The Righteous Mind, Part 1: Morality is Not Rational

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, argues forcefully that morality is not primarily a matter of rationality. We use rationality to defend our moral choices. Occasionally we change our minds based on rational argument, but for the most part our moral decisions are made through intuition.

In Plato’s Republic Glaucon argues that human beings are only moral because they fear for their reputations, and that given an invisibility ring most people would behave immorally. Haidt backs up this view with modern psychological research. “I’ll praise Glaucon for the rest of the book as the guy who got it right – the guy who realized that the most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad  behavior will always bring bad consequences.”

Unlike Plato, who assigned Reason the role of ruling over the passions in the well-ordered individual (and city), Haidt argues that reason actually functions more like a lawyer or press secretary. Much like the press secretary reason does not actually set policy, it just defends it to others. “We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in that judgment”

The only philosopher whom Haidt paints in a good light is David Hume, whose theory of moral sentiments is one of the few theories in moral philosophy to make the role of feelings central. Hume’s understanding of the self is actually much more accurate than the classical enlightenment view of thinkers like Kant, according to Haidt.

Haidt also critiques the utilitarian and modern economic views of the self as an autonomous, rational, self-interested utility maximizer. “‘Economic Man’ is a simple creature who makes all of life’s choices like a shopper in supermarket with plenty of time to compare jars of applesauce. If that’s your view of human nature, then it’s easy to create mathematical models of behavior because there’s really just one principle at work: self-interest.” As I wrote about with Sandel’s book, The Moral Limits of Markets, what we have here is not so much a critique of economics, but rather a critique of the application of the economic model of decision making to non-economic decisions. We simply don’t decide on everything in the same way that we do at a grocery store or in other economic marketplaces.

Thus far I agree with Haidt’s critique of both the over-glorification of reason by philosophy and the critique of the economic view of the self. In the next post I’ll look at Haidt’s moral foundations theory (including a look at how I score on his five moral categories of Harm, Fairness, Authority, Loyalty, and Purity).


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