground.

Unpersuasive arguments for caring about Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity

Haidt’s studies show that Conservatives tend to value the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations, but Liberals do not.

Haidt then tries to explain why Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations are worth caring about. He claims that these foundations contribute to our ‘groupishness’, and that ‘groupishness’ helped humans become a successful species:

[O]ur groupishness—despite all of the ugly and tribal things it makes us do—is one of the magic ingredients that made it possible for civilizations to burst forth, cover the Earth, and live ever more peacefully in just a few thousand years.
—Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (emphasis added)

There are at least three counters to this.

First, “one of” is doing some heavy lifting there. Naked mole rats are an incredibly groupish mammalian species—far moreso than early humans. They live in large colonies where only one female (the queen) breeds, and most individuals spend their lives working for the colony. But naked mole rats are not a very successful species. It was our big brains and reasoning that made humans so successful, yet Haidt spends most of the book exhorting us to stop ‘worshipping’ it.

Secondly, ‘groupishness’ may only be helpful up to a point. Sure, values like Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity may make small- to medium-sized groups cohesive, but larger groups are different. To coordinate millions, we need rules that can be applied consistently, impersonally, and with certainty. We also need to find some way to navigate and trade-off the preferences of millions. As noted above, Henrich suggests our WEIRD, non-groupish tendencies were what made WEIRD societies so prosperous. So perhaps at this stage of human development, we should stop embracing our groupish tendencies. Like, our ability to make wood fires contributed to our species’ success, because it allowed us to eat a greater range of foods. But that doesn’t mean we should keep using wood fires.

Lastly, even if the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations did make humans a successful species, who cares? As Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out: what is good for a species is not necessarily good for the individual. Increasing how much of the world’s mammalian weight we make up is not really a goal worth striving for.

Conflicts between the moral foundations

Liberals and Libertarians may not value Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity very highly if they recognise that they can conflict with the Care, Fairness or Liberty foundations they value the most. So it’s not so much that Liberals and Libertarians are “missing” several foundations—they just recognise the conflict and come down on the side of Care or Liberty. (It’s also interesting that Liberals and Libertarians are closer on this than either group is to the Social Conservatives. The Social Conservatives are the real outliers here—at least in the US.)

For example, Loyalty can conflict with Care because favouring your in-group usually means disfavouring the outgroup. Haidt’s rebuttal is that research shows intergroup competition increases love of the in-group far more than it increases dislike of the outgroup. But you can get unjust outcomes even without any out-group hostility. One study showed that joining a fraternity tended to lower GPAs by 0.25 points, but increase future income by approximately 36%, resulting in a ‘Bro Wage Premium’.

Smithers greets his former frat brother before a job interview
Smithers greeting his former frat brother before a job interview

Loyalty is fine when it manifests in ways that don’t harm your out-group at all. No one seriously argues you shouldn’t support friends during a hard time, or root for your team in a friendly sports contest.

Similarly, Authority can conflict with Care or Liberty in at least two ways:

  • Authority can be gained in ways that don’t seem “fair”, such as hereditary classes or castes.
  • Authority can be exercised in ways that cause harm or are oppressive. (Haidt acknowledges this tension.)

Finally, Sanctity can conflict with Care and Liberty by constraining actions in oppressive or harmful ways. Bans on abortion, for example, restrict a woman’s bodily autonomy, and disproportionately affect poorer women who cannot travel to get an abortion.

At its core, I think the Sanctity foundation comes down factual disagreements about whether God or religious laws exist. Haidt pushes back against this—he argues we can’t understand religion as merely a set of supernatural beliefs, we also have to look at how it serves groups. But while I accept religion has a social function, you can’t ignore the underlying beliefs, either. Most who support strict abortion bans don’t deny that such bans can harm or oppress women. They just believe the bans protect something more sacred (the unborn baby’s ‘life’), which justifies that harm/oppression.

The good news is that disagreements over facts are slightly more tractable than disagreements over values. Some people’s views on abortion do shift after they learn about different stages of foetal development. Indeed, there is research showing that educated people tend to be socially liberal (after correcting for cognitive ability and socioeconomic status). Not to say factual disputes are easy to resolve, because we can interpret facts in different ways, or cherry-pick them, and some things—like the existence of God—can’t be proven.

But facts at least provide a path forward.

Lisa shows the "alien" is Mr Burns
Some facts can be proven: Lisa shows that the local “alien” is actually Mr Burns

Everyone values Care, Fairness and Liberty

In pointing out issues with the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations, I don’t mean to suggest Conservatives are wrong to value them. It’s just that those foundations are a mixed bag, with clear costs as well as benefits. That’s why I think people differ so wildly on how much weight to give them.

The Care, Fairness and Liberty foundations are different. Everyone—Liberals, Libertarians and Conservatives—values these, albeit in different ways and to different extents. The harm principle similarly has broad appeal. While Haidt’s studies show that most people wouldn’t certain harmless actions (such as consensual sibling sex), I suspect many would readily condemn harmful actions unless some good reason for that harm existed. .

Of course, even if everyone values the Care, Fairness, Liberty foundations, we won’t agree on everything. Conflicts between these foundations still exist—Liberals and Libertarians have more in common with each other (morality-wise) than either side has with Social Conservatives, yet fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum in America. We can disagree even when we prioritise the same foundation—two people may care equally about poor people but differ on whether minimum wage laws are the best way to help them.

