Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

The first chapter of Jonathan Haidt’s much-discussed book, The Righteous Mind, is called “Where Does Morality Come From?”  There is ambiguity in this title, and so room for equivocation.  Does “where does morality come from” mean “what makes a thing, objectively, moral or immoral,” or does it mean “where do our codes and constraints about morality come from?”

According to Haidt, there are two obvious answers to “Where does morality come from?”: nativism holds that morality is innate [God inscribed it on our hearts, (St. Paul) or we evolved moral sentiments (Darwin, Adam Smith*)], while empiricism holds that we are blank slates at birth,** and derive our morality from experiences, such as adults telling us things are right and wrong.  A non-obvious choice, he says, is rationalism, which holds that children figure out morality for themselves “when their minds are ready and they are given the right kinds of experiences.”

Nativism could answer my first, objective question about morality above: morality is divinely ordained, as God gave us moral intuitions.  On the other hand, one could see God as an amoral being, with morality as an arbitrary creation, like the starfish or the Big Dipper, in which case we are born with “moral codes” that do not actually tell us anything about right and wrong, only makes certain things feel right and wrong.  Similarly, we could see the moral sentiments explanation as grounding morality in human nature, or as describing a mere matter of taste (I like tortellini, iPads, Western movies, and not killing babies.) 

The empirical version seems to only answer the subjective question (where do people’s moral codes come from), and the answer is that they are a social construct, and there is no objective morality.  Perhaps, however, one could take a view that the society is objectively, morally, more important than the individual, and has the right and ability*** to construct any “morality” that is conducive to the survival of society, and individuals are then, objectively, obligated to obey that morality.

The rationalist view implies to me that there is an objective morality- how else would we reason about it?  Yet Haidt says the rationalist Piaget held that morality is “self-constructed” as kids play with other kids.  So this suggests that morality is a construct, but something individuals rationally construct for their convenience, rather than an evolving social construct.


Apparently, some researchers found out that kids went from giving conventional justifications for morality (“that’s against the rules!”) to more sophisticated, rationalistic justifications as they got older.  Haidt asserts that rationalists defined morality as justice rather than obedience to conventions: “[B]y using a framework that predefined morality as justice while denigrating authority, hierarcy, and tradition, it was inevitable that the research would support worldviews that were secular, questioning, and egalitarian.” I gather from Haidt that these researchers labeled more sophisticated moral arguments more advanced, but their ability to move from conventional to rational justifications for morality is a fact, however one chooses to normatively judge it. And how is predefining morality a problem unique to those who define it as justice- couldn’t it equally be a problem for those who also include convention and other things?
Haidt also dismisses the studies showing development of more sophisticated moral justifications as children age, noting that of course they as children become more articulate they justify their moral stances better. But the real question is whether their justifications are the real reasons they hold the moral views that they do; if so, greater mental development shows naturally coincides with a different understanding of morality. If on the other hand, as Haidt believes, justifications are just rationalizations, then nothing has changed in their understanding of morality. ***
Haidt, and apparently the rationalists themselves, conflate rationalist morality with harm-based morality; the only “rational” justification for morality, the only one that can be worked out by reason is, they assume, do not harm people. Thus, he defines rationalism as the belief “that morality is self-constructed by children on the basis of their experiences with harm. Kids know that harm is wrong because they hate to be harmed, and they gradually come to see that it is therefore wrong to harm others, which leads them to understand…justice.” But that doesn’t follow rationally at all- you don’t like being harmed, therefore, you shouldn’t harm others substitutes, without justification, others for one’s self. You would need the Golden Rule as an enthymeme, but that’s where all the moral content in the syllogism lies. “I don’t like to be harmed” isn’t the starting point for moral knowledge; “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” is.
None of this proves the possibility of moral reasoning, or its possible efficaciousness, but if it is possible, there’s no reason it should be limited to harm-based morality. Moreover, supposing we do know what’s morally right first and turn to justifications afterward, what of it? We do this when constructing geometry proofs, and nobody says Euclid was worthless because he knew where he would end up before he started his process. People undoubtedly engage in rationalizations, which shows that moral reasoning can be corrupted, but what can’t? People really do seem to find exceptions to general, simple rules they are taught when they are young. They also learn to legalistically justify themselves. Why throw the baby out with the bath water?
Even looking at morality as a social construct, if people want to justify their actions, doesn’t that suggest that the need to present a rational justification is part of morality, a type of social control even?


* I don’t care if Smith predates the theory of evolution.

** Haidt attributes this view to Locke, but everyone knows that Locke conveniently forgot his tabula rasa theories when it came to moral knowledge- there is right and wrong in his state of nature, as I read him.

*** Society becomes an actor, not the result of individual actions- we have to reject methodological individualism to make this work.