What is Jonathan Haidt saying about Morality?

Posted November 2019 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 7 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 8+. Questions on Jonathan Haidt? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Over the years, NYU moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his work have provided key insights into the moral milieu of Western society, if not the world. His works Flourishing, The Happiness Hypothesis, and most recently, The Coddling of the American Mind make key observations in moral psychology regarding how morals form and how they shape our lives. Haidt promotes a view on the origin and variation of human morality called “moral foundations theory.” In this view, human beings innately possess five moral foundations that inform our moral choices: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity (liberty is a possible sixth).  The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt’s masterful work, explores the development of moral foundations theory.

The Righteous Mind Doesn’t Rule

In the initial section The Righteous Mind, “Intuitions Comes First, Strategic Reasoning Second,” Haidt discusses the studies he’s conducted which prove the intuitive basis for human morals. In other words, people’s moral beliefs rarely come at the end of lengthy, rational analysis of ethics. Rather, people believe what they believe morally, and then establish post hoc rational arguments for their beliefs.

We’d like to think our moral beliefs are more sound, more logical, and even more practical than others. However, to illustrate from Haidt, “The intuitive dog wags its rational tail.” In various moral psychology studies, people would often react to certain moral situations with disgust, but then not be able to explain why that situation was morally wrong. To use Haidt’s example, a few people might think it immoral if a man goes to a store, buys a rotisserie chicken, goes home, and eats it. Yet, many more people would consider it repulsive if a man goes to a store, buys a rotisserie chicken, goes home, and has sex with the chicken. We can empathize with and share repulsion at such an act. But why is such an act wrong? The man is not harmed. Nor is the chicken.

Haidt compares this phenomenon to an elephant and its rider. Just like a small rider can control the huge elephant, so our cognitive processes can sometimes control our intuitive processes. Nevertheless, the elephant always remains much larger and much stronger. Therefore, concludes Haidt, if we want to have constructive moral discussions with people who disagree, we must learn how to talk to their “elephant” first. Haidt writes, “If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion.” But by addressing the elephant first, the tendency to intuitively react comes down, and people feel more invited to consider your position.

This brings segues nicely into the basis for moral foundations theory.

Moral Psychology Gets Complicated

The next section of The Righteous Mind, “There’s More to Morality Than Harm and Fairness,” explains exactly that statement. Moral foundations theory lists five innate foundations for our moral choices:

  • Care
  • Fairness or proportionality
  • Loyalty or ingroup
  • Authority or respect
  • Sanctity or purity.

Yet, in modern Western society, we usually only consider two:  care and fairness. These two consider questions like, “Does it harm anyone?” and “Is it fair?” If the answer to the first is no, and to the second is yes, then there shouldn’t be anything morally wrong with the situation in question. However, like the situation with the man and the chicken above, numerous moral conundrums confront us that have little to do with harm or fairness.

Regardless, while modern Western culture struggles to account for the other three foundations, they appear somewhat self-evident to people of other cultures. Other cultures value loyalty to the group or family, the order authority structures provide, and the sacredness of life, the body, and/or other things. Although some Americans might struggle to identify why the man having sex with the chicken is wrong, they still believe it’s wrong. Moral psychology and moral foundations theory would argue this is because we cannot deny some notion of purity or sanctity in our moral character.

According to Haidt, if you want to appeal to the most people for an election or a cause, you need to appeal to all five foundations. If your conscious moral beliefs only consider care and fairness, then you might be woefully ill-equipped to address challenges and communicate with people groups outside of your own.

Moral Foundations Theory and Life

For the final part of The Righteous Mind, “Morality Binds and Blinds,” Haidt discusses our seemingly innate tribalism around morality and how to take advantage of it. When it comes to group cohesion and cooperativity, Haidt argues that we’re “90% monkey and 10% bee.” We exist as individuals, but we can’t help but have groups mold and define our identities.

How can we get new groups to form? Jonathan Haidt and moral psychology call this group tendency “the hive switch.” It’s when an individual loses almost complete sense of self and sees themselves as organically related to a whole. It happens when…

  • Military units march together
  • We gaze at nature
  • Take hallucinogens like DMT
  • Share a religious experience
  • Meditate for several hours
  • Go to a rave or rock concert.

This “hive switch” comes with its fair share of pros and cons. Positively, we protect and encourage members of our own group. We may even willingly lay down our lives for them. Additionally, this “hive mind” creates social cohesion and unity. While modern political rhetoric wants to promote a complete inclusivity, Haidt argues that you can’t form cohesion unless it’s around something such as a person, an ideal, a cause, etc. Haidt argues this explains the origins and purpose of religion. Although an agnostic himself, Haidt disagrees with the New Atheist narrative that religions were invented to explain natural phenomenon in a pre-scientific age, and to encourage moral behavior. Instead, Haidt argues from an evolutionary perspective that religions were created in order to establish and sustain social unity and social order.

Negatively, we look down on or even persecute members of other groups. While many people believe religion itself bears the responsibility for the majority of world conflict and world violence, the picture often seems more complicated. People form group identities around all sorts of things besides religion. And thus, our tribalism can lead us to combat those who seemingly possess an opposing group identity.

How then can we take advantage of the positives and avoid the negatives? Haidt provides an example from business. In the old days, a manager would incentivize his employees by having them compete against one another as individuals for a bonus or reward. Unfortunately, this encourages distrust, isolation, and interoffice strife. On the other hand, Haidt encourages businesses to form teams within departments and to conduct regular friendly competitions between teams. This can encourage deeper trust, a healthier work environment, and greater output.

Haidt’s seminal work in moral psychology, The Righteous Mind, contributes far more to our world than just the idea of moral foundations theory. He provides invaluable insights into how we can engage with different beliefs, and how to even persuade others to our side with kindness. In our world of political division, his work almost seems prophetic. If you’re interested in learning more about moral psychology, moral foundations theory, and how to encourage fruitful discussion in your environment, consider Jonathan Haidt’s work The Righteous Mind.

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