The Righteous Mind

Panel Discussion

Posted March 5th, 2017

Heather, Glenn, and Jake team up for some good old-fashion infant shenanigans as they discuss Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book on moral foundations theory, The Righteous Mind.

Glenn

Heather

Jake

  • Ryan Gregson

    I had lots of questions about this topic. But now I just want to know what Heather sees in Bill Maher.

    • I swear there was a context in which I wasn’t the first to start talking about Bill Maher. But yeah, I can’t explain it. He’s not attractive and he’s boorish and consistently imputes the worst motives to the opposition, but he steals into my dreams. And Cara Santa Maria’s, too. My list is a motley crew, but my husband (who was sitting next to me as I was talking about it) has much more narrow taste. 1. Jennifer Lawrence, 2. Jennifer Lawrence’s twin sister if she had one, and 3. Maybe Amy Schumer, but really just J Law.

      • Ryan Gregson

        I guess the heart wants what the heart wants.

      • I fell in love with Jennifer Lawrence upon seeing Winter’s Bone, before I or anyone I knew had any idea who she was, and she still heads up my personal wish list.

      • Gail_F_Bartholomew

        No need to apologize about Bill Maher. Bad hair, boorish, and often uniformed in his opinions, but I watch his show every week. I often disagree with his reasoning, but he consistently brings interesting people together to talk about interesting things.

  • black_and_delightsome

    I think we liberals spend way too much time worrying about placating conservatives and making sure that we are not closing ourselves off to conservative ideas. I contend that by our nature, we are more open to exploring other ideas, even conservative ones, especially if they are are bourne out by evidence and facts. I think conservatives have picked up on this vulnerability and have sought to consciously exploit it in the public arena by playing the moral equivalence game. The examples are all around. For example, the LDS church, after fighting for years against gay marriage and losing, is all of a sudden the champion for religious freedom; an obvious ploy to continue to discriminate without facing repercussions. Jonathan Haidt’s ideas presupposes that there is a conservative on the other side that is thinking and working earnestly to get to the proverbial point where “we can all get along”. I doubt very much that there is a parallel conversation going on in conservative circles about how to include and open themselves up to liberal ideas. Throughout history conservatives have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the moral thing through mockery, moral indignation, and protest. Liberal squishiness and attempts to compromise on certain fundamental moral issues has led some of the worst compromises that arguably led to slavery, the civil war, and subsequent reconstruction era. Where do we draw the line on using the tried and tested approach of arguing our points of view in the public arena peacefully, using mockery, and our moral indignation to try and correct society’s wrongs ?

  • Dale Lowry

    I’m about 40 minutes in and have had to take several breaks already because the level of self-criticism here has gotten so high it’s just uncomfortable to watch/listen to. Glenn, I’m totally okay with the fact that you question your own motives, but you (and to a lesser extent Jake) are giving me the impression that your almost ashamed for having any opinions at all.

    I’ll start listening again later, but I just wanted to drop in to say, “Hey, Glenn, you’re human and that’s okay.”

    Also, while morality may be abstract, it’s consequences aren’t. Heather started to touch on this, and hopefully she’ll bring it up again later in the episode. In case she doesn’t, I feel like it needs to be said that not all emotion-based moral decisions have equivalent impacts. So I’m not going to feel bad about thinking that white supremacists, for example, are absolutely wrong, even as I seek to understand where their beliefs come from. White supremacy has real consequences. It harms actual, living people. Is my belief that black people are as worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as white people based partly in emotion and evolutionarily-acquired sociality? Of course it is. That doesn’t make it unworthy of defending. I’m not going to put egalitarianism and racism on the same moral level simply because they both have evolutionary roots.

    • Ryan Gregson

      “morality may be abstract, it’s consequences aren’t”
      That’s a great way to put it.
      I felt like a lot of the complications and problems with this conversation, and even problems with this guy’s ideas of 6, uh moral systems or pillars? I need to read that book. Anyway. He’s giving set definitions and categories to abstract, human constructs. It’s like trying to argue that there are 6 definitive types of Art. Well, what the hell is art anyway?

      • The book provides extensive documentation about how they define morality, as well as how each pillar was evaluated experimentally and why they chose the list they did. However, I’m sure Haidt would say one could argue for more/fewer pillars. I think the central point still stands, though–whatever the specific foundations you recognize, emotional, unconscious cognitive processes dictate the lion’s share of where we fall along them, and to change one’s moral framework, you’ll be more effective if you can adjust those reactions as opposed to making a rational argument.

