Haidt: We are all hypocrites!

Haidt: We are all hypocrites! May 18, 2012

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?

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  • Dan Maloney

    As a Catholic and one who dwells in the vaguaries of philosophy, I’d just like to say that Haidt’s idea of evolutionary/adaptive-imperative morals as a means of our species surviving has always intrigued me, especially when, say, you take the wolf-pack, for example. The alpha-male wolf will have to defend his position during his life, and the outcome of these fights provide an interesting scenario: from observational research, those who are dominant, when confronted by a “subservient” male, needs to do little more than snarl to show their intentions. What usually follows is the “subservient” male will lay down in an “passive submission” position, which the dominant wolf regards as an apology, and life rolls on (This is just information I have gleaned from my research).

    Basically, the dominant wolf spares the life of the “subservient” agitator. Why? There are many , varied arguments about this, but you can infer some of your own. Perhaps the dominant wolf recognises that the pack needs all the hunters to live for the propagation of the pack/species. Perhaps the wolf feels that killing a fellow wolf is morally wrong. Perhaps he feels disgust/apathy/etc., and just wants the pack to be vigilant. Perhaps it is instinctive, perhaps his father and mother influenced his decision with nurturing.

    My point is, taking this case as an example, we still cannot be sure about the influences, be they nature or nurture, as to why the wolf acts the way it does. It is important that even as theists, we are open to all possibilities, because even we cannot be aware of everything that God plans for the Universe. However, therein lies what we rely on as the core of our faith. In God we trust. As humans, though made in His image we are flawed (me especially), we inherently project our human thoughts/moods/reasons/motives/rationale on to God, giving Him attributes that are limited because they are human attributes, without according the Lord the inexpressable and impossible to conceive nature of His Existence.

    As such, my personal beliefs are that ALL living entities have souls and are entitled to the Lord’s Realm, and other variations on Papal doctrine. BUT, as to humans (and so, all livings things), I do believe that we are born innately good, and that our experiences in life, and how we choose to deal with these experiences, determine our future choices. Mental and neurological dysfunction can be the catalyst for many evil deeds, sociopathy as example. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, on and on. Their brains lack the ability to empathise and therefore understand, and to a large extent even feel, the human emotional spectrum. So, some sociopaths murder/rape/heinous other atrocities, because they are not emotionally restrained by what society outlaws. They still make a choice to commit these atrocities, however, and as such are responsible nonetheless. The majority of sociopaths lead “normal” lives without murder, etc.

    In terms of mental illness, the range of sickness is beyond even science’s scope to fully understand at this stage. Personally, I have suffered an enormous amount throughout my whole life due to multiple mental illnesses. Suffice to say that my thoughts were deeply black, as far back as my memory can record. Depression, degradation, dehumanisation, disgust, self-blame, regret, disappointment, all manner of rage and shame I have felt and turned on myself. But I’m still here. I haven’t given up yet, because my faith lights the candle of hope that leads me forward. I’m not angry at the world. I wish I could take away all the pain that I see everyday in my fellow human beings. I can only thank God for how I have coped thus far.

    –Suicide is not evil, wrong or selfish. It is the action of someone who is WITHOUT hope. To suffer so much that one cannot see any hopeful future, and which leads one to override our most basic instinct (that of survival) with such self-violence, is to realise the extent of agony that they suffer (“..thousand shocks that human flesh is heir to..” Hamlet, ‘Hamlet.’ William Shakespeare). If in our own humanness, as flawed as it is, we condemn those that beg for the end of their suffering, as great in magnitude as it must be, perhaps we may need to re-think how we perceive the importance of our fellow human beings. It is just as easy to reach for help as it is to give it. We all suffer, and we’re all flawed. I wish for they day where I see a fallen person being helped up by another, saying, “It’s okay, sometimes we all fall. I know I do. Let me help you up.”

    Perhaps I’m just an idealist, and naive. I’m flawed too, though. Please forgive any judgements or anything in my comment that you find offensive. I tried to articulate a post that expressed my opinion, and where you find errors in it, the fault is mine. I am sincere in my hope that I have offended no-one, and if I have, I apologise deeply.

