A Summary of “The Righteous Mind” by J. Haidt


In his work “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt coins the term “the rationalist delusion” to explain a tendency of a majority of scholars to overemphasize the importance of rationality in human behavior throughout history (103). Haidt claims that the “worship of reason,” particularly within the realm of morality, is essentially inappropriate and he utilizes the rest of his book to advocate for a different version of moral reasoning and decision making processes based more on emotive intuitions that are dominant (103).

The aggregated empirical research of various social sciences, according to Haidt’s view, has shown that a person making a moral judgment experiences emotive intuitions first and engages in cognitive rationalizations, in the form of appeals to diverse justification criteria, second. Moreover, these cognitive rationalizations are only meant to serve as a tool or method to convince others that one individual’s or group’s particular thought process/belief/attitude is the correct one and that it should be universalized. Thus, the search for moral truth is secondary to the search for moral justification so as to avoid blame and condemnation or evoke praise and agreement from others (52-56).

Haidt likens this moral judgment process to a rider on an elephant. The rider represents our calculative and justificatory cognitive abilities while the elephant represents our emotive intuitions (52-56). The moral intuition comes first and only then does the rider attempt to find the easiest, most convenient path through which the elephant can more easily travel (justify an action/trait/event to others).

The “rationalist delusion” can be summed up in a paragraph written by Haidt:

From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally (103).

Yet Haidt notes that this does not seem to be the case. Moral philosophers do not seem to be significantly more moral than professors in other academic areas. To defend this claim, he appeals to recent articles published by Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust. Schwitzgebel and Rust utilized several empirical studies that have recorded data about returning library books, voting behavior, courtesy at professional conferences, and responsiveness to student emails in order to compare the behavior of academic faculty with both philosophical and non-philosophical expertise.

According to the data they compiled, Schwitzgebel and Rust note that generally “it appears that ethicists, despite expressing more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, behave not much differently than do other professors.” Their results painted a picture in which there were variations between ethicists and non-ethicists, with ethicists sometimes underperforming morally, but only one of their studies, the one focused on the returning of library books, provided evidence for a significant deviation between the two groups.

Predicated on these mixed data, Haidt boldly claims that human rationality “evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people” (104). Haidt asserts that knowledge of the original evolutionary use of cognitive and linguistic faculties brings into focus other recent empirical research that seems to be “bizarre and depressing” when we consider human rationality as focused on truth seeking (104).

Whether or not Haidt is correct remains to be seen and will be the continuing topic of discussion for some upcoming blog posts!

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