    • An important step in applying the principles of moral foundations theory is to evaluate one’s own moral framework. We’re so used to letting our internal press secretary (rider) give reasoned arguments for our moral stances that we fool ourselves into thinking the process was rational rather than emotional, despite the fact that it wasn’t. So what you’re hearing is Glenn and me being hyper-vigilant about not letting that post-hoc justification overshadow the emotional, intuitive processes that are really driving us.

      The purpose of the exercise isn’t to equivocate among all moral frameworks. It’s to internalize these ideas well enough so that we (and hopefully our listeners) can be better at targeting the elephant, as opposed to the rider, when we speak to those with whom we disagree. The first step of doing that is understanding the ways in which we fool ourselves into thinking our opinions are purely reason-based. I’m not ashamed of my moral opinions either, but if we take caveats every 5 minutes to say “and of course we’re right, we’re amazing, nobody’s moral system can ever compete with ours,” then the entire endeavor seems rather pointless to me.

      • Dale Lowry

        Thanks for providing that context. It wasn’t clear to me that the self-criticism was geared to identifying the elephant, but hopefully that will become clearer as I continue to listen.

        • I totally get your frustration. In the future, we’d like to do a more application-focused episode of this stuff in the context of common points of tension for exmos–e.g. your child is turning 8, and you’re figuring out how to tell your parents you’re not planning on baptizing them. What does your decision look like from their moral worldview? How can you craft the message to not piss of the elephant and mitigate some of their emotional reactions? Things like that. Hopefully that’ll be easier listening!

    • Exactly! My elephant is telling my rider that we give no shits about how long this culture/community lasts if people are suffering during MY lifetime.

  • Blair

    I listened to this on audio a couple years ago, and was so excited by it I’ve been trying to get people to read it. However, I’ve been a bit disappointed at the way people react to the book. The tendency, as I think I heard in this episode, is for people to see this as trying to validate conservative morality. Heather even went so far as to call it Haidt’s agenda to do so (her rider is very intelligent, but I think her elephant is very powerful, too). Conservatives see this as vindication of their beliefs, and Liberals as an attack on theirs. My take was way different, though. I saw it as Haidt trying to help us understand, respect, and communicate with each other. I don’t think he was trying to defend or validate anybody’s morality, I just think he was trying to say we should judge less and empathize more. That’s what I wish I saw in my family and friends–less judging and more empathy. More listening and respect.

    • Ryan Gregson

      This was my main question. again I need to actually read this book. I really do. But it seems like Glenn was saying that all of our motives are emotional, and therefore we can’t judge others on their morality because we’re just as irrational as they are. While I think it’s true that nobody is truly rational, that doesn’t mean we’re all equally emotional. Rationality still exists, and some are able to make more rational decisions than others. But it the purpose of the book was more to diagnose, so to speak, to understand why people think the way they do, as opposed to saying they’re all equal. Well, I can get behind that more.

      • Blair

        The rider and elephant analogy is that the elephant is like our emotional intuition–and it goes where it wants to go. The rider is our rational mind, it turns to look the way the elephant goes, and thinks it’s in control, but really the rider is just along for the ride. Basically, almost all the decisions we make are emotional intuitive. They’re split second decisions that we then rationalize to ourselves. This process happens so fast that we don’t realize we’re doing it, and we think our decisions are all rational. I guess it’s possible to reexamine a decision and make a rational one, but I don’t completely understand how that’s different, honestly. I think the first step would be to understand your emotions and how they affect your decisions.

        • Ryan Gregson

          I think that’s a useful analogy, but I’m skeptical about applying it to all decisions all the time. Like I don’t think we can always say ‘well that’s just me applying reasoning to my emotional decision!’ That probably is the case, very often, but not 100%, not 100% of the time. That’s my guess anyway.

          • Blair

            I don’t think you could measure 100% of the time, but I think if you accept that most of your decisions are emotional then you can more honestly and effectively evaluate the decisions you make, and make more rational decisions in the end.

          • Ryan Gregson

            Sounds fair.

          • I think we didn’t fully flesh out the the rider/elephant analogy. The rider and elephant are not representing thoughts and feelings as two completely separate processes. Both reasoning and emotion are cognition. Our intuitive judgements that happen before our conscious reasoning on the matter are still informed by our previous thoughts, feeling and reasoning.

            Haidt’s rider elephant analogy is that the elephant represents unconscious thought and the rider represents conscious thought–not that the elephant is emotion and the rider is intellect.

