This post is by regular reader and commenter here at the Jesus Creed, Ann F-R, and she is examining a very important and influential book by Jonathan Haidt for this blog. We need to be aware of this book. In some ways it confirms postmodernity’s cynicism; in other ways it transcends simplistic theories. Here’s a big question Haidt (and Ann) are asking us of ourselves: Why do we seem to defend some views without one shred of evidence or, worse yet, in spite of clearly contrary evidence?
Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist (University of Virginia). The thesis of his recent book, The Righteous Mind, spans western philosophy, recent psychological & sociological studies regarding human development of morality. Using these & his own studies to highlight common myths as well as defects in other theories of human development, Haidt offers an explanatory framework for our differing perceptions of reality and morality. Although he frames his arguments as an evolutionary atheist, Haidt wrote in his Introduction what he wants readers to grasp: “the take-home message of the book is ancient. It is the realization that we are all self-righteous hypocrites”, and then quotes Matthew 7:3-5.
Our human (evolved) condition is that we naturally fall into patterns of polarization and alienation. Haidt observes that our “righteous minds” use moral reasoning to justify & defend our own & our group’s inclinations and actions post hoc; that is to say, natural moral reasoning comes fast on the heels of pre-existent inclinations and intuitions of our bodies. The higher our levels of education, the faster, more complex and more prolific the reasons fly in support of our inclinations.
Here’s a powerful way of expressing Haidt’s big idea:
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions & to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, & don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives. Introduction, The Righteous Mind
If we agree that Haidt has sufficiently substantiated this finding, what implications might this have for the polarization we see today between those who are more highly educated and those who aren’t? Have you been frustrated by others’ responses to facts and statistics, or have you found yourself defending inclinations which are contrary to presented data or facts? How would this affect how we perceive ourselves in and our reactions to the light of Scriptural truth, as believers?
Haidt begins with a couple of stories that were used in psychological studies which highlight how differently educated Westerners respond to questions of the morality or immorality of human actions than do the majority of people. He connected these differences to human understanding of the origins of our morality. Haidt addressed this question in ch. 1: Does morality begin from our human nature, or from our familial and cultural nurturing, or other alternatives? Haidt surveyed the philosophical & psychological perspectives from a bird’s eye view, which means that this post takes the satellite’s view.
1) Those who are nativist believe that moral knowledge is inherent to humanity, and for Haidt, this includes what God has endowed upon us (referring to Jeremiah 31:33-34), and an evolutionary understanding that moral knowledge has developed over time.2) Those who are empiricists believe that “moral knowledge comes from nurture” (p. 5), and have followed – mostly below our conscious awareness, I’d surmise – the perspective of the western philosopher, John Locke, who posited the “blank slate” understanding of newborns. According to this philosophical mindset (not to be conflated with scientific “empiricism” – the use of empirical methods to derive conclusions about the physical world), a human’s experiences and observations from birth onward form the mental foundations for his/her moral understanding. The empiricist points toward wide differences in human morality across cultures and human history.
3) The rationalist model: In the mid 1980’s, most developmental/moral psychologists adhered to theories of development which traced back to the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980, formerly a zoologist). Piaget studies of children led him toward a conclusion that human rationality, sense of justice and moral reasoning develop, over time, from sufficient and good experiences wherein children gradually formulate their own morality. “Rationality is our nature, and good moral reasoning is the end point of development.” (p. 7)
Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) built upon Piaget’s work and constructed various studies of children to verify his theories. Kohlberg took Piaget’s observations of children’s interactions with the physical world and paralleled his own theory of 6 stages of social development to Piaget’s 6 stages of reasoning. “Kohlberg painted an inspiring rationalist image of children as ‘moral philosophers’ trying to work out coherent ethical systems for themselves.” (p. 8 ) In addition to Kohlberg’s development of methods to quantify and code responses to psychological questions, Haidt says that his “second great innovation … [was] to build a scientific justification for secular liberal moral order”, and furthermore that “Piaget and Kohlberg both thought that parents and other authorities were obstacles to moral development.” (p. 8 ) The two psychologists constructed their research from a foundational assumption that children will work things out in the physical and social world on their own, and that parents should provide environments which are conducive or detrimental to their learning. Haidt noted that, “by using a framework that predefined morality as justice while denigrating authority, hierarchy, and tradition, it was inevitable that the research would support worldviews that were secular, questioning, and egalitarian.” (p. 9)
Elliot Turiel, a former Kohlberg student, developed techniques to elicit indications of moral understandings from children of even younger ages than Piaget & Kohlberg had studied. He found that even 5-year olds discerned between social conventions, which include arbitrary “rules about clothing, food, [etc.]”, and moral rules, which prevent harm and include “rules related to ‘justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.’” (p. 10) His research found that, contrary to Piaget & Kohlberg, young children distinguish between rules, and that this held true across all the cultures he studied. Yet, the political implications of Turiel jived with Piaget & Kohlberg, in that,
morality is about treating individuals well. It’s about harm and fairness (not loyalty, respect, duty, piety, patriotism, or tradition). Hierarchy and authority are generally bad things (so it’s best to let kids figure things out for themselves). Schools and families should therefore embody progressive principles of equality and autonomy (not authoritarian principles that enable elders to train and constrain children). (p.10)
Do you agree with Piaget, Kohlberg & Turiel’s foundational assumptions about morality? Why, or why not? How might these assumptions affect our reading of Scripture, and our perceptions of family, children & parents?