The Righteous Mind: Intro + Ch. 1 Discussion

Welcome everyone to the first installment of our reading group discussion. What I’m going to do here is try to open a conversation or set of conversations by raising some questions and highlighting some of the aspects of the reading I found most interesting. I encourage all readers to add their own thoughts or respond to some of mine or even ones introduced by other readers. The nice thing about this format is that even days or weeks from now, readers have the opportunity to keep thinking about the issues raised and respond to them.

The first thing I wonder is how successful you think Haidt was in introducing the subject of his book and arguing for its importance. Something I liked about his writing was the move from the analytic and exotic to the concrete and near. His little review of his time in graduate school thinking about different theories was interesting but not all that … challenging. I’m  not a child and I don’t have children, so I didn’t feel like that section really struck at me. Maybe some of you teachers or parents experienced it differently? Likewise, when he got into the anthropology and started talking about cultures Americans find exotic, that too was helpful, but it felt remote. Well, of course; these people are so far away and so different in every way, it would be more surprising not to find significant difference. But then the noose started tightening. Brazil isn’t that exotic. Philadelphia is practically my next-door neighbor. Even though I was already sympathetic to the idea, hearing explicitly that people living just a few blocks away from me could be living in a completely different moral universe unsettled me in a way the other examples didn’t.

So, what was Haidt doing in his intro and first chapter? By my reckoning, he had quite a few goals to attain in a relatively short space: 1) establish that people disagree not just about morals but more fundamentally about modes of moral thinking; 2) develop a rough categorization of the available modes of moral thinking (harm, loyalty, purity, etc.); 3) show correlations between peoples’ modes of moral thinking and their cultural backgrounds; 4) present his own version of scientific moral psychology as capable of providing an explanation for all these observations. Was there something else that I missed?

But most significantly, he constructed a model of the human being that we would find problematic or uncomfortable so that he is in the position to offer solutions. His human person is not just moral, but also not entirely in control of her morality. Moral reasoning as he presents it is (sometimes?) an after the fact process that confirms our already held moral intuitions. Worse, those intuitions seem to have been formed by our cultures. And not only are we moral, but we are also described as moralistic, judging and ostracizing others on the basis of our beliefs. I think Haidt is going for a kind of secular version of original sin: We are all born judging and ostracizing others on the basis of morals that we cannot even rationally justify to ourselves, and we are (so far in the book) powerless to stop, since the coherence of our societies in fact depends on us acting like this. How awful. Well, I found it compelling, at least in the sense that I want to find out more. I wonder, though, how much he is going to deal with the issue of people changing their moral beliefs or intuitions over time and what mechanisms might be responsible for that. What do you think of my idea that Haidt is presenting an original sin narrative?

Clearly we could spend a lot of time comparing our answers to some of the test questions listed. I’m willing to do that if other people do, but I think it would be something of a sideline to get into moral arguments about the correct answer to one or another question. That’s for philosophy, not psychology! Or is it? I don’t think Haidt was too hard on philosophers, but I did get the impression that he was disillusioned with philosophy’s ability to answer the kinds of questions he wanted to ask. To extrapolate a bit, I got the impression that he might find philosophy useful for arguing about morals, for persuading others to come over to our side, but not that useful for understanding how we actually came to hold the moral positions we do. In other words, we’re back to the idea of a gulf between why we think we believe certain things and why we actually do. And if that’s true, does philosophy really have any place at all? Do any of you have any thoughts on how this book being written specifically from inside the discipline of psychology affects either its presentation or your reading experience?

I would like to ask one very open-ended question. How do you think reading this book is going to change you?


One comment on “The Righteous Mind: Intro + Ch. 1 Discussion

  1. mramler

    I, too, picked up on the lingering bad-taste-in-the-mouthness tone (or whatever) toward philosophy, but, as Charlie points out, maybe it’s more a matter of tools and usefulness than anything else. It does seem to me that moral psychology wants to ask “how’d we get here?” as opposed to “What’s right?” or even “What’s good/better?”. I’m wondering if Haidt is also implicitly asking “Where are we going?” or if that’s just in my head.

    I liked his hopeful tone regarding what he describes as a blending of biology (innateness) and social conditioning (learning). I like how he leaves room at the beginning for open exploration of the topic while simultaneously painting us into a corner: We don’t know what makes us moral beings. (But maybe we need to know.)

    What stayed with me was his introductory comments regarding disgust. (See also: That Article Charlie Posted About Haidt Explaining Trump / Because my current research (guilty breasts) focuses on the rhetoric surrounding female bodies, Haidt’s citing disgust as an impulse toward morality and/or origin for it was especially fascinating. It made me wonder if the author will differentiate morality/ies: social harmony as morality (The Golden Rule, polite behavior, communal values, etc.) versus individual authenticity as morality (staying true to yourself, honesty above all, individual values, etc.). I’m sure there are other ways to categorize morality, but the harmony versus authenticity (and by extension, the community versus the individual) binary seems to me to be the most conflictual (and perhaps the most misunderstood, pragmatically).

    The invention of victims–I want to hear more.

    I also wonder if the author will explore the implications of morality’s evolving nature (given the social learning aspect of it) on religion and its future.