            The unconscious thought elephant that operates so fast we call it instinct still develops those instincts over time as a result of genes, socialization, education, experience, and reasoning. That’s why those instincts can change even very dramatically over a person’s lifetime.

          • Blair

            Sorry, I just found the notification for your reply in my spam folder. Yeah, I mis-remembered it as ’emotional intuition’ but the elephant represents ‘moral intuition’, which includes all those things you mentioned. I’ve definitely seen my own moral intuition change dramatically over the last four years, I think starting when I saw that legalized gay marriage in California didn’t have any of the promised bad consequences, and in fact made a lot of people happy.

  • steve

    You might enjoy Chris Mooney’s John Haidt 2012 interview

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/jonathan_haidt_the_righteous_mind/

    • Good find. Thanks!

    • I really like the discussion about whether or not truth should be a foundation

  • I think I have a comment waiting for approval. I forgot to mention that I’m so happy to be discussing this book with people. I actually asked my husband and kids (21 and 16) the sex-with-chicken-before-you-eat-it and incest questions trying to get them interested, but no luck. I NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS PSYCHOLOGY STUFF, GUYS!!!!! I’m so freaking fascinated by it all.

  • Gail_F_Bartholomew

    I have some thoughts that don’t just apply to this episode. I have been thinking a lot about what you all do and what keeps me coming. Some of my thoughts are about the trump dossier. First thanks for putting on the discussion with Jake and the fake news. I always enjoy seeing your process. Second the reason Infants is interesting at all is that you are doing subjects you have fun with and you are passionate about. Third Jake thank you being willing to take everyone on about the Trump thing. That said I think your view point would make the discussion of the dossier much more credible and interesting. Don’t get me wrong I like it, but you would bring more cynicism.
    Glenn what happened to your idea about “A Brief History of Everything”? If it interests you why not do it. I know there was some issues with the legality, but it seems as iffy as playing personal Jesus with out permission. Which I love by the way.
    Heather I always enjoy your insights. Love your comment “if this author went to a culture that enslaved men?” Also Heather I think it would be cool if you, Randy, and John did an episode “smacking down” the Debate Sam Harris and Reza Asland. I love Sam Harris, but he is far more interesting when he is not debating an idiot. I think Reza is Sam’s intellectual peer and is a religionist in the vain of John Hamer. I would call myself an Atheist definitely not a religionist but John and Reza make me re-think the value of religion, I have thought this would make an interesting pod cast for a long time, listening to you all talk about eco chambers makes me think Infants is part of my eco chamber as well as a community for me, at least mentally it is a community since I do not really know or regularly interact with any of you. You are a community I value and I will not be giving up, but I at least would find a discussion really challenging the likes of Sam fascinating.

  • Tim

    I’m happy you’re coming back to The Righteous Mind. It gives an imperfect but useful framework to approach differences.

    I agree with Heather that Haidt was unfair to the New Atheists. I think he misportrayed them. That being said, my one email to Sam Harris posed the question “How are you applying neuroscience research to persuade people to change their minds?” He triggers the backfire effect by violating people’s moral sensibilities. I think it is important for someone to initiate those public dialogues rather than just avoiding them because of social taboo. I just wish their was a less polarizing approach.

    There are a few complementary ideas that all came together when I read the book:
    1. Secular Buddhism podcast — The first 5 lay the groundwork, but episode 22 addresses dealing with difficult emotions. Repeated concepts include thinking about how and why your emotional responses arise, looking at the world with awe and curiosity, and delaying responses to avoid impulsive reactions.
    2. You Are Not So Smart podcast, episode 95 The Backfire Effect — This is the third part on the backfire effect. The first 2 explain it, and the last one explains how to address it. Also helpful are episode 88, How to bridge the political gap with better moral arguments, and episode 80, Deep Canvassing.
    3. The Debunking Handbook — This is a short, research based booklet on how to avoid the backfire effect. It is referenced in the You Are Not So Smart podcast. https://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf

  • Tim

    An example of how moral foundations theory helped me: A liberal exmo friend from BYU posted on FB her support for amnesty from the honor code for sexual assault victims. Her liberal friends echoed their support with concerns for the care/harm foundation. A TBM prepper friend of hers (I think prepper indicates Libertarian and TBM indicates conservative) voiced his outrage at the injustice of any BYU student getting away with a violation of the Honor Code (appeal for fairness as equal application of The Honor Code, appeal to church authority). Both sides were talking past each other by disregarding the others’ moral sensibilities. Instead of appealing to the care/harm foundation, I tried to appeal to his sense of fairness and authority. I pointed out that in each example of sexual assault there was an Honor Code violation by the woman and a felony rape by the man. I asserted that it was in the interest of public safety to prosecute the rapist (appeal to the good of the community rather than the concern for an individual). I asserted that the victim was less likely to help identify and charge the rapist if the victim felt threatened that they might be expelled and disbelieved. Therefore, I was willing to compromise justice for the Honor Code violation to gain justice against the rapist (fairness). And finally, I asserted that this opinion was within the bounds of orthodox belief (authority).

