Moral Mindlessness

September 29, 2009

Newsflash: Liberal people tend to vote liberally, whereas conservative people vote conservatively.

Where to begin with this tautologous talk by Jonathan Haidt?

It’s fascinating, in its own way. It confirms everything we already knew. Tautologies are fun like that. His foundations of morality, in particular, are a laugh riot.  First, why the pairings?  They make no sense.


  1. Harm/care: yeah, harm and care should be paired, because lord knows there’s no harm in caring; or that harm is done only through lack of caring.  Witness, this guy.
  2. Fairness/reciprocity: how’s that asymmetry working out for your fairness doctrine, bro?
  3. In-group/loyalty: WTF is “in-group”? He made this up.  And why not be loyal to difference?  People are loyal to kings and gods because kings and gods are special, not because they’re just like everyone else.
  4. Authority/respect: Huh?  Where to start? I thought we were supposed to respect authority.  Or alternatively, my authority over you permits me to disrespect you, just as a king or god might disrespect the serfs.
  5. Purity/sanctity: Yes, pure white, pure black, pure mulatto.

He says that these are the “five best candidates for what’s written on the first draft of the moral mind.” How beautifully speculative! Care to produce a little non-question begging evidence, my friend?  What even would such evidence look like?  Certainly not like a compendium of the world’s cultures and their political views.  More importantly, how exactly is it that this is somehow etched in the mind of all humans upon birth?  You want us to believe that dispositions toward “purity” are somehow wired into us?  Is the color green pure, because on some accounts it’s actually a muddled admixture of yellow and blue.

Apparently a person can get away with wild speculation in social psychology.  Let’s just be honest about his tenuous claims on “hard wiring” and reason being slave of the passions. He acts as if this is a settled philosophical question.  It’s not.

His graph is equally troubling. All it does is tell us that Authority, Ingroup, and Purity are categories that people (regardless of their rightness) subscribe to.  He might as well tell us that white people tend to prefer people with white skin; or that men tend to defer to other men for advice on financial matters; or that children aren’t as likely to enjoy stinky cheese.  This doesn’t offer a justification for allowing these sorts of things.  It doesn’t say anything about the correctness of deferring to men on financial matters or the deliciousness of stinky cheese.  Moral philosophers have known this shit for decades.

Point being, moral philosophers don’t give a rat’s ass about moral psychology, and you probably shouldn’t either, if you’re interested in doing what’s right.  Moral psychology doesn’t offer anything normative at all.  It just tells us that some people are dumbfucks and others are less dumbfucky.  That’s the reason liberals say “celebrate diversity,” implore our kids to “question authority,” and tell legislators to keep their “laws off our bodies.”  It’s not that liberals have a psychological predisposition toward these political platforms, it’s that conservatives are wrong to hold the views that they do.

Haidt says “liberals speak for the weak and oppressed.”  So yeah, that’s about right. The reason we speak for the weak and oppressed is because justice is a moral principle that transcends our stupid and petty psychological predilections to prefer those who are just like us.  “Conservatives,” he claims, as if he’s breaking new ground, “speak for institutions and traditions.”  Again, we know this.  What he should be saying is that sometimes these are values or positions that have moral merit.  Sometimes conservative principles may be worth upholding… but we can’t discover those times simply by identifying the fact that there are dumbfucks in the world, nor by saying that dumbfuckitude is somehow hard-wired into the minds of many.

The problem isn’t that there are simply these differences in assessing moral problems, it’s that conservatives are wrong to hang moral weight on loyalty, authority, sanctity, and in-group.  There are very powerful arguments against including any of these features; and they’re arguments that we should adhere to.

Step outside the moral matrix, he says.  Um, okay, fine.  Er, no.  Whatever.  I have no idea what he’s talking about.  Yes, we all start from a position that we believe to be true.  At least, I’d hope we do.  I’d hope that conservatives and liberals aren’t disingenuous about their core beliefs.  But hopefully we’d also be open to amending or modifying our ideas if they’re shown to be wrong.  That’s what philosophers do: we try to argue that some position X is wrong, or flawed, or incorrect, or dumb-as-peanut-butter, and we do so by making rational appeals to a smarter position.  Moral psychologists like Haidt apparently don’t bother.

Finally, a thought on his powerpoint presentation.  Get a designer, dude.  White background, plain ass pictures yanked off of somebody else’s website?  You’re giving a TED talk, not a kindergarten show-n-tell.


  1. […] I disagree with a fair bit of how Carroll characterizes morality, but I will agree that most of the project of ethical justification doesn’t admit of scientific analysis, and that Sam Harris–the aforementioned turkey who kicked it all off with his TED talk–is bumbling through the brambles of ethics with what can only be describe as a cacophony of blind assertions. (For starters, I’m not at all sure that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks. Moreover, I’m not at all sure that even if we don’t have obligations to rocks, then the reason that we don’t have obligations to rocks is because rocks “don’t suffer” — which is only the very beginning of the noise that he clangs on about. As it happens, suffering is exactly what I was doing as I listened to Harris’s meaningless belching; but hey, he was wearing a nice purple shirt, which I appreciate. He pulls some other crap about the relationship between well-being and the brain, but it’s too stupid to analyze. What is it with these TED talks?) […]

  2. I can’t bring myself to watch the Haidt speech you are talking about, but I enjoyed your bashing of it all the same. I wonder if you might enjoy something I posted about Haidt’s moral psychology: Haidt Crimes.

    It was written a couple of years ago, but it’s about all the same stuff.

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