Haidt: Morality Defined

Beginning on page 313 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt


You’re nearly done reading a book on morality, and I have not yet given you a definition of morality. There’s a ,reason for that. The definition I’m about to give you would have made little sense back in chapter 1. It would not have meshed with your intuitions about morality, so I thought it best to wait. Now, after eleven chapters in which I’ve challenged rationalism (in Part I), broadened the moral domain (in Part II), and said that groupishness was a key innovation that took us beyond selfishness and into civilization (Part III), I think we’re ready.

Not surprisingly, my approach starts with Durkheim, who said: “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to … regulate his actions by something other than … his own egoism. “65 As a sociologist, Durkheim focused on social facts-things that. exist outside of any individual mind-which constrain the egoism of individuals. Examples of such social facts include religions, families, laws, and the shared networks of meaning that I have called moral matrices. Because I’m a psychologist, I’m going to insist that we include inside-the-mind stuff too, such as the moral emotions, the inner lawyer (or press secretary), the six moral foundations, the hive switch, and all the other evolved psychological mechanisms I’ve described in this book.

My definition puts these two sets of puzzle pieces together to define moral systems:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.66

I’ll just make two points about this definition now, and then we’ll use it in the final chapter to examine some of the major political ideologies in Western society.

First, this is a functionalist definition; I define morality by what it does, rather than by specifying what content counts as moral. Turiel, in contrast, defined morality as being about “justice, rights, and welfare.””” But any effort to define morality by designating a few issues as the truly moral ones and dismissing the rest as “social convention” is bound to be parochial. It’s a moral community saying, “Here are our central values, and we define morality as being about our central values; to hell with the rest of you.” As I showed in chapters 1 and 7, Turiel’s definition doesn’t even apply to all Americans; it’s a definition by and for educated and politically liberal Westerners.

Of course, it is possible that one moral community actually has gotten it right in some sense, and the rest of the world is wrong, which brings us to the second point. Philosophers typically distinguish between descriptive definitions of morality (which simply describe what people happen to think is moral) and normative definitions (which specify what is really and truly right, regardless of what anyone thinks). So far in this book I have been entirely descriptive. I told you that some people (especially secular liberals such as Turiel, Kohlberg, and the New Atheists) think that morality refers to matters of harm and fairness. Other people (especially religious conservatives and people in non-WEIRD cultures) think that the moral domain is much broader, and they use most or all of the six moral foundations to construct their moral matrices. These are empirical, factual, verifiable propositions, and I offered evidence for them in chapters 1, 7, and 8.

But philosophers are rarely interested in what people happen to think. The field of normative ethics is concerned with figuring out which actions are truly right or wrong. The best-known systems of normative ethics are the one-receptor systems I described in chapter 6: utilitarianism (which tells us to maximize overall welfare) and deontology {which in its Kantian form tells us to make the rights and autonomy of others paramount). When you have a single clear principle, you can begin making judgments across cultures. Some cultures get a higher score than others, which means that they are morally superior.

My definition of morality was designed to be a descriptive definition; it cannot stand alone as a normative definition. (As a normative definition, it would give high marks to fascist and communist societies as well as to cults, so long as they achieved high levels of cooperation by creating a shared moral order.) But I think my definition works well as an adjunct to other normative theories, particularly those that have often had difficulty seeing groups and social facts. Utilitarians since Jeremy Bentham have focused intently on individuals. They try to improve the welfare of society by giving individuals what they want. But a Durkheimian version of utilitarianism would recognize that human flourishing requires social order and embeddedness. It would begin with the premise that social order is extraordinarily precious and difficult to achieve. A Durkheimian utilitarianism would be open to the possibility that the binding foundations-Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity-have a crucial role to play in a good society.

I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives.68 But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.69 I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good.70 I just want Bentham to read Durkheim and recognize that we are Homo duplex before he tells any of us, or our legislators, how to go about maximizing that total good.






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