But common ground is a good starting point. David McRaney explains how identifying a common goal during a disagreement gets people out of the ‘debate’ frame and into a ‘cooperative’ frame. With the minimum wage example, identifying alternative ways to help poor people will likely elicit a better response than pointing out how minimum wage laws might inadvertently cause harm.

Haidt’s journey vs mine

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt shares how he went from thinking Liberalism was so “obviously ethical” to being more open-minded towards those with different moralities. Haidt grew up in New York, in a left-wing family, and attended Yale, one of the most liberal Ivy Leagues at the time. He and his peers couldn’t understand how Conservatives thought, because they only saw issues through the Care and Fairness dimensions. The Republican Party looked like the party of war, big business, racism and evangelical Christianity. It wasn’t until he went to India to study divinity that he became exposed to vastly different worldviews.

The trip seems to have profoundly impacted Haidt. Though Haidt distances himself from cultural relativist ideas that all societies are equally good, he is (understandably) very reluctant to suggest in any way that his cultural or political worldviews are ‘superior’.

My journey goes in the opposite direction. My family came from a sociocentric country, so I grew up in a household that valued Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Filial piety and respect for my elders were drilled into me from birth. Church provided us with community in a place where my family had no existing ties—we went every week and prayed daily. My parents were patriotic in a way that was, unfortunately, more than a little bit racist. And they consistently voted for right-wing parties, because they didn’t believe in supporting “lazy people” who didn’t work.

Even though my family moved to a WEIRD country when I was young, I didn’t grow up believing in liberal values. It wasn’t until university that I really understood liberals’ views (the non-caricatured version). The more I learned, the more I came to see many of my family’s beliefs as wrong and harmful.

Haidt explains that his goal in writing The Righteous Mind was to “drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of [politics and religion] and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity”. I don’t regard my family’s values and beliefs with awe or wonder—such deference isn’t deserved. Curiosity is fine—they’re not wrong about everything, and I do think it’s generally good to approach things with an open-mind.

We should also respect people who hold views different from ours. But that doesn’t mean their beliefs have any intrinsic value. Reasoning and utilitarianism, in my view, are better guides to morality and public policy than a messy patchwork of 6 conflicting moral foundations.

What do you think of my criticisms of Haidt’s views? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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  • 1
    Haidt may dispute this. Towards the end of the book (chapter 11 of 12) he claims he had been “entirely descriptive” up to that point. I disagree and have supported this with several quotes in this post—most of which were taken before the relevant point in chapter 11.
  • 2
    I did wonder what counted as “good” reasons. People may have been unwilling to drink the roach juice, if they didn’t trust the experimenters or the sterilisation process (and may not have wanted to tell the experimenters that). As for the soul-selling experiment—I wouldn’t sign that paper for $2, either. Beliefs are probabilistic. Even though I don’t believe in souls, I’m not 100% certain. If I thought there was a 1% chance that souls existed, it wouldn’t be rational to sign that paper for $2 if I valued my soul at more than $200. Note, however, that the Pascal’s mugging problem can arise here—if I think souls have infinite value, so long as I rate the probability of souls existing at non-zero (even if it’s 0.000001%), it wouldn’t be rational to sign that paper for any amount of money.
  • 3
    In Haidt’s defence, Henrich’s book was published in 2020, many years after he wrote The Righteous Mind (2012) (Haidt referred instead to a 2010 article written by Henrich and others, which just shows that WEIRD societies are outliers, without seeking to explain how those societies became outliers.) But my points remains — though the numbers of people willing to override their moral judgments with reasoning is still a minority, it’s a growing minority.
  • 4
    I know Haidt is not being literal, but Bentham couldn’t read Durkheim’s work because he died before Durkheim was born.

2 thoughts on “Criticisms of “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

  1. Thanks this was interesting.

    Like you, I find incomprehensible the form of argument of:
    – Using reason can be quite powerful to change our mind for good.
    – But be careful: using reason might suggest that x is not gross
    – But we all know that actually, x is gross
    – So reason must be flawed in some way.

    Is there also something a bit odd about arguing in a book (using reason and logic) that people who think rational arguments are paramount are wrong? As Steven Pinker says in Enlightenment Now:

    “Even members of my own tribe of cognitive psychologists often claim to have refuted what they take to be the Enlightenment belief that humans are rational agents, and hence to have undermined the centrality of reason itself. The implication is that it is futile even to try to make the world a more rational place.¹ But all these positions have a fatal flaw: they refute themselves. They deny that there can be a reason for believing those very positions. As soon as their defenders open their mouths to begin their defense, they have lost the argument, because in that very act they are tacitly committed to persuasion-to adducing reasons for what they are about to argue, which, they insist, ought to be accepted by their listeners according to standards of rationality that both accept. Otherwise they are wasting their breath and might as well try to convert their audience by bribery or violence…”

    1. Yeah, there’s definitely a tension there. I think it’s possible to use reason and logic to persuade others of the fallibility of, or limits to, reason and logic. So I thought Haidt’s point about motivated reasoning was valid.

      I just felt like he tried so hard to be “open-minded” and overcome his initial (rational) instincts that he ends up contradicting himself.

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