Learning to Hate Haidt

I've had a story rambling around in my head for years, and one of these days I'm going to write it: it's about a right-wing ideologue who starts a nation-wide self-help group whose mind and life exercises are designed to subtly, over time, re-make all the new age-y liberals who participate into cold, hardened conservatives.

"They're so open-minded, you can just reach right in and change their brains for one you like," he'll say. 

I worry when I see good, well-meaning people touting the books of, say, Malcolm Gladwell, because while his sloppy logic and rhetorical tricksterism is appealing (and connected to such cool catchphrases!) and while he doesn't draw evil conclusions--in fact his conclusions are usually very positive, if obvious--he is training the brains of innumerable readers to ignore reason and read only for what "feels" right.

But Malcolm Gladwell is Blaise Pascal compared to Jonathan Haidt, who, I am convinced, is the devil if ever there were one. Haidt is known as someone who "researches morality," but his damage doesn't come from his research, it comes from his classification. Unfortunately, he uses all the cute pop tricks of someone like a Gladwell, and his writing is appealing to some wonderfully open-minded people who oughtn't have let just anyone rummage around in their brains.

The latest victim is (the otherwise wonderful) Nicolas Kristof:
...conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.


One of the main divides between left and right is the dependence on different moral values. For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.
And there's the rub: Haidt creates this appealing sounding "how can you tell if you're a liberal or conservative" dichotomy game that's just too fun to play. And then he mentions that obedience to authority and revulsion at things you find disgusting are actually moral values!

This is an expansion of the definition of "morality" to include two things that lead to incredibly immoral behavior: obedience and revulsion. Picture if you will a Nazi guard: this person wakes up every morning, showers, shits, and shaves, and then goes out and murders carloads of people at a time. All in a day's work! The guard feels right and just in doing this: after all, the authority figures are telling him to do it, and he's always found those stinking Gypsies, Jews, and Homos revolting anyway.

According to Haidt, this is one very moral Nazi, with wonderfully conservative strong moral values. Never mind the murdering! Moral, moral, moral!

A much more reasonable interpretation is that obedience to authority and disgust at perceived "contaminants" are animalistic reflexes, and that moral behavior comes into action when we over-ride these reflexes to act on behalf of a moral good: we disobey authority, hard as that is, because it is moral to refuse to hurt other human beings, we force ourselves to break bread with a person of another race, whom we've been taught is "dirty" and "other" and we ought to hate, despite that revulsion, because it is moral to treat all people as equals.*

Does anyone really believe it is moral to be disgusted by a man with a disfiguring disease? Or is it moral to force yourself to ignore those immoral feelings and shake his hand as though his skin were clean as a Ken doll's? 

The Milgram Experiment is of course the classic example of how obedience to authority makes people behave in an immoral way, but Haidt would have you believe those subjects who went on shocking (they believed) another human being all the way up to the highest setting, despite screams of pain and pleas for help and then finally a disquieting silence from the next room, that those people were in fact the height of conservative morality!!

Is he trying to excuse conservative behavior, or cause disgrace to the idea of "conservative morals"? I suspect it's the former, but the result seems to be the latter.

Haidt argues that humans are the only animals that feel "disgust," and implies that that exclusiveness makes it a moral impulse. (He makes no such claim about obedience to authority.) But even my cat shows evidence of feeling revulsion at certain things: for example getting wet by small amounts of perfectly clean water. He runs and sneers, shakes it off himself, cleans the offended patch of fur. One suspects this is one of those claims that, like humans being the only animals to use language, will turn out to be false--but even if it doesn't, is every uniquely human behavior now a moral one? Does that mean the construction and use of nuclear bombs is a moral behavior? My cat's never done that. How about the reclassification of immoral impulses into the realm of moral behavior? Once again, kitty innocent.

Haidt's reclassification of obedience to authority and revulsion at perceived impurities as moral behaviors is absurd, but there are many open-minded people who let these horse pucks right on in. I hope with this post to cast a counter-spell: morality asks us to act against our interests on behalf of a greater good; there nothing about being a good little soldier or in feeling (or acting on) disgust that leads us to act against our interests for others. In fact, these are usually two tremendous roadblocks to moral behavior.

Simply put:
Obedience and disgust are to morality what lust and desire are to chastity.
Haidt is certainly making a name for himself, with his twisting and torturing of ideas and language, but who is he helping, other than himself?

*This is a reference to a story told by Lillian Smith in Killers of the Dream, about how Southern women raised to believe that Blacks were "dirty," but who wanted Jim Crow segregation to end, would dine, once yearly, at a big event, with Black women, and how they admitted to actually feeling nauseated at the dining table, so deeply ingrained was this taught revulsion. Their morality came from their acting in defiance of these feelings--certainly not from their having these feelings.

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