An Invitation to Heal Jonathan Haidt’s Righteous Mind

As a regular promoter of Haidt’s work, I have an opportunity and responsibility to speak out

I do youth ministry work in a little church, so I’m very keenly interested in doing everything I can to understand generational transitions, and how to pass on the best of what my generation has learned to the next. I also want to pass on as little of the bad stuff as possible.

So in addition to my general interest in Jonathan Haidt’s work, I was keenly interested in this lecture outlining some of his theories about counseling for depression and anxiety among young people. I had hoped he might help us address the alarming and profoundly sad increase in suicide rates among young women.

Like Haidt, I highly value resilience, and even more than resilience, the capacity to learn and grow stronger through difficulties. I’ve also learned a great deal from the moral psychology research of Jonathan Haidt, and have especially found The Righteous Mind to be a highly illuminating book about human moral psychology.

Personally, that book helped me articulate a bunch of fascinating and related concepts, and that network of ideas has deeply informed my work ever since. Haidt taught me a lot about how fundamental moral perception is to our basic experience of the world, and how that moral perception isn’t readily reducible to a single thing but needs to be analyzed with much more nuance. (Haidt breaks it out into 6 ‘moral senses’ in my language). He helped me understand how all people who aren’t completely ‘morally blind’ (basically, psychopaths) experience broadly similar moral perception, but with different emphases and cultural shaping. And because of him, I have been able to articulate how moral perception allows the humans to create ‘superorganism-like’ social bodies, including corporations, governments, political parties and more.

I think it is a hugely insightful book, on these issues. I found it far less insightful in terms of its broader implications in moral philosophy or moral theology, but that’s okay. Nobody’s good at everything, and there’s so much to love in the book.

Where I think Haidt’s moral philosophy falls down pretty hard, though, is in mistaking the “is” of his moral psychology for an “ought.” Here’s what I mean: he found widespread differences in moral emphasis between self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives in his work, although he also found that both groups were able to understand and resonate with all of the moral foundations. For me, the biggest take-away from this part of the book was that conservatives and liberals aren’t fundamentally divided on deep moral principles, in spite of some differences in degree of emphasis on moral senses like “respect for authority” or “avoiding harm/ providing care.” We actually have a great deal of common ground, and we can find especially deep common ground when our moral senses of “avoiding harm/providing care” and “liberty from oppressors” and “fairness” are activated by discussing things that activate them. Haidt’s take-away was apparently that we need to have more emphasis on the more authoritarian virtues of “in-group loyalty,” “obedience to authority,” and “purity.” As someone with a background and formation in studying German, I admit that I’ve always been very confused by his elevation of those foundations, even as they clearly play such a central role in the “binding and blinding” that moral psychology naturally involves. It seems to me that there’s something foundational there that Haidt hasn’t quite resolved for himself, but I have high hopes that he will one day.

My own view is that all of our moral senses are in need of transformation and redemption, especially through a focus on lived solidarity with the poor and marginalized, enemy love as a replacement behavior for violence, and reconciliation practices which train us to address our moral (and practical) blindness by encouraging us to check our own failings and mistakes as a top priority. If these ideas remind you of Jesus, I confess that I ripped them off of him. (I lay all of my cards on the table over here.) I try not to be one of those bait-and-switch Jesus fans.

I think that these basic problems in moral philosophy deeply compromise Haidt’s current work, especially when you consider the importance of the kind of “plank removal” Jesus advocates: I think the really important moral and also scientific work of correction is fundamentally self-correction. The good stuff happens when people get really good at self-critique. And also, as peoples we can also learn to take them out of our own collective eyes together, as long as we are internally critiquing a group to which we belong. These are two of the most moving examples of collective self-correction that I know of: first, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; second, the German process of working to do whatever can be done to atone for the Holocaust in a variety of ways, including the payment of reparations and the transformation of the built environment of Germany, to make it a place of solemn memorialization. In a similar way, I am in a position, as a pastor in a church, to help take the planks out of my church’s eye in a way that an outsider simply can’t do.

And as a big Haidt fan, I think I may be in a position to remove a plank from the collective eye of us Haidt fans. Because I think that this area of blindness is causing his valuable and fascinating work to be very badly derailed. So I write as a joyful “Haidtist” (sorrow and joy tend to mix) who brings up The Righteous Mind every chance I get.

