The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon, $28.95 (cloth)

Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation
by Richard Sennett
Yale University Press, $28 (cloth)

If you’ve ever argued about politics with someone holding very different views, you surely know that Hume was right: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

In his fascinating, important, and exasperating new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explores the root of those passions. A social psychologist at the University of Virginia and once a professed liberal Democrat, Haidt is dismayed by the rightward shift of the country’s political center of gravity over the last 30 years. Seeking to understand it, he looks for answers in the different characters of liberals and conservatives and proposes a new, or at any rate newly formulated, theory of our moral and political judgments, which he calls moral foundations theory.

As we all know and often forget, humans are not purely rational. Or, to put it another way, there’s more to rationality than is dreamed of in our everyday philosophies. We have a long, complex evolutionary history, which has left us with a tangled, multilayered psyche and many more motives than we are usually conscious of. With the help of research by a couple of generations of psychologists, anthropologists, and behavioral economists, Haidt has excavated these psychic structures. But before entering on a detailed description, Haidt pauses to emphasize the first principle of any adequate moral psychology: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Experiments repeatedly show—to oversimplify only a little—that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons. Changing one’s views in response to an opponent’s arguments is about as rare as an honest member of Congress. (Cases of both are known, but only a few.) Arguments are largely instrumental; they are meant for attack or defense. Most of the time, we argue like lawyers rather than philosophers.

Where, then, do our moral judgments come from? According to moral foundations theory, morality begins as a set of evolution-derived intuitions, which each child then learns to apply within his or her culture. Haidt suggests six dimensions or categories or foundations, into which nearly all our intuitions fall: 1) help those in need and minimize suffering everywhere (the care/harm foundation); 2) reward people according to what they contribute (fairness/cheating); 3) advance the fortunes of your group (loyalty/betrayal); 4) defer to legitimate superiors and protect subordinates (authority/subversion); 5) resist domination by illegitimate authority (liberty/oppression); 6) respect your group’s totems and taboos (sanctity/degradation).

By Haidt’s reckoning, liberals focus too narrowly on the first foundation and on a special version of the second. Compassion is the supreme liberal virtue, supplemented by egalitarianism, which relies on a view of contributing that emphasizes effort rather than output. Because it is individuals who suffer and need, liberalism is individualistic.

Conservatives, by contrast, have a more balanced moral matrix, resting more equally on the six foundations. Derived from questionnaires and psychology-lab experiments, Haidt’s main conclusion is overwhelmingly plausible: conservatives are less attuned to individual freedom and fulfillment, more sensitive to and concerned about the cohesiveness and stability of groups. They are instinctive Durkheimians, agreeing with the great French sociologist that every society is unified by sacred, unchallengeable beliefs and that “to free man from all social pressures is to abandon and demoralize him.” Even before “social capital” became a social-scientific buzzword, conservatives understood that communities were fragile and required continual shoring up, sometimes at the expense of individual welfare. “If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble,” Haidt explains. “This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left.” Where liberals see individuals in need, conservatives see social structures at risk.

Experiments repeatedly show that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons.

Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t,” Haidt announces in italics:

[Republicans] trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory. Like Democrats, they can talk about innocent victims (of harmful Democratic policies) and about fairness (particularly the unfairness of taking tax money from hardworking and prudent people to support cheaters, slackers, and irresponsible fools). But Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of “family values,” Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Set against the rising crime and chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, this five-foundation morality”—this passage arrives before Haidt introduces the sixth foundation—“had wide appeal, even to many Democrats.”

Some of this has been said before (e.g., by George Lakoff), though not so systematically or with so large a background of experimental data and evolutionary theory. What should we make of it? What is true and valuable, in the first place, is the reminder that every utterance is the tip of an iceberg, merely the surface layer of a deep linguistic (Wittgenstein) or psychic (Freud) substrate. To understand someone, even for conversational purposes—much less persuade him or her—takes a lot of patient, skillful work. Of course every non-autistic adult recognizes this to some degree, but most of us, most of the time, to an inadequate degree.

So, for example, an opinion about immigration or the Affordable Care Act may have little to do with that issue or that law and much more to do with the speaker’s feeling about his or her interlocutor, or about which group or tribe is associated with those who hold the opinion. In that case, facts and reasoning about policy will only get the discussants so far. They must either go deeper, baring their fundamental commitments and identifications to each other, or else save their breath.