    As an Irish-Catholic, I pray this for readers:

    May the road rise up to meet you.
    May the wind always be at your back.
    May the sun shine warm upon your face,
    and rains fall soft upon your fields.
    And until we meet again,
    May God hold you in the palm of His hand.


  • phil_style

    Ann F-R, a nice post indeed. And timely too! The guardian are running an op-ed on this today: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/17/reason-politics-jonathan-haigt

  • Scott Gay

    Give the rational assumptions free reign and you have a Lord of the Flies world. Without their influences there isn’t innovation. Give the nativist assumptions free reign and you have a Borgias world. Without their influences there isn’t purity( in both a quantitative and character sense).

  • DRT

    By Haidt’s definition I am quite a liberal (does your intuition tell you otherwise?). Reading his work and posting on it like this is quite important to all of us since we need awareness about what we are doing if we don’t want to subjected to our own irrationality.

    So when they say:

    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)

    I naturally agree!

    But I would like to hear from the more conservative folks out there. Should you be indoctrinating your children into your clan’s authority structure instead?

  • holdon

    Read “The Abolition of Man” to see the prediction of where this goes.

    And another instructive look into the mechanisms of “cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias” can be found in this book: “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”.

    Perhaps that would apply to Haidt too?

  • phil_style

    @Holdon, “Perhaps that would apply to Haidt too?”

    There’s always an interesting conundrum with these studies that point to inherent irrationality, and that is, as you identify – does that mean the study/ researcher is also being irrational?

    At this point you can quickly end up in an absurd circle of incomprehensibility, if the methodology or conclusion of the work is taken too far. The same goes for some biblical “hermeneutics of suspicion”. It’s not hard to see how entangled one can become in the potential for hypocrisy in such cases.

  • I haven’t though through all this yet, so you’ll have to excuse my naïveté, but as with most topics I read about these days I fail to see the use in making any of this an either/or and forcing a choice between these distinctions. As some other recent posts have discussed, I know that it is not helpful to set up a distinction between what God ordains and what Nature brings about, as if each excludes the other. I do suppose, however, that I see the value in discussing if it might bring about a less morally oppressive world…

    Anyway, when it comes to definining “morals” from a “christian” perspective what else can be the base except the unchanging eternal nature of our triune God? The essence of all of creation, as its substance flows out of the mind of the creator, is perfect/resting “rightness” (that is, peace or “shalom”) in perfect loving community.

    Or, as U2 says “where the streets have no names, I’ll go there with you…”

    Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to enjoy the peace of just “being” (as expressed in God’s name “I am”) which is bound up in doing so in living community with others.

    Morality then, in my thinking, is constant working out of the tension between these desires. The desire to be allowed to “be”—without demands, oppression, or hinderance—and the desire to “be with”, to be fully known and loved and accepted as you are.

    The tension is that, so often, our desire to “be” seems to be hindered by others (via perceived oppression) and our desire to “be with” is hindered by our fear of not being allowed to “be”; i.e. self imposed isolation from those we see oppressing us.

    In other words we know that with community with others lies that which we thirst for, but within the intimacy of community we open ourselves up to potential oppression. We choose then to either isolate ourselves from others or lash out against those who we perceive are oppressing us.

    So, all that is to say that I see all “morals” as practical out workings (whether learned or observed really doesn’t matter) of how these tensions can be relieved. The only way to break the cycle of tensions, of course, is bound up in self sacrificial love, giving self up for others. Any true moral is a practical out working of this. Any moral that places demands on others above giving self up is a patchwork and will lead to no peace in the end.

    So, yeah, that was rough. Hope I made some sense. : )

  • Dan, as I’m progressing through the book, it seems that Haidt offers some hope. ISTM that not all is bleak, if our communities understand ourselves and give grace to one another as we believe God gave to us.

    phil_style, thanks for the link! He’s not a “political scientist”, however.

