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Liberalism & Conservatism, Moral Foundations Theory, Moralty BInds and Blinds, The Partisan Divide, The Political Divide

Some of Haidt’s Metaphors Contradict His Findings

[Note:This post was edited on 3/30/13 to include the sentence in bold font.]

This post is critical of select portions of Jonathan Haidt’s work so I want to make it clear at the outset that I think his approach, research, findings, and interpretations of those findings in the academic sense are right on the money.  I’m a huge fan, which apparently makes me somewhat of a rarity among conservatives.  But I also think that some of the metaphors he uses to communicate those ideas to the wider audience beyond academia are oversimplifications which tend to contradict, or at least undermine, the true essence of his work.    

Specifically, he does a great job of defining morality and describing the liberal and conservative versions of it, but I think he falls short in describing the nature of the dynamic between the two sides.  If, as Haidt describes, happiness comes from “between,” (1) then so can conflict and strife.  His Yin/Yang metaphor of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism, as well as his likening of moral foundations to taste buds, and of moralities to cuisines, mischaracterize the between.  And by doing so they are obstacles to a full understanding of, and therefore fruitful discussions about possible solutions for, the root cause of the political divide.

I accept and agree with Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology. The mind is divided, like a rational lawyer riding on the back of an intuitive elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” (2)

I also accept and agree with his third principle. Our righteous minds are “primate minds with a hivish overlay.” “We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves,” but “we also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group.” In short, morality blinds and binds.(3)

But these things are common to everyone in equal measure regardless of political persuasion, and as such they cannot be the fundamental things that separate liberals from conservatives. They certainly can, and do, exacerbate the divide, but, I submit, they aren’t the fundamental cause.  They are the hammer that drives the wedge between us, but they are not the wedge.

The wedge must be, can only be, the thing that the two sides do not have in common, to wit, the conscious realization on the part of the lawyer rider, and the intuitive grasp on the part of the elephant, of Haidt’s second principle of moral psychology: “Morality is about more than care/harm and fairness/cheating.” What Haidt’s empirical data shows, and what he spends much of The Righteous Mind illustrating, is that some of us see all the colors of the spectrum of human morality and some of us see only about half of them. In other words, the wedge that is dividing us is the simple fact that some of us “get” Haidt’s second principle of moral psychology and some of us don’t.(4)  Haidt’s empirical data shows, and he has publicly concluded, that conservatism has a better grasp of human nature and of liberalism than liberalism has of human nature or of conservatism.  In other words, morality is much more than simply a matter of taste or preference, it is also an ability to perceive and to understand what is really going on in the world of human social interaction that surrounds us, and that ability correlates with the number of moral foundations upon which each morality is based.       

A chief consequence of the wedge is that a conversation between a liberal and a conservative about morality, politics, or religion is like a conversation between a color blind person and a fully sighted person about the paintings of the impressionists (or even, for that matter, the Ishihara Test for color blindness). The color blind person thinks the sighted person is crazy because the sighted person sees things that, to the color blind person, just don’t exist, but the sighted person understands what the color blind person sees because the sighted person is familiar with monochrome images.  The sighted person realizes that the real world is much richer and more nuanced than the color blind person can perceive or conceive.

This dichotomy between unequal things, and the resulting dynamic that exists “between” those things, is a direct contradiction of the moral equivalence that is implied by Haidt’s metaphor of Yin/Yang, and of the message that morality is little more than a matter of taste, or preference, that is implied by his characterization of moral foundations as taste buds and moralities as cuisines.  The fact is that the political divide is not bi-directional as these metaphors imply.  It is not true that each side misunderstands the other, or is blind to the other’s insights, in equal measure.    

The first step toward solving a problem is identifying it correctly.  The Yin/Yang metaphor and the analogy of taste buds are intellectual and conversational roadblocks that prevent that from happening.  


(1) In his previous book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom Haidt compares the latest findings from social science research with some of the oldest lessons of ancient wisdom about human nature and finds some remarkable congruencies. He concludes that:

Happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get he conditions right and then wait. Some of hose conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you. Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.

(2) The is the message of Part 1 of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

(3) The is the message of Part 3.

(4) Part 2.  Indeed, a central message of all of Haidt’s work is that liberal morality is almost exclusively about care and fairness, whereas conservative morality is about all the foundations in equal balance. He does not claim that this basic fact is the wedge that is dividing the two sides, but in my view his empirical data supports it.  Haidt endeavors to be descriptive rather than to take sides in the culture wars. It’s a fine line to walk.


3 thoughts on “Some of Haidt’s Metaphors Contradict His Findings

  1. I think everyone who read his book with more than two brain cells to rub together noticed this as well. I also assume that he made the yin/yang instead of the colorblind comparison out of either political considerations for how the book would be received (because he doesn’t want the James Watson / Larry Summers treatment) or because the findings were like a whip made of super-heated flexible steel cables flaying off the layers of his liberal soul. When the world you grew up in and believed in increasingly looks like a world of pretty lies, I can understand how someone would try minimize the damage done to their violated psyche as much as possible.

    [blockquote]I’m a huge fan, which apparently makes me somewhat of a rarity among conservatives.[/blockquote]

    Then I guess that means you’re not familiar with the dissident Right and neo-reactionaries like Steve Sailer or Mencius Moldbug. This group of Righties reads the latest popular academic lit like Haidt and Pinker while channeling the very fires of Hell itself. By “fires of Hell” I mean this.


    Posted by George B Smith Jr (@GeorgeBSmithJr) | March 25, 2013, 2:04 pm
    • RE: “I think everyone who read this book…noticed this as well.”

      I’m not so sure. But then, maybe it’s me who is slow on the uptake.

      The Larry Summers thing did occur to me. The same sort of thing is happening now to Tom Nagel. It’s the cover story in the current The Weekly Standard: The Heretic – Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?.

      It’s also happening to Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock now on TED. Check this out.

      Here’s a different blog that gives background and sort of a history of the Sheldrake Hancock thing: TED’s Spectacular Fail: Ideas Worth Suppressing.

      It sorta did happen to Haidt when he called out his own profession for being what he calls a tribal moral community. He has a whole page on his home page dedicated to the talk, the controversy it stirred, and research on both sides of the debate. One of his comments: “One of the most interesting aspects of the controversy has been the vitriol shown in the comments.” Another is: “The most entertaining debate occurred with Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, the chairman of the philosophy department at CUNY-Lehman, who accused me of academic misconduct.”

      You can see all of this, Haidt’s original presentation, and more, on his web page, here: Post-Partisan Social Psychology

      Haidt’s very good though. He typically doesn’t take the bait of the provocative language aimed at him by responding in kind. He replies respectfully and professionally.

      You are right that I was not familiar with “the dissident Right and neo-reactionaries like Steve Sailer or Mencius Moldbug.” Thanks for the tip and the link. But I still get the feeling that conservative fans of Haidt are rather few.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | March 25, 2013, 10:19 pm


  1. Pingback: A Goy and his Blog » Blog Archive » Semaphores, metaphors, sophomores and wherefores - June 1, 2013

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