Comment on Jonathan Haidt, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" (Pantheon, 2012) – Lawrence Blum

Comment on Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012)

Lawrence Blum

Jonathan Haidt wants people of different political ideologies to talk, respectfully and constructively, across that divide. His Righteous Mind aims, among other things, to help “liberals” and “conservatives” understand each other, and thus to facilitate productive conversation.[1] Haidt identifies six “moral foundations” he sees as underpinning ideological/political positions. He views liberal morality as grounded in care, fairness, and liberty, all of which he regards as individualistic values. He sees conservative morality, by contrast, while sharing the liberal three, as also embracing the three remaining values/moral foundations—loyalty, authority, and sanctity—that Haidt regards as “binding,” that is, as values concerned with holding a society together and reinforcing ties amongst its members.

Although Haidt remains officially neutral in his take on liberalism and conservatism, this way of characterizing them implies that conservatism is morally superior to liberalism because it has a broader value base—conservatives care about six genuine values, liberals only three. In addition it implies that liberals aren’t concerned with holding society together but only with the individual.

I think the way Haidt characterizes the political positions of our times unfortunately undermines his ability to help people of different political persuasions understand each other. For example, he does not count libertarians as “conservative,” because he finds that libertarians care greatly about liberty, somewhat about fairness, and barely at all about care, loyalty, authority, or sanctity (RM, 302). But libertarians see themselves as conservatives, and other people see them as conservatives. If they don’t subscribe to the three binding values, that should lead us to question Haidt’s view that those values define the moral foundations of conservatism itself, not to abandon the idea that libertarians are conservative.

Haidt gets into even more trouble on the left side of the political spectrum. I was particularly struck by his characterizing the left side as not being concerned about “ties that bind,” about holding society together. In my understanding, many people who take themselves to be liberal or on the left regard societies as having a responsibility to take care of their citizens. They regard programs of social provision, such as health care, education, and social security, as expressions of social solidarity. The idea of a “welfare state,” although carrying somewhat negative associations in the United States, implying benefiting the unworthy,[2] is seen more prominently in Europe as an expression of such social solidarity. That is, the value of welfare is seen much more in a “binding” mode than in the purely individualistic mode that Haidt says characterizes liberals.

Perhaps part of the problem is Haidt’s exclusive use of the “liberal” label for those on the left side of the political spectrum. Historically, “liberal” was indeed a centrally individualistic outlook, and “libertarianism” retains that individualistic focus. But in the US (in some contrast with Europe) most self-ascribed liberals are now “social liberals.” (John Dewey brilliantly tracks this historical transformation in his 1935 Liberalism and Social Action.) They think government should guarantee a certain degree of social provision in the name of solidarity or meeting basic needs. In addition, even if they would choose “liberal” if presented with only the options of “liberal” and “conservative”, as Haidt does,[3] different people on the left side of the spectrum might prefer other labels to “liberal”. These might include “social democrat,” “democratic socialist,” “social justice Catholic,” “communitarian,” “communitarian liberal.” To pick just one, “social justice Catholic,” a self-designation used (among others) by the political commentator E.J. Dionne, channels the strong tradition of concern for social justice within Catholicism, and distinguishes that brand of Catholicism from economically and religiously conservative Catholicism. The current Pope, Frances, is very much in this social justice tradition. Yet the Catholic tradition (on both right and left) is not very individualistic, also contrary to Haidt’s characterization.

Indeed, left spectrum folks might also wonder why Haidt sees “care” as an individualistic rather than a “binding” value. The “ethics of care,” as it has developed in feminist-influenced philosophy and psychology, is very relational, and is critical of an individualistic foundation for morality.

All this suggests that Haidt has failed to accurately characterize the views of a large swath of people on the left with his understanding of “liberal,” and has failed to see that the left is no less concerned with “binding” values than the right (and more so than the libertarian right). We’ll need a more accurate understanding of our political labels before the dialogue can begin in earnest.


Lawrence Blum

University of Massachusetts Boston

[1] Haidt’s theory is very complex and many-faceted. In this blogpost I can take up only one strand of his argument.

[2] The negative associations are, I would argue if I had more space, a product largely of the deliberate purveying of libertarian ideology in the US.

[3] To be precise, the options Haidt presents his subjects are “very liberal,” “liberal,” “slightly liberal,” “neutral/moderate,” “slightly conservative,” “conservative,” and “very conservative.”