How, then, do minds ever change? They rarely do, it appears:

Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.

Presumably political campaigns, discussions with friends and coworkers, television programs, books and articles, and even one’s education, account for still less.

Are society-wide misunderstanding and mistrust inevitable? Haidt’s practical recommendations for avoiding them are not robust. “I believe that psychologists must work with political scientists to identify changes that will indirectly undermine Manichaeism,” he writes. That should at least attract some foundation funding for psychologists and political scientists. Beyond that, he can only suggest that if congressional families all lived in Washington, D.C. and their children played sports together, Congress might be less polarized.

For secular rationalists (i.e., most politically active liberals and leftists), all this is discouraging. But we get no sympathy from Haidt, who scourges the “rationalist delusion”: the idea that “reasoning is our most noble attribute,” which usually goes along with “a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power” as well as “a utopian program for raising more rational children.” We had better reconcile ourselves to religion, Haidt advises—he deplores the New Atheism—and if possible, even join one. Lack of belief is no problem: “it is religious belongingness that matters for [social capital],” he approvingly quotes from a scholarly study, “not religious believing.”

According to Haidt, conservatives rightly value stable communities; liberals are blinded by the needs of individuals.

Truth or falsity is beside the point for Haidt; the social benefits of religion are too great to allow for quibbling on that score. Religions “help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival”; and they make individuals “less selfish and more loving.” Gods and religions are “tools that let people bind themselves together,” or, in the language of evolutionary psychology, “group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.” The data strongly suggest, Haidt claims, that religious people are happier, more generous, more productive, and better behaved than the non-religious.

At the very least, unbelievers should keep their skepticism to themselves:

Asking people to give up all forms of sacralized belonging and live in a world of purely ‘rational’ beliefs might be like asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon. It can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.

Like the serpent in Eden, reason promises a brave new world but can only bring homelessness and exile.

The Righteous Mind is an easy book for a defensive liberal rationalist to ridicule. Haidt clearly knows a thing or two about moral psychology and political rhetoric, but apparently very little about current affairs or political economy. For one thing, the recent political polarization he laments is of a peculiar sort: there is only one pole. Since the Republican capture of Congress in 1994, and even before, the Republican side has been characterized by relentless, take-no-prisoners partisanship; the Democratic side by disunity, vacillation, surrender. This is the fundamental fact of recent American political history, and Haidt shows no awareness of it.

For another thing, though some of their electoral success may well result from the fact that “Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t,” it’s also true—a regrettably partisan point, but it must be made—that Republicans cheat a lot. The Nixon campaign attempted to forestall a peace agreement in Vietnam in October 1968 that, had it succeeded, might have won Hubert Humphrey the election. The Reagan campaign allegedly attempted to delay the release of 52 American hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran until Jimmy Carter had left office. A Republican Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. The Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004, financed by Republican donors, was based on lies, while the CBS 60 Minutes report alleging Bush’s evasion of National Guard duty was substantially true, despite a firestorm of successful Republican denial. The dirty tricks of Republican operatives such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove are too numerous to catalogue. Currently Republicans across the country are busy with voter-suppression efforts under the deceitful pretense of combating vote fraud. No doubt the Democrats are hardly political innocents, but compared with the Republicans, they are hapless pikers. Yet, oddly, the Republicans’ godly supporters do not object to this ungodly behavior.

There are also deeper, less obvious objections to Haidt’s critique of liberal hyper-rationalism. Minds sometimes change; the voice of reason, though small and quiet, as Freud pointed out, does eventually get a hearing. Mightn’t it be fruitful to ask how this can happen rather than assuming, as Haidt does, that it hardly ever will? Mightn’t there be some material conditions in which rationality is not invincibly more difficult than unthinking allegiance, and in which cooperative inquiry seems as natural as strategic reasoning?

