Revisiting The Righteous Mind

Je m’accuse. I am as guilty as the next bloke when it comes to constructing false dichotomies. I like reading Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene, though I disagree with some fundamental aspects. Having put Time Reborn to bed, I’ve reengaged with The Righteous Mind and it’s dawned on me what goes against my grain. In retrospect, it should have been obvious all along, and perhaps it was. When I read works by these cats, I catch myself saying, ‘Yeah, but…’. A lot.

To be fair, I’ve not read much of Greene, so I’ll focus on the other two, Haidt in particular. From what I can tell, Greene is cut from the same cloth. I’ll elaborate. When I cite Haidt, just know that I mean the other two and their ilk.

Haidt divides the world into Liberals and Conservatives. This is the false dichotomy. I’m aware that I recently expounded on the political spectrum, but this is more than that. Whether this would be better depicted as further Left on the political spectrum or another dimension is open to debate.

I believe the biggest dissonance I feel against this common perspective is that these guys are all Liberals. In particular, they are Ivory Tower Liberals™—paternalistic know-it-alls. Upon reflection, Cass Sunstein falls into this category: paternalistic intellectuals. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but each of these is a privileged prescriptivist. But that’s not my beef.

The other common thread is that these people are all institutionalists. This brings everything into focus. These people are defenders of Enlightenment Age morality, so they’ve all adopted the same metanarrative.

The Righteous Mind – Chapter 7

Haidt’s observations are accurate enough, but only within the frame of institutionalism—a frame I reject. This leaves my perspective out of view and unrepresented. In chapter seven, he establishes his action pairs that serve to divine moral truths about a person’s foundational political beliefs. He argues, like Pinker, that the mind is not a Blank Slate. He adopts neuroscientist Gary Marcus’ definition of innate:

“Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired—flexible and subject to change—rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.”

— Gary Marcus, The Birth of the Mind (2004)

He further morphs Marcus’ ideas into this:

Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises.… “Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means “organized in advance of experience.”

— Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2012)

Given this background, Haidt invented these action pairs:

  • Care – Harm
  • Fairness – Cheating
  • Loyalty – Betrayal
  • Authority – Subversion
  • Sanctity – Degradation

I suppose I could reserve an entire post to disintegrate these. Suffice it to say that, categorically, I have issues with the meta of some of them—particularly, the last four. I am more accepting of the care – harm dichotomy, so my commentary would be more nuanced, especially in light of the scenario he cited, which shed light on his own thought processes.

I’m getting off track. The point I want to make is that these shared perspectives on society and identity, respectively macro- and microcosmic, make sense in an institutional framework, but is less necessary otherwise. And although Haidt attempts to defend his positions as not being invasive [my words, not his], this is simply because he accepts the underlying metanarratives blindly.

I’ll probably return to expound on this later, but for now, I am on to other things. Meantime, here is a review from a European, who rightly points out that this is a book written by an American for an American audience, even if he feels it is more universally applicable.

Out of a sense of fairness, I’ve included the Conservative brain image.


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