“Riding the Moral Elephant”: Can Moral Psychology Save Us?

“Riding the Moral Elephant”: Can Moral Psychology Save Us? October 14, 2015

My review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion has just been published on The Table.

Jonathan Haidt (Millercenter.org via Flickr)
Jonathan Haidt (Millercenter.org via Flickr)

The image the editors chose is worth a click-through, even if you’d rather not bother with the essay.

Haidt applies the rigorous methods of moral psychology to understanding the nature of religious, political, and ethical conflicts. He is not just a theorist, but has done the empirical work, too, which makes his book rich on multiple levels.

He is keenly aware of something that many of us tend to forget: our species is remarkably consistent at thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We do this with our moral (and religious and political) convictions, too. We tend to imagine that our deepest-seated ethical values arise from strenuous logical thinking and only after we have surveyed all possible options. But we fool ourselves; we are rarely as intellectually virtuous as we think we are. Yes, we reason about our morals, but usually after the fact of already having developed a strong moral intuition.

As Haidt says, the first rule of moral psychology is that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Our moral intuitions, and the preloaded moral software with which we arrive in the world, is akin to an elephant upon which sits a rider. The elephant takes up a lot of space and extremely influential. The rider may be able to steer the elephant, but only with a good bit of work and skill.

With a lot of unguided (or poorly guided) elephants rambling around, it’s no wonder that we’ve got so much conflict in public discourse, in both religious and political spheres.

Haidt hopes that the insights of moral psychology can help us better understand ourselves and each other. Conservatives and liberals, republicans and democrats, progressives and traditionalists; while we may rarely come to agreement or consensus, maybe at the very least we can gain some empathy for those riders whose elephants are quite different from ours.

To get it straight from the elephant’s horse’s mouth, here is Haidt’s popular TED-talk in which he explains the difference between political liberals and republicans, from the standpoint of moral psychology:

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