Strategic reasoning is, as Haidt emphasizes, a mechanism of inter-group competition, and competition is premised on insecurity. Universal radical insecurity—the inevitable and intended result of “flexible labor markets” and “minimal government”—is not conducive to imaginative receptivity or disinterested reflection. Upton Sinclair famously observed that it is all but impossible to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. The same goes for his tax breaks, regulatory exemptions, government contracts, and other matters on which a man’s survival, or his accustomed lifestyle, may depend. When the middle class is shrinking and more and more are living in poverty, most people will hunker down, not open up. Some degree of competition, insecurity, and inequality will probably always be necessary. But the price of our present degree of those things is a lessened ability to reason together about difficult matters.

Democrats are hardly political innocents, but compared with the Republicans, they are hapless pikers.

Another, equally pervasive condition of contemporary life handicaps collective rationality. Tellingly, nearly all the data Haidt refers to seem to be derived from brief interactions: lab experiments, interviews, questionnaires. There is rarely any occasion for prolonged reflection and relaxed discursiveness in these circumstances, any more than there is on radio and TV talk shows, where the average response is only seconds long and thoughtful pauses are disparaged by producers as “dead air.” Newspaper opinion pieces rarely exceed 700 words. Naturally readers and listeners fall back on preset attitudes and received opinions.

Moreover, we are all increasingly stimulated. The sheer volume of commercial messages, entertainment, and social media makes some compensation necessary, so we double down on our inner stabilizers, otherwise known as prejudices. Deep experiences of any kind—grappling with art or philosophy, having one’s mind changed about politics, or simply possessing one’s soul—require a modicum of silence, slowness, and solitude. For most Americans, that modicum is vanishing.

Liberals (or anyone) challenged by Haidt’s pessimism about social rationality will want to look into a new book by the maverick sociologist and cultural historian Richard Sennett. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation is less ambitious than The Righteous Mind, but also less breezily in-the-reader’s-face and more elegantly written. Throughout his career Sennett has chosen ample subjects—craftsmanship, respect, public space, built environments—and addressed them essayistically, with a varying mix of fieldwork, social theory, literary and historical erudition, and idiosyncratic reflection. Together is the second work in a planned trilogy on “the skills of everyday experience,” this volume on “responsiveness to others, such as listening skills in conversation, and [collaboration] at work and in the community.”

Sennett is a non-doctrinaire liberal, not much interested in electoral politics or ideology. But he has a keen eye and ear for the textures and timbres of contemporary life and a historically informed sense of how they came to be the way they are. In Together he traces the forms of working-class sociality from the nineteenth century to the present, including labor parties, workshops, settlement houses, and the Catholic Worker movement. At the center of labor history is the problem of what Haidt calls “group cohesiveness”: viz, what experiences, demands, or relationships might turn a class into a community? Sympathetically but critically, Sennett canvasses the attempts by Robert Owen, the German Social Democrats, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Saul Alinsky, and others to answer that question.

Nowadays the achievement of working-class community seems to him even less possible than formerly. “The new forms of capitalism emphasize short-term labor and institutional fragmentation; the effect of this economic system has been that workers cannot sustain supportive relations with one another.” Activists who would base protest and resistance on group values, as Haidt counsels, are stymied, Sennett points out, by the difficulty of “strengthen[ing] communities whose economic heart is weak.” Community, like rationality, has its material prerequisites, which are currently being eroded on a large scale.

For secular liberals, the message of these two books, especially Haidt’s, is a sobering one: achieving large-scale trust, comity, and mutual aid is hard—very hard. Though it has sometimes been done in the past, secular liberals are barred from using the old methods. We want bonds, we want limits, we want authority, but we don’t want illusions. The will of God, the infallibility of scripture, and the divine rights of husbands and fathers seem to us illusions. Even “my country right or wrong” is an illusion if it means, as it frequently does in the mouths of false patriots, “my country can do no wrong.” We can’t accept these illusions, and we can’t ask others to accept them—even if it will make them better behaved—though of course we must live with, and compromise with, people who think otherwise.

But we also owe it to conservatives—and to ourselves—to devise ways of promoting stability and solidarity that don’t rely on illusions. Here liberals have indeed failed, though the three centuries since the Enlightenment are hardly a great deal of time in which to resolve the immemorial tensions between reason and instinct, individual and group. Perhaps the best we can do for now is to point out— patiently, persistently, and with as much love for our equally stubborn fellow citizens as we can muster—that some social arrangements make it harder to hear one another.