    Scott, the rationalists’ assumption don’t necessarily lead to the Lord of the Flies. The problem Haidt highlighted was that people do not actually assess situations & make decisions according to reason. This has been (still is, for many) an overarching assumption of how we ourselves act, magnified in the Enlightenment, though it does stretch back through Aquinas and the church to Plato and Aristotle.

    holdon, Haidt would agree with you that he is subject to the same human condition; he makes that point (ch. 3). ISTM that is why he draws so broadly on the work across a number of academic disciplines & scientists to support his thesis. Do you read him as disagreeing w/ Lewis’?

  • phil_style

    Ann F-R, if you’ll countenance another link… Richard Beck was running a similar discussion only a week or so ago… http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/orthodox-alexithymia.html
    …but with reference to Hume’s “”Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

  • Nate W., you’ve expressed the tension well. Haidt doesn’t leave it there, but he moves away from the either/or, too. This chapter was a survey of the way educated westerners have tended to view the development of morality. Haidt subsequently draws together a number of studies that reveal more fully how we tend to make our conclusions.

    Alas, there was a subject/verb edit fail in my first response (7). My apologies!

    phil_style 8: Haidt, too, references Hume & that particular quote frequently as opposing the rationalists’ paradigm. Thanks!

  • holdon

    I have not read the book by Haidt, but this quote “Schools and families should therefore embody progressive principles of equality and autonomy ” smells like a Conditioner out of Lewis’ book.

    Here is Lewis about morality:
    “Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

    I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment. The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany/Traditional values are to be `debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent `ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere υλη, specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism, and boys likely to be worthy of a commission are `potential officer material’. Most wonderful of all, the virtues of thrift and temperance, and even of ordinary intelligence, are sales-resistance.

    There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis—incommensurable with the others—and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on `explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

    You can read the thing here: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition3.htm

  • I had just finished my lunch at Cici’s, where I was reading my new issue of First Things. The “Public Square” section had an article that talked about Haidt and his book. When I got into my car, I was tuned into the Dennis Prager program and caught the last part of his interview with … Jonathan Haidt! Here is a link to that hour-long interview with Haidt: http://bit.ly/KMSlNQ

  • Ben Wheaton

    Andrew Ferguson has an article about Haidt’s book, and other like them, that is quite interesting:


  • Stephen


    Thank you for sharing, brother.

  • Tom F.


    I do not think you adequately read the original post. The original post attributed this quote to a Kohlberg student, not to Haight. Kohlberg and Haight are in different strands of thought. And besides, Kohlberg is most often associated with Kantian ideas that do emphasize the existence of a an absolute moral good.

    Yes, the hypocrisy angle would be defeating if Haight thought that we were hypocrites on everything . Instead, as I understand Haight, we are hypocrites on moral issues mainly. Haight is a scientist, he presumably thinks that the scientific process is reasonably able to arrive at truth and to check issues of bias and self-serving theories, mainly because science can empirically test things. Its much harder to empirically test many moral issues. So no, Haight is not self-defeating. (Other more truly post-modern folks might have self-defeating positions.)

    What does this say about polarization between educated and less educated?

    Well, if human beings construct moral positions to advance their own interests, than it makes sesne that perhaps human beings would also be suspicious of the moralizing of those different than them. Education may play a large role in creating and marking that difference.

    Moral Inclinations vs. Stats:

    Yeah, that seems right. Maybe that’s why science tries to be “value-free” and thing are often presented as dryly and cooly as possible, because that’s the only way it can make it past our “moral defense mechanisms”, to coin a new phrase. It also suggests that science might be more persuasive if it not only gets at the truth, but also attempts to persuade people as to why the truth is in their best interest, and works strenuously to make sure that scientists do not appear to have vested interests.

    Scriptural Truth:

    Ah, the big one. I mean, Jesus has so much to say about our tendency to do this sort of self-justification/self-deception, that it almost seems boring to say. I’m not even sure Jesus has a solution, exactly either. I hear in the back of my mind, “He who has ears to hear”. Being aware of the tendency is obviously a big step, but is awareness enough? And what’s the alternative? Aside from direct revelation from God, all of our reading of scripture or our interactions with others will be subject to this process of self-justification/self-deception.