    I’m not sure if he was convinced. But I felt like I was able to engage better by considering his moral foundations. And of course I felt totally vindicated when BYU granted amnesty to sexual assault victims.

  • One of the major problems with Haidt and his moral foundations theory is that he constantly slips between the descriptive and the normative. It doesn’t help that he has become a conservative gadfly in academia – of course, he ditched his real job at UVA several years ago to cash in on his celebrity and joined the faculty at NYU business school where he flatters the egos of soon to be titans of capitalism. He constantly attacks liberals now as a “former liberal” who has seen the light when it comes to conservative values. I lost all respect for the guy when he became a pundit and starting offering stupid advice like gays should compromise and accept civil unions over marriage – he sucks at politics and really should restrict himself to his academic discipline….

  • Haidt is also a huge believer in moral relativism and has made some stupid comments about female genital mutilation, for example…His story in his book about visiting India and seeing the value in the Hindu Caste system where his Brahim hosts’ wife served him dinner really betrays some of his biases…

  • I’d love for women to be virtuous again. That would be great! If they’d be a little more virtuous then I could relax a bit.

    — — —

    I finally got an audio version of Haidt’s book and I’m going to get through it, I swear. I started with the print version, found the first part of it mind numbing, and after the maximum allowed number of renews, had to give it back.

    Knowing what I know so far, I share one of Heather’s concerns in that the motivations given for being highly influenced by authority, loyalty and sanctity had better be explanatory rather than exculpatory. The moral “flavors” favored by liberal progressives, care, fairness and liberty can be had equally and simultaneously by all: everyone can be free, cared about and treated justly all at once and all to the same degree.

    The flavors favored equally by so-called “conservatives,” all carry an air of dualism and hierarchy. For instance, for there to be “authority” someone has to have authority over someone or something else; if everyone has the same degree of authority, authority vanishes. Sanctity must favor something (object, behavior or person) over something else. One of the definitions of “sanctify” is “to set apart,” and in setting anything apart you make it more special in some way than something (or someone) else. Loyalty can be symmetrical; a husband and wife could be equally loyal to each other, but take a look at the Employee Handbook published by any large corporation. In every case I’ve ever seen, the Company expects undying loyalty and dedication from the employee, but then proceeds to list all of the things that the Company does not owe the employee. Corporate loyalty has a definite one-way tinge to it, as does national loyalty.

    The values or “moral flavors” of authority, sanctity and loyalty are values that are important to people who seek to control other people and, if I’m understanding this correctly, they are treasured by people (so-called “conservatives”) who think it very important to subjugate and control certain other people. I can buy it as an explanation of why they might behave as they do, but if it’s supposed to excuse or justify oppressive behavior, count me out.

    So there.

    — — —

    Johnny Cash singing Personal Jesus? That has a positively haunting quality to it that the Euro-pop version never did. The lush acoustic guitar in the foreground and the honky-tonk piano toodling away in the background? It’s a perfect addition to the soundtrack of the dystopian fever dream that is life in Trumpistan.

  • Tim

    I’m really curious to know what breaks the shelf for conservatives vs liberals.

  • LatterDayDeist

    This was one of the better podcasts in recent months. It held my interest and had much less vitriol against the LDS church.

  • Ron Hill

    Good companions to this book are the YouTube video series, The Psychology of Belief, by AntiCitizenX, and the books (and podcasts) by Dave McCraney.

    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9D9336926EF60BB0

    https://youarenotsosmart.com/

  • HFalls

    I’m a little behind in the podcasts but wanted to send a shout-out to the Infants for turning me on to this book and Haidt in general. I recently got the book and just finished it – definitely a bit of work to process, but in a good workout sense. I understand the bits of criticism in the comments, my moral intuition was pricked quite a bit by some parts of it, but the larger point of better understanding the context of that intuition is an end in itself, as well as being (hopefully) useful in the broader society as we try to reduce harm and increase fairness – since those are of course the most important pillars 😉