I think we can see what is going wrong in our own little Haidt-o-verse (and so much of our society at large, in fact), in this lecture. And I think we can get at the heart of the problem with so much of the lecture if we focus on the fact that Haidt has, I think rightly, encouraged us to value emotional resilience and anti-fragility as good things before this point in the lecture. He points out that some systems, like our skeletal system, can be strengthened by the right kinds of challenges. Of course, as he rightly points out, they can also be broken. Anti-fragility must never become an excuse for breaking bones. His concern (which I’m not convinced he establishes well, based on the evidence) is that fragility has become more widespread in our culture over time and needs to be replaced with anti-fragility. And then the real crux of what is going wrong throughout the lecture reveals itself between 46:50 and 48:46. I’ll summarize it here:

Haidt admirably cites my very favorite guy in history, Jesus, as he talks about the importance of removing planks from our own eyes instead of trying to pull the splints out of other’s eyes. Awesome. Now Haidt is totally one of me, right?

And then, he presents an article entitled “Walking on Eggshells — How Political Correctness is Changing the Campus Dynamic.” Such a perfect title to describe someone who has given in to fragility culture! And sure enough, we get this beautiful illustration of that fragility culture at work:

“During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word “offensive” was almost always included…members of my freshman class quickly assimilated to this new way of non-thinking. They could soon detect a politically incorrect view and call the person out on their “mistake.”

Haidt is ready to bring it all home! Here’s what I think a reasonable person would predict Haidt would say next:

Look at this example of enormous fragility. Here is a person who is not at all equipped for the normal give and take of a campus environment, where of course we learn that opinions can be wrong. If your opinion is that the Earth is flat, for example, you shouldn’t be surprised to discover that this opinion will be challenged and hopefully changed. As I learned quickly at the Ohio State University, you’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own truth: opinions really can be wrong. The anti-fragility that college teaches is, of course, precisely about coming to understand that you’re entitled to your opinion, but that simply means that you’re entitled to be wrong.

And when mistakes are spotted, as this hyper-fragile writer claims, learning to think well precisely means “assimilating” to a new way of thinking. For example, you might come into college as a global warming skeptic (because of political influences, probably). But then your biased and politicized opinions will be challenged if you take a course on climate science, where you’ll learn that lots of smart and honest and hard working people have done a ton of work on this. Way more than you have, with your random assortment of ‘counter-evidence’ that they can easily address within their framework. You’ll also learn that many of the claims of climate skeptics are wildly misleading. Your opinion will be challenged. If you’re getting good at removing the planks from your eye (one of the main things science instruction teaches), then you’ll almost certainly come to see your mistakes.

And I think that if you’re like me, you’d expect Haidt to point out that the bizarre thing in this quote is that it somehow takes this sort of discursive pursuit of truth, this mistake-checking, and this “assimilation” to a truer view as “non-thinking.” This, Haidt might intone wisely, is precisely the result of fragility: students get confused about the process of learning through critical self-examination and mistake-correction, and somehow even come to see this process as “non-thinking.”

Haidt, being the perceptive and smart guy that he clearly is, will certainly go on to explain that this is a wonderful example of how politicized and learned fragility leads people to be satisfied with “I’m entitled to my opinion” when the university is, precisely, an institution that is designed to teach you to be profoundly dissatisfied with that posture. Instead of learning to be “entitled to our opinions” the university is there to teach us to take the planks out of our eyes: to be dissatisfied with our opinions, and to seek a greater truth instead.

And if you’re me, you’ll be so deeply saddened and so deeply disappointed to see that Haidt, instead, goes on to foster precisely the sort of fragility he seems to be in such a moral panic about. Instead of helping students like this learn anti-fragility (which he is in such a good position to do, as a person who is identifying with them!), he actively encourages this fragility by going on the attack against the university community. How dare they challenge the fragility of the student by having the temerity to inform him that yes, of course his opinions can be wrong, and that mistakes give us an opportunity to be corrected?

I’m flabbergasted as I watch Haidt go on. It is such a mind-blowing spectacle that it seems to me to be a violation of the laws of nature. It’s like watching a fig tree sprout thorns. This is Jonathan Haidt? The guy who taught me so much in The Righteous Mind? What is happening? My brain must be falling out.

So what is happening here?

It is actually what I would call a subtle trick of Empire, which is a term that I use for abusive and moralistic systems of domination and control that form in human life and society at all scales. (I understand that this can happen at any scale precisely because of the moral psychology that Haidt so beautifully taught me.) But it is hard to spot the trick unless you learn to spot it, because the trick masquerades as the good stuff, as tricks tend to do. The trick is rooted in a partiality to the powerful, which takes extremely good impulses and corrupts them profoundly by only applying them when they benefit the powerful and the comfortable. These impulses are meant to be applied, preferentially, in precisely the opposite direction by the way. At least according to Jesus.

