In defense of Haidt

Politics,Beltway Confidential,Conn Carroll

Andrew Ferguson is a top flight journalist and author, but his review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind in this week’s Weekly Standard is a bit unfair. Here is how Ferguson describes Haidt’s scholarship:

Haidt came to his view the scientific way, through his own interactions with college kids in the UVA psych labs. He brought in 30 of them, one at a time, and instructed one of his psych students to tell them appalling stories: a brother and sister commit incest (“It’s their special secret”), Mom and Dad cook up the family dog for dinner, and so on. The 20-year-olds were suitably revolted, but none of them could explain why. “They seemed to be flailing around, throwing out reason after reason,” he recalls in his new book, The Righteous Mind, “and rarely changing their minds when Scott [his assistant] proved that their latest reason was not relevant.” They couldn’t offer good, relevant reasons for their revulsion because they didn’t have any. “Moral reasoning,” he concluded, “was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.” And the same process—react first, rationalize later—works for all our thought processes.

Haidt did perform the experiment described above. And if he had stopped there, then Ferguson’s next statement would ring true: “There are lots of problems here, many of them having to do with the thoroughgoing artificiality of the experiments that Haidt used to yield the conclusions. Is it any surprise that 20-year-olds are not paragons of moral reasoning?”

But Haidt has done far more than talk to just 30 kids at UVA. In fact, he specifically criticizes his field for depending on too many studies of this kind. In his book Haidt writes, “Nearly all research in pyschology is conducted on a very small subset of the huan population: people from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, ruch and democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD). … Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class (like my Penn sample) is the most unusual of all.”

To address this problem, Haidt recruited interviewers in two Brazilian cities (Porto Alegre in the richer industrialized south and Recife in the poorer rural north) to go along with his interviews which mostly took place at a Philadelphia McDonald’s. Haidt writes, “The design of the study was therefore what we call “three by two by two,” meaning that we had three cities, and in each city we had two levels of social class (high and low), and within each social class we had two age groups: children (ages ten to twelve) and adults (ages eighteen to twenty-eight). That made for twelve groups in all, with thirty people in each group, for a total of 360 interviews.” Ferguson never mentions any of this.

And here is how Ferguson characterizes Haidt’s findings: “His major theme is that moral judgments, including political judgments, are intuitive or pre-rational, determined by a tangle of genetics, personal experience, evolutionary adaptations, and biological imperatives.” This restatement of Haidt’s thesis is woefully incomplete. It leaves out what Haidt identifies as the main driver of our moral intuitions: cultural institutions that have developed over centuries by constantly competing societies. Or, as Haidt puts it:

As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital. … they believe that people need external structures or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions. … Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. …many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

Ferguson ignores all of this. Instead he accuses Haidt of wanting “to explain away liberalism too, so that our politics is no longer understood as a clash of interests and well-developed ideas but an altercation between two psychological and evolutionary types.” This is false. Haidt clearly identifies two competing “well-developed ideas” competing in the American political arena.

On the left are the “rationalists” who believe “that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge.” Haidt places Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Sam Harris in this camp. Rationalism “is also a claim that the rationale caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a Utopian program for raising more rational children.” In other words, from the Guardians to IPAB.

On ther other hand, Haidt describes himself as a “Durkheimian” who believes that society “emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other.” “The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the heirarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. … A Durkheimian society at it its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures.” In addition to the aforementioned Burke, Hayek, and Sowell, Haidt seems to add David Hume, Adam Smith, and Ronald Reagan to this camp.

Haidt’s book is not perfect. It underestimates American liberal affinity for loyalty (labor unions are almost unmentioned in the book) and overestimates their dislike for corporations (liberal support for the auto bailout, TARP, and clean energy subsidies go unmentioned). But, faults aside, it is unfair of Ferguson to lump Haidt in with the likes of Chris Mooney.

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