A Tale of Two (Moral) Matrices

This post is the last in our Summer Reading Group series discussing recent books on the current state of American democracy.  

Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, NY: Random House Inc., 2012.

By Sundar Ramanujam is a 2017 graduate of the M.A. program in Democracy and Governance.

After robust discussions on racial identity and inequality in America, the focus of our last discussion of our 2017 summer book club is set on understanding polarization and divide in American society. However, unlike the previous two sittings, a slightly different academic framework has been adopted in studying this political conundrum: psychology. To get a sense of the underlying causal factors, we ventured through the well-researched book of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist teaching at the New York University, titled The Righteous Mind. Haidt structures the book in three parts: (i) genesis of morality, (ii) conceptualizing the foundations of morality, and (iii) morality’s impact on social organization. The book is laced with numerous metaphors and analogies which supplement the anecdotes and excerpts from the author’s research study, making it an enjoyable read. At the same time, it does demand the reader to hit a hard-reset on the presumptions and biases one might have when thinking about toxic partisan rhetoric and polarization in American politics.

Where is ‘it’ from?

One of the more peculiar things about this book is that Haidt begins his journey of exploring the roots of morality, without defining the term “morality”. Ergo, we use it as a volatile term with loose contours, as we look at the previously held notions about the sources of morality. After dismissing the nativist and empiricist models, Haidt looks at the rationalist explanation for morality, which argues that it is a self-constructed concept adopted through experiential learning, where the child understands and explores the concept of harm. Yet, Haidt does not find the rationalist model making a watertight case.

Through a series of ethnographic studies and interviews focused on non-Western societies, Haidt infers that whatever be the source of morality, they vary across cultures, essentially defanging the rationalist’s argument. This inference paves the way for the author to forge his “intuition-led-reasoning” paradigm, which essentially discards any notions that human morality is driven primarily by objective analysis/reasoning. Instead, Haidt reduces the reasoning capabilities of the human mind as a set of mental faculties that is subservient to the intuitive (often stubborn) part of the human mind. He explains that when the mind encounters a moral dilemma, a tiny window of opportunity is presented (no more than a fraction of a second) within which the human mind (guided by intuitions) makes a moral judgement. Once the judgement is made, only then does the reasoning and justification comes through.

The intuitive part of the moral judgement mechanism comes off as relatively stubborn and set in its way, impervious to any amount of criticism/introspective reasoning by the self. However, Haidt asks us not to discount the impact social ties can have on the intuitions, and (subsequently) on the reasoning:

“We make our first judgement rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgement. Yet friends can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometimes trigger new intuitions thereby making it possible to change our minds.” (pp. 47)

The fact that social ties play a critical role in shaping moral judgement (and have political consequences) is reminiscent of a similar conclusion that the political scientist Robert Putnam [1] arrives upon. This is, of course, taken up in greater detail later in the book.

What is ‘it’?

Even as the discussion moves to determine the measures of morality, there is still no crisp definition for the term itself. Haidt, however, begins to widen the measures of morality to address cross-cultural paradigms while also expanding the foundations of morality to go beyond his initial dichotomy of harm/fairness. As he guides us through his research experience in Orissa, India, Haidt makes a distinction between the Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) and non-WEIRD societies in determining the diverse range of factors that constitute the moral matrix. In the former societies, the ethic of autonomy usually shapes a narrower moral matrix. Whereas, the ethics of community and divinity (found among societies that are less educated, less wealthy and more traditional) shape a considerably broader moral matrix. Interestingly, this argument can be viewed as a reverse-engineered modernization theory, most famously propounded by Seymour Lipset in the 1950s.

Once the cultural fault lines in his research work becomes apparent, Haidt moves to capture a clearer picture of morality that would reflect the moral virtues of both the WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies. Naturally, six pairs of foundations emerged: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression. Haidt posits that these foundations are innate in humans, and that our political views are determined by the intuition-driven moral judgement leanings we have on each of these foundations.

These six virtues become the bedrock of contention in modern political discourse in America. They form the two matrices, within which the political left and right operate. The argument goes on to say that the liberals understanding of morality is strongly coalesced on the care/harm foundation (and, depending on the issue, slightly rests on the fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression foundations). But it vehemently ignores or underplays the importance of the other three foundations: loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. In contrast, the conservatives (which, since the Reagan era, has included the Christian evangelical community, and have had a greater degree of representation of societies operating within the ethics of community and divinity) adapt all of the six foundations, with a particularly deeper reverence to the three virtues ignored by the liberals. It is at this point, Haidt argues, that there is a mismatch of moral matrices, which then results in both sides misunderstanding the other’s moral judgement apparatus.

Haidt, who uses the analogy of taste receptors to describe the moral foundations, goes on to state the following:

Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters since 1980. Republicans understand the social intuition model better than do Democrats. Republicans speak more directly to the elephant. They also have a better grasp of Moral Foundations Theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.” (pp. 184)

To me, Haidt seems to lay the onus for resolving polarization (and subsequently boosting the left’s political appeal) on the Democrats.

How ‘it’ affects political texture?

The final part of the book revisits a piece of the puzzle that was mentioned at the start, the vital role of social ties in reinforcing our moral matrices. Haidt explains how through evolutionary biology, humans have become (perhaps, uniquely so) creatures that engage in duplex social behavior: where we can be selfish and selectively altruistic, almost simultaneously. He also traverses through the biochemical effects of oxytocin on human psyche which increases our desire for “parochial love”. Given these structural arrangements of the human mind, and considering the intuition-led-reasoning phenomena that determines our moral judgments, Haidt argues that humankind begins to gravitate towards groups that share similar moral judgments and fulfill its desire to engage in a behavior for “groupish righteousness”. This tendency, Haidt asserts, is what facilitates political groupings: where individuals sharing similar moral judgments and a desire for “group-love” find enough confirmation biases, blinding them from understanding the moral matrix of the other side.

Some Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  1. How do social media platforms affect our (intuitive) moral judgement process, particularly given that commercial websites are increasingly relying on data analytics and machine learning technology that provides selective search results?
  2. Are the causes for the diverging moral views between WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies sufficiently established? If so, can societies transcend between these three realms of ethics?
  3. Does Haidt’s taste-receptor analogy (which explains the larger advantages GOP has over Democrats on moral issues) explain 2016 Presidential Elections? In what ways did Donald Trump’s moral appeal come off differently from Hillary Clinton? Could Bernie Sanders have had better success, from the standpoint of moral appeal?
  4. Are you convinced with Haidt’s argument that the Democrats have truly restricted their moral worldview to the three of the six foundations?
  5. Given the benefits and potential threat of hivish behavior, is it really a wise idea to even consider increasing the degree of hivishness in societies? In an increasingly globalized world, could hivishness act as an inhibitor/hurdle?
  6. As a comparative political scientist, can you apply Haidt’s thesis to your region of expertise?

[1] Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (1995): 65-78.