The Righteous Road to Ruin
Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” trumpets yet another grand theory of evolution, this time in the form of evolutionary psychology, which purports to unravel the mystery of moral behavior. Such theories, whether in the form of dialectical materialism, Social Darwinism, biblical inherency or its more bizarre subsets of phrenology or eugenics, never hold up against the vast complexity of history, the inner workings of economic and political systems, and the intricacies of the human psyche. But simplicity has a strong appeal for those who seek order in the chaos of existence.
Haidt, although he has a refreshing disdain for the Enlightenment dream of a rational world, fares no better than other systematizers before him. He too repeatedly departs from legitimate science, including social science, into the simplification and corruption of science and scientific terms to promote a unified theory of human behavior that has no empirical basis. He is stunningly naive about power, especially corporate power, and often exhibits a disturbing indifference to the weak and oppressed. He is, in short, a Social Darwinian in analyst’s clothing. Haidt ignores the wisdom of all the great moral and religious writings on the ethical life, from the biblical prophets to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, which understand that moral behavior is determined by our treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. It is easy to be decent to your peers and those within your tribe. It is difficult to be decent to the oppressed and those who are branded as the enemy.
Haidt, who is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is an heir of Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” and who also attempted to use evolution to explain human behavior, sociology, politics and ethics. Haidt, like Spencer, is dismissive of those he refers to as “slackers,” “leeches,” “free riders,” “cheaters” or “anyone else who ‘drinks the water’ rather than carries it for the group.” They are parasites who should be denied social assistance in the name of fair play. The failure of liberals, Haidt writes, to embrace this elemental form of justice, which he says we are hard-wired to adopt, leaves them despised by those who are more advanced as moral human beings. He chastises liberals, whom he sees as morally underdeveloped, for going “beyond the equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system.”
“People should reap what they sow,” he writes. “People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.”
Haidt lists six primary concerns of those he considers morally whole—care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. He believes liberals, because they do not sufficiently value fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity, are morally deficient. The attributes he champions, however, when practiced among social conservatives, often mask a rapacious cruelty to the weak and oppressed. Slaveholders in the antebellum South, courteous and chivalrous to their own class, church going, fiercely loyal to the Confederacy, in short morally whole in Haidt’s thesis, created a hell on earth for African-Americans. One could say the same about many German Nazis and members of most cults. Haidt, although he acknowledges this dilemma in his moral constructions, would do well to ask himself whether there is something deeply flawed in a model of moral behavior that a slaveholder, a member of a cult or a fascist could attain.
He concedes that “even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the twentieth century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.”
This is a remarkable passage. It apologizes for bigotry and repression by social conservatives at home because these conservatives had an abstract enthusiasm for liberation movements 3,000 miles away in countries most of them had never visited. Not that liberals are immune from this specious morality. They can shed tears over Darfur and never mention the carnage in Iraq. The definition of the moral life, as the Bible points out, is how we treat our neighbor, not our concern with moral abstractions or the sanctity of our tribe. Charles Dickens got this in “Bleak House” with his great parody of the liberal crusader Mrs. Jellyby, who ignores the welfare of her children for her causes in Africa.
Haidt holds up what he believes are military virtues, writing that “in a real army, which sacralizes honor, loyalty, and country, the coward is not the most likely to make it home and father children. He’s more likely to get beaten up, left behind, or shot in the back for committing sacrilege. And if he does make it home alive, his reputation will repel women and potential employers.”
One can write such a passage only if he has never been on a battlefield. Those who are most detested in combat are the “heroes,” whose pathological love of glory and violence get other soldiers or Marines killed. The upper echelons of the military are top heavy with self-serving careerists and cowards who gleefully send out their troops in an effort to burnish their unit’s combat record and get promoted, while they remain safely in the rear or a fortified compound. Many combat veterans, from Erich Maria Remarque to James Jones to Anthony Swofford, have recounted how this works. It is estimated that as much as 25 percent of the junior officer class in Vietnam was fragged or killed by its own troops. War is not a John Wayne movie. Carrying out violence is a dirty, venal and horrible job. And the tragedy of post-traumatic stress disorder is that, however much Haidt might want to label someone who has spent a lot of time in combat as a hero, it becomes very hard and sometimes impossible for that “hero” to feel love again. Haidt mistakes the myth of war for war.
His transformation from a liberal to a conservative, he writes, took place on 9/11 when “the attacks turned me into a team player, with a powerful and unexpected urge to display my team’s flag and then do things to support the team, such as giving blood, donating money, and yes, supporting the leader.” In short, Haidt became a lover of conservatism and nationalism when he became afraid. He embraced an irrational, not to mention illegal, pre-emptive war against a country, Iraq, that had nothing to do with 9/11. And if there was ever a case for reason to conquer fear and the emotionalism of the crowd, the Iraq War was it. But Haidt, rather than acknowledge that fear had turned him into a member of an unthinking, frightened herd, holds this experience up as a form of enlightenment.
Haidt repeatedly reduces social, historical, moral and political complexities to easily digestible clichés. He argues that the human mind is divided, “like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” This peculiar metaphor, which in short posits that reason is in the service of intuition or passion, dominates his thesis.
