How Do I Love Jonathan Haidt? Let Me Count the Ways…by David Zahl on Mar 28, 2012 • 11:06 am 9 Comments
1. The main premise of his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is that the human mind is wired for “righteousness.” Need I say more?! He talks at length about “inner lawyers” and our primal drive to justify ourselves (and all the trouble it creates), which jives not only with experience but with the biblical account(s). In this light, Justification by Faith is (much) more than a quaint 16th century phrase; it speaks to the absolute core of human existence. At least as Jonathan Haidt describes it.
2. Haidt subordinates reason to emotion, which translates to a pretty close approximation of what Martin Luther called “the bondage of the will.” Indeed, do a quick skim his (excellent) first book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and if you’re at all like me, you’ll be shocked by the number of appearances St. Paul makes. This in a work of cutting edge social/moral psychology! To borrow the language of Haidt’s discipline, I suppose you could say that his work triggers my confirmation bias in a particularly powerful way… But regardless of where you’re coming from, it would be hard to deny the congruence between The Righteous Mind and Ashley Null’s classic formulation of Thomas Cranmer’s anthropology, i.e. “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”
3. Along those lines, unlike many of his contemporaries, Haidt is not afraid to acknowledge his debt to ancient sources. At times it almost feels like he enjoys vindicating out-of-fashion thinkers and schools of thought (see below). And although his synthesis is undeniably fresh, he’s not really claiming to have come up with anything terribly new. He lacks hubris, in other words, and it’s refreshing.
4. While he doesn’t deny the importance and urgency of right and wrong when it comes to ‘the issues’ that occupy our political discourse, Haidt is much more interested in the universals of the human condition, that we are all of us at the mercy of our passions and wounds and self-justification mechanisms, both the inherited and non-inherited ones. We are united in our divisions, if you will; self-righteousness is the number one obstacle on all sides of the equation. So he goes beyond ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in a way that’s truly bridge-building. And we need all the bridges we can get.
5. While not a person of faith himself, Haidt is not antagonistic toward religion. In fact, his new book contains a lengthy (and convincing) dismantling of the ‘rationalism’ of Dawkins, Harris and their ilk. And while his defense of religion itself is pretty limp–clue: it has to do with community-building–we should nonetheless take what we can get.
6. Haidt often gets dismissed as overly cynical by those who haven’t really read, or grappled with, his work. But those that have find it deeply hopeful and exciting. I would like to believe that in some small way, the same is true of Mockingbird.
7. I saw him speak the other day, and he was funny, generous, and genuine. Of course, that was just my intuition.
Make no mistake: he’s not talking about the Gospel. There are plenty of places to get off the train, especially as it nears the station. But the overall thrust of Haidt’s work is alarmingly sympathetic, as William Saletan’s review of The Righteous Mind that appeared in The NY Times, excerpted below, hopefully makes clear. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, by the way, especially if you’re interested in the specific discoveries Haidt is reporting when it comes to how self-described liberals and conservatives process morality (John at Curlew River posted a pretty dead-on summary as well):
You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong.
This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature. Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.
Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason. In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions,” was largely correct. E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right.”
The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.
Haidt’s account of reason is a bit too simple — his whole book, after all, is a deployment of reason to advance learning — and his advice sounds cynical. But set aside those objections for now, and go with him. If you follow Haidt through the tunnel of cynicism, you’ll find that what he’s really after is enlightenment. He wants to open your mind to the moral intuitions of other people.
Many of Haidt’s proposals are vague, insufficient or hard to implement. And that’s O.K. He just wants to start a conversation about integrating a better understanding of human nature — our sentiments, sociality and morality — into the ways we debate and govern ourselves. At this, he succeeds. It’s a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.
But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.
Or get in touch.