David's Book Club: The Righteous Mind—David Frum

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind praises conservative intellectuals but not the Republican Party. Reviewed by Noah Kristula-Green.

Andy Manis / AP Photo

When I was in college, I was taught the history of political philosophy through classes that focused on the "Great Books" of the genre. This meant that in a typical quarter, we read the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The arguments from each book were taken on their own merits and we were expected to explain the deep and well-reasoned arguments that led each author to the conclusions they reached.

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind takes that approach to studying politics and chucks it out the window, and we are all the better off for it. Now instead of struggling over essay prompts that ask "Why do Hobbes and Locke have such different views of political authority?" we can say, "The authors had different moral intuitions and they ran with them." It may not be academically satisfying, but it has the benefit of being true.

Haidt's The Righteous Mind is an impressive book that should be read by anyone who has the slightest interest in how political opinions are reached. The book seeks to explain "Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion." What is the psychological and biological basis to explain why we vote the way we do, and why we hate some politicians but love other ones? How can your likelihood of voting Democrat or Republican be explained by science?

The book has three parts each with one big lesson to teach. In Part 1, we learn that political opinions don't come from rationally developing arguments. You have intuitions first, and the reasoning for those intuitions comes post-hoc. To give one example, your highly developed reason for supporting higher or lower taxes likely stems from an intuitive feeling that you have (possibly "I earned my wealth!" or "It's unconscionable to be rich when so many are poor"). As one author Haidt cites notes:

We have strong feelings that tell us in clear and uncertain terms that some things simply cannot be done and that other things simply must be done. But it's not obvious how to make sense of these feelings and so we, with the help of some especially creative philosophers, make up a rationally appealing story [about rights].

So my entire liberal arts education was an exercise in learning how different thinkers engaged in post-hoc rationalizing.

In Part 2, we learn about five foundational aspects of morality which have evolved to give humans the political ideologies that we have today. (You can learn more about these values on Haidt's "Your Morals" site here)

This part of the book is the most fun. As you learn where mankind's foundational morality comes from, you learn how to deconstruct the various political organizations you are aware of. To give one example that came to my mind: The Weekly Standard and Reason magazine share similar positions when it comes to how they view the morality of Fairness: they both believe economic rewards should be given according to the proportion of work one puts in. However, Reason cares less about the morality of Purity and is more likely to endorse recreational drug use for its own sake. The opinions of those two magazines on Authority is also a huge contrast, The Weekly Standard is more likely to publish articles supporting police action then Reason ever is.Part 3 takes the insights of the previous sections and applies them to religion and modern politics. The theory that Haidt proposes is that while human beings are individuals, they also are very social animals and gain great positive benefits from group participation. Religion, in particular, gets high praise from Haidt as being instrumental in our ability to successfully develop civilization. I know that sounds self-evident but you may be surprised how controversial that view is within the scientific community.

The book is excellent and you can read well earned praise for it many other reviews. For my own review, I want to focus on the implications of Haidt's ideas on the topic that primarily concerns this blog: the project of modernizing the Republican Party and the Conservative movement.

In the book Haidt lays his biases out on the table: he went to college in the Ivy League, was politically liberal, didn't much care for Ronald Reagan, is an atheist, and got into this entire project partly to find ways to help liberals win elections.

Yet as Haidt got deeper and deeper into the science of moral psychology he rejected many of his tribal instincts and began to drift a bit to the right. Importantly, a lot of the scientific evidence that Haidt was finding was supportive of many of the philosophies from classic conservative philosophers.

In one of the best passages of his book, it begins to dawn on Haidt that his view of human nature which is supported by biology and psychology is largely endorsed by conservative philosophy:

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I kept reading. [Jerry] Muller [author of Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to The Present] went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core belies of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prime to overconfidence, so its dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, when we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapter 8 and 11).Based on my own reattach I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims.

Up until this point, the entire book has been descriptive and avoided any normative claims, so you can imagine how this was not only an unexpected comment, but one that this reviewer highly enjoyed! After chapters of arguing that human politics are just an expression of our gut instincts, imagine how refreshing it was to hear that some of those gut instincts are actually backed up by scientific data!

That extended praise of conservatism then ends with the most damning sentences I've ever encountered:

(Please note that I am praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party.)

Its a pretty demoralizing conclusion, and it puts an extra burden on one of America's two parties. Haidt writes in the book that conservatives have a much better grasp of the entire spectrum of human morality. This makes the modern Republican Party's inability to do the same all the more tragic. It is a theme I encounter frequently in this blog and in what I cover.

To give an example: conservatives are better attuned to the moralities of Purity and Authority, so they have a strong appreciation for religion and understand how religion helps makes stronger communities and healthier individuals. So why then is the Values Voters Summit just a gathering of Christian Evangelicals and Catholics who don't like Vatican II? Why is there no strong and authentic outreach to Jewish and Muslim faith-based communities, or even Sikh communities?

Just because conservatives can fully appreciate the entire spectrum of human morality doesn't mean they currently do. Haidt may have started his political project as a means to try and help liberals overcome their electoral deficiencies but he has also given a road-map for conservatives who are unhappy with the state of the Republican Party. Many of the values that conservatives hold in esteem "because Edmund Burke said so" turn out not just to feel right, but are right and are backed by science. Making the Republican Party align more closely to how science says the human brain works sounds to me like a worthwhile project.

Now all conservatives need to do is actually live up to what their intuitions tell them they should do. My own personal instinct would be that a conservative appreciation for Fairness means that cuts should happen now for current Medicare recipients so that the burden of achieving fiscal balance does not fall on the backs of America's millennial generation. I would also argue that a conservative appreciation that "harm" is something we generally want people to avoid would mean that it should be possible to acknowledge that you probably don't need to cut funding for food stamps during the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

I suspect some conservatives might disagree based on what their current intuitions tell them.