In the April issue of Prospect, David Goodhart champions Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Righteous Mind as a potential “scientific manual for the movement that [he calls] post-liberalism,” and even “the last hope for European liberalism.” Haidt’s book is the culmination of many years’ research into moral judgement, which he believes to be driven primarily by emotions, rather than by rational reflection, as many philosophers have assumed. But what are the implications of this for liberal politics?
In short, Haidt thinks that liberals have lost touch with certain central dimensions of moral judgement: loyalty to the in-group, authority, and the sacred. This, Goodhart argues, is what makes Haidt’s research so important. We should, however, be cautious about drawing such hasty political conclusions from Haidt’s fascinating psychological work.
Haidt has done a tremendous amount to highlight the ways in which real-life moral thinking frequently fails to live up to the lofty standards imagined for it by philosophers. In one study, for example, Haidt and colleagues showed that subjects were more likely to pass harsh moral judgements on others when they took a survey in a room littered with empty pizza boxes than when they took it in a clean one. In another, they primed subjects to negatively respond to words like “often.” Sure enough, when presented with hypothetical cases described using the word “often,” the subjects thought the action they were asked about was morally wrong, even when it was as innocuous as “often raising topics of interest for discussion.” Subjects tried to justify their verdicts with claims like “it just seems so weird and wrong,” “I don’t know why it’s wrong, it just is,” and perhaps best of all, “it just seems like he’s up to something.”
The lesson is that much of our moral reasoning is not, as we usually think, a matter of making our minds up. Instead, it is often an after-the-fact exercise in rationalising views that are formed non-rationally or subconsciously in response to irrelevant and biased concerns. In such cases, we are deceiving ourselves as much as each other.
Yet there is a second strand of Haidt’s thinking which sits uneasily with the first. Haidt believes that liberals who have lost touch with certain core areas of traditional moral judgement are missing something of value; they are, he thinks, morally blind—or, at least, morally myopic. In arguing this, Haidt places great value on “human nature,” moving—in a way that is commonly rejected by philosophers—from psychological descriptions about which factors influence moral judgements, to prescriptive pronouncements about which factors ought to influence moral judgements.
This is odd, since Haidt’s studies themselves show how our “natural” ways of thinking about morality are deeply deficient. Presumably he doesn’t think that our natural tendency to judge actions based on the tidiness of our surroundings reflects important truths about a life well lived. So why, then, are other natural modes of judgment—giving priority to those of the same nationality, severely punishing disloyalty to the in-group or the questioning of authority, and so on—seen as having an immutable moral significance that liberals are misguided in questioning?
Our moral responses, as Haidt himself has shown, are heavily conditioned by the cultural surroundings in which we grow up. This may come as a disappointment to those who think of themselves as fierce individualists unswayed by those around them. But it can also be a source of inspiration for those who want to shape society and institutions in a way that encourages us to expand our sphere of ethical concern towards a wider-reaching equality. Of course, the nation-state is crucial to this project, insofar as it promotes a common identity that encourages us to identify with one another. In that respect, Haidt (and Goodhart) are right to take the idea of nationhood seriously.
But this does not mean that it is wrong to push the question even further, asking how we can be encouraged to care more about the well-being and suffering of those who happened not to be born within the same borders as us. Haidt thinks liberals ignore concepts like authority and the sacred. But really, liberalism’s power consists in challenging the moral relevance of such concepts. Since liberals dispute that authority really is of fundamental moral importance, it is circular reasoning to argue that this is a form of “moral blindness.”
Haidt somewhat reductively takes our moral concerns to fit into five or six fixed, fundamental categories, highly resistant to radical reorientation. Yet Haidt himself believes liberals have reorientated the ways that they think about morality, so this reorientation is clearly not psychologically impossible. More importantly, sociology and anthropology have taught us how the concepts with which people think about morality—for example, that of the self—vary. To take one example, in South Korea close family and friends don’t usually say “I love you” or “thank you” to each other. To do so would imply a distance or separation between these individuals. Since Koreans traditionally conceive of themselves and those close to them as in a crucial sense part of a whole, it would be like me thanking my own arm for helping me to write this article: redundant.
Haidt is in danger of confusing the moral conceptions which we have here and now with an immutable “human nature.” When he tells us that we are misguided to try to question the “natural” bases of moral judgment, he covertly endorses a kind of moral conservatism.
In fairness, Goodhart does urge on Haidt’s behalf that this need not mean an abandonment of egalitarianism. But it’s hard to see exactly what it does mean, if it isn’t at least to water egalitarianism down. A common argument by “Blue Labour,” a movement cited by Goodhart as exemplifying post-liberalism, is that it has been misguided to prioritise alleviating the suffering of the poor in the developing world at the cost of our own poorer citizens. But since our own poorer citizens are still a lot better off than almost everyone in developing countries, this ultimately amounts to saying that egalitarianism’s scope should indeed be limited: it applies when we compare the rich and the (relative) poor around here, but not when we cast our net wider.
Perhaps I have mischaracterised “post-liberalism.” But if it is not about restricting the scope of equality in this kind of way, the question becomes: what is it about? Blue Labour is characterized by a tendency to shift between, on one hand, a set of general truisms largely devoid of concrete policy proposals—for example, that it’s important to be sensitive to the concerns of the traditional working-class voters and not to let them be captured by the radical right—and, on the other hand, a much more specific, socially conservative agenda involving quasi-religious “family values,” harsh positions on criminal justice, and a native-Britons-first immigration policy. The worry is that the general truisms become an excuse to smuggle in the conservative agenda. And the task for committed liberals who believe in their ideals is to try to take the former seriously without endorsing the latter.
Haidt is surely right that it is good to have a detailed understanding of how moral psychology works. It makes us aware of the dangers of bias, after-the-fact rationalisation, and overconfidence in our own reasoning abilities, and may even help us to regulate our habits and behaviour.
But it is doubtful whether a descriptive understanding of our minds could ever go further and do the job of actually furnishing us with ideals, as Haidt at times seems to hope that it will. Here we have only our consciences and sense of empathy to rely on, flawed and selective as these mechanisms are. The aim of articulating a humanistic, culturally sensitive and psychologically realistic vision of how to live a good life is a noble one. But trying to restore concepts such a deference, nationalism and conformism to the heart of this vision—at least, if it is to be something to strive for, and not just an account of our own imperfections—represents a step backwards.
Last hope for the left: read David Goodhart’s review of The Righteous Mind