So consider this:

People who stand in solidarity with the comfortable and the wealthy are deeply concerned about the prevention of harm, and they’re devoted to the most tender care.

But only for the comfortable.

This makes them extremely fragile, and it manifests as an insistence that everyone else become hyper-resilient. For the fear of stressing their bones even a bit (a stress that would be good for them!), they will even order the breaking of another’s bones. Literally. And, at least hypocritically, but also possibly sadistically, they will say things like, “What’s the matter? Not resilient enough?” This is precisely what is happening with Haidt here. He embraces the fragility of some who he clearly identifies with on a body-identity level, and doesn’t even notice the absurdity of what he’s doing. He’s the champion of resilience and anti-fragility! (For thee. Just let his peoples’ planks be.)

When powerful people are confronted with the hatred that comes naturally to those who suffer under oppressive systems, those who have allowed the partiality to the powerful into their hearts become very, very concerned about the importance of loving enemies. But notice this: they aren’t at all interested in their own capacity to love the people who have been made enemies, as the targets of the oppressive system. They don’t, for example, critique the manifest culture of hatred and contempt in ICE or in our prison-industrial complex for the people who they dominate.

Of course not. They don’t identify with those people, so they worry about the splint in their eye.

It is only the (really very easily understood) hatred of the oppressed out-group that bothers them. The powerful can spew all the contempt and hatred they want. But the powerless are going to get their knuckles rapped if they aren’t all as super-humanly loving as Martin Luther King Jr. (Haidt, unfortunately, does just this sort of hypocritical knuckle-rapping in the lecture. Thinking about it makes me want to throw up and run out of the house screaming. I hope you’re resilient enough to hear that and receive it non-reactively.)

Now I’m a huge fan of enemy love and embrace it as a powerful and transformative strategy, as well as a challenging moral imperative to receive as grace and walk in, as a clean movement of grace. All that I will note here is that Haidt is depriving himself of this power when he decides to lecture others on the splint of enemy love they lack (that’s their job to worry about), and fails to consider the profound absence of enemy love in the fragile, white supremacist students who he is identifying with here, and whose minds he is coddling. He’s not doing them any favors when he effectively says, “Yeah, the big meanies shouldn’t make you walk on eggshells by being so evil as to tell you your opinions are wrong and you’ve made a mistake. That’s hatred for sure! We’ll get them to stop saying that, the big meanies. Go to your Trump rallies, which aren’t a manifestation of enemy hatred at all. It was so nasty of those big nasty haters to say that’s the bigger problem here, and that your opinion might ever be factually wrong. We all know the most powerful promoters of hate in the world today are some college kids writing moderately clumsy essays on white supremacy. We’ll fix them baby. They need to learn to love.”

Once again, the problem is precisely the partiality to power. That’s the plank in our collective Haidt-o-verse’s eye.

Also notice that people who stand up for the wrong “opinions” of abusive systems, systems that are systematically wrong in both moral and factual senses, typically respond to the threat of corrective truth with confident and authoritative hypocritical accusations. As Haidt of all people should understand, these hypocritical accusations help build in-group solidarity for the dominant group, and establish the legitimate-feeling authority of its authoritarian figureheads as they loudly denounce their enemies. These accusations also often use purity language to insult and degrade the ‘filthy’ and ‘unworthy’ out-group members, as tainters of the Truth to which the powerful alone have access.

The unwarranted and unexamined opinions of the powerful are, of course, the unquestionable “Truth” in these propaganda systems. And any efforts to teach the powerful otherwise, however rigorous and careful and well-intended, are seen not as generously offering the gift of learning (which is what it is) but as an assault on their identity that would “assimilate” them to an impure body. Haidt’s partiality to the powerful here has made him fall into this basic propaganda tactic, hook, line and sinker. It is easy to be fooled: it sounds so good. They’re on the side of truth! Well guess what, everyone claims to be on the side of truth. (You’d hear that, if you weren’t only really listening to one side.) BUT:

It is the reconcilers, the ones who take the planks out of their eyes, who end up on the side of truth in the end, because they’re the ones who know how to journey into truth by resiliently accepting correction and learning, instead of viewing it as a purity/authority/loyalty threat.

And while I won’t go into all of the details, I think it is pretty plain that an abandonment of this practice of reconciling in truth, of really focusing on correcting his own research, makes the rest of this lecture a train wreck for Haidt as well.

