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…