Thoughts on Haidt

by Yuval Levin

Very interesting points about Jonathan Haidt, Jonah. I think his thesis and book are fascinating, but suffer from the general tendency of modern science to turn the study of the nature of something into a study of the history of that thing. So he takes what could be a very deep exploration of the moral sense (along the lines of, say, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments) and turns it into a history of the evolutionary development of two layers of human moral reasoning. The story then becomes a story of the interaction of these two (and the resulting five “axes” of morality), and a great deal is made of the historical priority (and therefore more primitive character, for good and bad) of the one layer and the novelty (and therefore more adapted nature) of the other.

I think this causes him to miss something crucial about the distinction between the two sets of moral rules he talks about (those applying to individual pain and pleasure and those geared to the good of the group). The latter, which he thinks of as the older, set answers a reality of human life that the newer more individualistic morality largely fails to grapple with, which is the presence in the human experience of unchosen obligations. Not everything about our moral life can be rationalized, because important pieces of it derive from (and serve) the complicated set of moral obligations that arise out of our unchosen social relations. No one chooses to be born into the world, and no one chooses into which family and country to be born, but these unchosen relations nonetheless impose inescapable moral obligations on us. Edmund Burke got at this better than anyone, for instance in this fantastic paragraph from his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs:

Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.

Amen. But if we overly advantage unchosen obligations (taking as a decisive feature of our place in society, say, not only the fact that we are all born into families but the fact that some are born to the rich and powerful and others not) we run the risk of institutionalizing injustice. So modern liberalism has sought to deny the significance of unchosen obligations, inventing for itself a creation myth by which all human relations result from an original (contractual) choice in some state of nature, which would make only chosen obligations legitimate ones. This has done a lot of good, but it doesn’t change the fact that some of our most important obligations—particularly those in the family—remain unchosen yet binding and essential.

This means we have one way of moralizing—the contractual way—which makes for more freedom and justice but has nothing to say to the deepest truths of our human experience (and therefore can dangerously distort our society); and we have another—the one grounded in continuity and generation—that helps us make sense of our place in the world but cares too little about avoidable injustices. The first is highly artificial, and so is also better suited to highly rational and verbal defenses. The second is highly sentimental—it is geared to those areas of our life about which we have the least explicit knowledge and so can say the least—so it sometimes expresses itself in unspoken shudders more than organized arguments. This leaves it at a great disadvantage in our time, of course.

Some of us take our bearing from those unchosen obligations more than others, and it may be that where we fall along that spectrum has something to do with our genetics, as well as our upbringing and circumstances. That’s certainly plausible, but I think that fact doesn’t tell us as much as Haidt would seem to suggest about the actual nature of the two moral systems. The new liberal individualistic morality seems far more of a product of our political history than our biological history.

I think, in other words, that the different moral emphases of liberals and conservatives have more to do with our assumptions about human nature and justice than with differently developed or evolved natural moral faculties, and I think Haidt’s division of these ways of thinking into five distinct and comparable axes (harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity) along which people are ranked therefore obscures more than it reveals.

But that may surely be my own set of professional blinders at play, and in any case his book is well worth reading.

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