It is pretty clear that Haidt is repeatedly making variants on precisely the same foundational mistake I’ve outlined here: instead of carefully analyzing his own position and arguments and looking for his own mistakes, or the mistakes of people who he feels a physical-level identification with, he has become a politicized actor, grabbing bits of data here and there to make a sloppy argument.

It matters not at all that his political compass is ‘non-partisanship’ … the issue is that he has exchanged a political posture or pose for the resilient, reconciling pursuit of truth. And so, for example, he starts the lecture by showing that a lot more kids are accessing counselors for depression and anxiety, and self-reporting both. But instead of drawing out for us the nuance that much of the increase in counseling access could be a great thing, resulting from the successes of things like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (which he both praises in the lecture, and also bizarrely says is a total waste of resources), he simply points to increased access to counseling as if it is a bad thing. A plank remover would arrive at a much more nuanced presentation. A culture warrior, like the one Haidt has oddly decided to play here, throws up a time series that could be a very encouraging account of the expansion of access to the sorts of counseling Haidt appreciates, and starts hyperventilating instead of celebrating. (Or, better yet, offering a nuanced account of where this represents better access and better services, meeting previously unmet needs, and where it may represent other underlying problems.)

I’m not sure at all about why Haidt seems to be opposed to investing in counseling services, but it just seems weirdly incoherent to champion the counseling mode of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) as a great way to increase resilience on one hand, but freak out about it with the other, and then conclude (as he does in this lecture) by apparently advocating without evidence that giving out books on DBT is just as effective as having counselors trained in it. Hmmm. Where’s the research on that? A plank remover wouldn’t off-handedly throw out an incoherent jab at his supposed allies in this fight for resilience like that, I don’ think. But just to make sure it’s clear to everyone that I’m interested in checking my own claims, I found this meta-analysis showing how DBT can help reduce suicide. I don’t see any research about the effectiveness of passing out DBT books as an alternative, but the nuance of the research itself seems to speak to the importance of the specific therapeutic intervention.

Just imagine if I, as a little youth pastor, took Haidt’s advice and followed his example here, and told parents that they shouldn’t encourage their kids to get real fragility-reducing counseling like DBT, because this is a sign of ‘fragility culture,’ and that they should instead just give them a book. The great psychologist Jonathan Haidt is telling universities to do that, so it sounds like a great idea.

I’m just a youth pastor at a small church, but if I followed the advice of this prominent public intellectual, I think I’d become implicated in pastoral malpractice. This thought horrifies me. The thought that people would listen to this guy horrifies me. His behavior in this lecture makes me feel terrible for talking about his books. I want to be able to stop puking and screaming. If that freaks you out, please learn to be resilient enough to handle that. It’s actually literary exaggeration, by the way.

So how can a “non-partisan” like Haidt actually be a partisan culture warrior? Simple. They’ve substituted partisan calculus for the academic pursuit of truth, and a ‘non-partisan’ pose is just as much of a political pose as any other. When the truth becomes politicized, we need to remember that this isn’t the truth’s fault. All of the polarization around climate science in the world, for example, doesn’t mean that we should balance our geology departments with skeptics and non-skeptics; some opinions are wrong, and others are far less substantiated by the evidence than others. We have to be able to correct wrong opinions, in spite of fragile people who take this as an identity threat rather than an invitation to reconciling discourse that leads us into truth. If we lose this, we lose the true heart of the University.

In closing, I’d like to say that I hope that by some miracle Jonathan Haidt reads this. And I hope that he is interested in what I have to say here at the end, as a conservative, charismatic, evangelical, basically white, Christian, male … one who believes that Jesus was actually raised from the dead, and who thinks miraculous healings happened and still do happen. In other words, I’m just the sort of person whose marginalization in academic circles is of genuine (and appreciated) concern to him.

So I hope he can hear this from me: Jonathan Haidt, I love you. I think your work in moral psychology has a significance for Christian theology that I suspect you can scarcely imagine, and it has had a huge influence on me. So you won’t be astonished to learn that, as a member of a conversionist religion that wants to invite everyone to follow Jesus, that I want to invite you to come to Jesus.

I think it’ll help you stop with the culture war stuff, and it will help you get clearer on how to integrate your moral psychology research in a healthy way. If you want to do that, or at least understand what I mean by that, I’d start here. It seems pretty plain to me that you need Jesus, and more than just a wildly misapplied prooftext about Jesus in a lecture. You need to understand the community and mode of life that will let you really understand the wisdom in that text, instead of bouncing off the surface of it without ever getting inside.

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.