Haidt like E.O. Wilson, whom Haidt calls “a prophet of moral psychology,” believes that evolution has constructed us to be selfish. We rationalize selfish behavior, he writes, as moral. He asks whether moral reasoning wasn’t “shaped, tuned, and crafted to help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes?” The moral glue that holds us together, Haidt writes, is concern for our reputations. But in a world like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia the primacy of reputation means, at best, silence and often complicity with repression and murder. Those who make moral choices, who defy the crowd, even in open societies, are always outcasts. Their reputations are shredded by those in power. They find their worth in an unheralded and unrewarded virtue. And they grasp that the collective emotions of the crowd are the enemy of moral choice.
In a very revealing anecdote—which he titles “How I became a pluralist”—Haidt writes of his three months in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar. He has servants. He visits the homes of male colleagues and is waited on by their wives. He writes that “rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent.”
His embrace of rigid social hierarchy and oppression, which makes him sound like the apologists for racial segregation, is a window into the entire book. He does not speak Oriya, the local language, and so is dependent on an educated, wealthy elite. He, by the standards of India, is rich. He makes no effort to explore the lives of the underclass. He celebrates what he calls “a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires.”
If there is karma—a concept Haidt mistakenly equates with Social Darwinism to argue that the poor, or “slackers” and “cheaters,” get what they deserve—Haidt will return in another life to the streets of Bhubaneswar as an “Untouchable.” He might think a bit differently about what constitutes the moral life if he has to survive in Bhubaneswar on the bottom rung rather than the top.
Haidt approvingly quotes Phil Tetlock who argues that “conscious reasoning is carried out for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery.” Tetlock adds, Haidt notes, that we are also trying to persuade ourselves. “We want to believe the things we are saying to others,” Haidt writes. And he adds, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
The supposition that moral creeds are excuses for self-interest, ironically, defines Haidt’s stunning moral blindness in India. This does not hold true for the oppressed. The oppressed—Haidt’s “slackers”—are forced because of their powerlessness to confront the mendacity of conventional morality. It does not mean the oppressed hold a higher morality. There are many examples of yesterday’s victims becoming today’s victimizers. But while Haidt correctly excoriates conventional morality as largely a form of self-justification, his solution is not to seek a moral code that benefits our neighbor but to ask us to surrender to this self-interest and become part of human “hives,” including corporations.
Haidt holds up the collective euphoria of college football games—which he says are religious rites—as an example of the positive benefits of collective emotions. He links school and team spirit to Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, which is, to say the least, a gross distortion of transcendental thought. He says football games also lead us to reverence. The crowd in a football stadium allows us to experience, he writes, awe and the sacred. It turns us, he writes approvingly, into a human hive. “It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are ‘simply a part of a whole,’ ” he writes of corporate or crowd experiences. He calls on us to surrender to these collectives. He writes that “a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people.”
Happiness, then, comes with conformity. If we are unhappy it is not because there is something wrong with the world around us. It is because we have failed to integrate into the hive. This, of course, is the central thesis of positive psychology, which Haidt is closely associated with. And it is an ideology promoted by corporations and the U.S. military to keep people disempowered.
Moral behavior is, to some extent, probably the result of natural selection. But there is little doubt there are human inclinations, which also appear to have their roots in natural selection, that must be curtailed, repressed or even punished if human civilization is to function. Sigmund Freud makes this point in “Civilization and Its Discontents”:
“The instinct of work in common would not hold [civilized society] together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formations.”Haidt recognizes these biological passions, but unlike Freud he encourages us to give in to them. Reducing the moral life to this retreat into collective emotions, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, is the central attraction of totalitarianism. It offers us an escape from the anxiety and responsibility of moral choice and abrogates to those in control the power to determine the moral and the immoral. Fear, the primary emotion that conquered Haidt, is the emotion skillfully manipulated by totalitarian systems to enforce conformity. Once we surrender our instincts to the crowd, once we are made afraid, we no longer think. This surrender elevates demagogues and charlatans, as well as corporate crooks, which perhaps is why Haidt lauds Dale Carnegie as “a brilliant moral psychologist.”
Haidt mistakes the immoral as moral. Totalitarian structures, including corporate structures, call for us to sublimate our individual conscience into the collective. When we conform, we become, in the eyes of the state, or the corporation, moral and righteous. Haidt would do well to remember historian Claudia Koonz’s observation that “the road to Auschwitz was paved with righteousness.” This is a book that, perhaps unwittingly, sanctifies obedience to the corporate state and totalitarian power. It puts forth an argument that obliterates the possibility of the moral life. Submission, if you follow Haidt, becomes the highest good.
The moral life is achieved only by fostering a radical individualism with altruism. The Christian Gospels call on us to love our neighbor, not our tribe. Immanuel Kant says much the same thing when he tells us to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends.” Morality is never the domain of crowds. And if you follow Haidt’s advice on how to become righteous you will, like so many of the self-deluded in history, end up a slave.
This article was originally posted on Truthdig.