    But maybe that’s also why scripture reading is meant to be a communal activity, and maybe also why its so dangerous if our churches are made up of all the same kind of people, people who might all have the same tendency to justify along the same lines and towards the same interests. The fracturing of the unity of the church, so often done in pursuit of a purer vision of the truth, may in fact make us more prone to these sort of self-justifying activities, and lead us further from the truth.

  • The proliferation of links, here, to others interacting with Haidt’s work is pretty remarkable, isn’t it? 🙂 Thank you, all!

    Yes to Tom F (14). You’re correct that Haidt was writing of the rationalist assumption underlying the work of Piaget, Kohlberg and Turiel. He wasn’t agreeing with it; he was describing it. holdon, I’m surmising this would mean that your answer to my last question is a resounding “No, I don’t agree, at all, and neither did CS Lewis!”

    Tom F, your question about the polarization between the educated and uneducated (or, less educated) is apt. Haidt covers that subject, next, which I cover in a subsequent post about the book. I was reading a summary of another moral psychologist’s work today. His work seemed flavored with his bias, imho, toward re-privileging rationalism. From my perspective, that would perpetuate the polarization Haidt seems to be aiming to assuage.

  • DRT

    Ann F-R, I must tell you that I have not been able to comment on your post, apparently they were going to spam for an unknown reason (hmmm, maybe they are trying to tell me something 😉 ), but they were able to fix it.

    I am very appreciative of you putting this post out here and I now have a comment (#4, now) that I posted and hoped that it would be one comment in a great discussion today, that I would participate in!

    As one of the perplexed liberals, I would ask the conservatives not to adopt an air of superiority, it would just make me feel better about my lacking self. But I want to learn.

    Where is Jeff Doles, I really want to hear his view….

  • DRT

    I am surprised that no one (or I am just in hysteria from being able to post again) is talking about the link to education. That seems to me to be one of the most important elements of this conversation.

    I find it absolutely fascinating, am I reading this correctly that Haidt is saying that more education makes us more stubborn, or more bigoted, or more, you pick the stick in the mud term?

  • DRT, I’m glad you became un-spammed! Jeff Doles chime in with a link (#12), but perhaps he’ll comment more. Tom F, 15, did address some of the questions about education, and how we understand facts (or ignore them, as it suits our agenda). There’s more on these implications, ahead. Haidt noted that those who pursue higher levels of education tend to be those who are more adept at challenging and questioning, who seem to be able to justify their thoughts more quickly and furiously. So, it would seem that the “educated and unhumble” (another coined phrase, such as Tom’s excellent “moral defense mechanisms”) are more able to obfuscate/hide the unreality of their theories, justifications of choices or determinations, etc. behind a blizzard of big words and obscure arguments. I think that frustrates those with less education, no end, because it’s a distancing/alienating strategy.

    Tom F’s last point of communal scriptural interpretation within churches that aren’t homogenous, but are as diversely gifted and colorful as the Holy Spirit chooses (rather than as our human affinities would choose), is excellent, excellent. The fracturing of the unity of the church, so often done in pursuit of a purer vision of the truth, may in fact make us more prone to these sort of self-justifying activities, and lead us further from the truth. Yes!

  • I do find lots of examples of post-hoc reasoning of self-justificaiton. But I don’t find that it is healthy or normal or even “natural.” I even find it in the church from people scared to take a different position, even with the facts present themselves, because of what it may mean about their own reputation, their power, their wealth, their family, etc. It’s the same thing Jesus dealt with… sell all you have and come follow me. Or the Huck Finn moment, being willing to go to hell to seek out what is right. Unless cultivated through virtue or forced by circumstance, most of us lack the spine of Mr. Finn.

    But what do the studies make of changing our minds? Most people change their minds, even their consciences. Consciences can be shaped. Mind control does it well. I’ve experienced it. I find that we may be born with the tools of moral categories, but we may have to learn and form what content fits in those categories. At least this has been my observation, study, and experience.