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The Righteous Road to Ruin

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Posted on Jun 28, 2012

By Chris Hedges

“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”
A book by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” trumpets yet another grand theory of evolution, this time in the form of evolutionary psychology, which purports to unravel the mystery of moral behavior. Such theories, whether in the form of dialectical materialism, Social Darwinism, biblical inherency or its more bizarre subsets of phrenology or eugenics, never hold up against the vast complexity of history, the inner workings of economic and political systems, and the intricacies of the human psyche. But simplicity has a strong appeal for those who seek order in the chaos of existence. 

Haidt, although he has a refreshing disdain for the Enlightenment dream of a rational world, fares no better than other systematizers before him. He too repeatedly departs from legitimate science, including social science, into the simplification and corruption of science and scientific terms to promote a unified theory of human behavior that has no empirical basis. He is stunningly naive about power, especially corporate power, and often exhibits a disturbing indifference to the weak and oppressed. He is, in short, a Social Darwinian in analyst’s clothing. Haidt ignores the wisdom of all the great moral and religious writings on the ethical life, from the biblical prophets to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, which understand that moral behavior is determined by our treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. It is easy to be decent to your peers and those within your tribe. It is difficult to be decent to the oppressed and those who are branded as the enemy.

Haidt, who is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is an heir of Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” and who also attempted to use evolution to explain human behavior, sociology, politics and ethics. Haidt, like Spencer, is dismissive of those he refers to as “slackers,” “leeches,” “free riders,” “cheaters” or “anyone else who ‘drinks the water’ rather than carries it for the group.” They are parasites who should be denied social assistance in the name of fair play. The failure of liberals, Haidt writes, to embrace this elemental form of justice, which he says we are hard-wired to adopt, leaves them despised by those who are more advanced as moral human beings. He chastises liberals, whom he sees as morally underdeveloped, for going “beyond the equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system.”

To see long excerpts from “The Righteous Mind” at Google Books, click here.

“People should reap what they sow,” he writes. “People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.”

Haidt lists six primary concerns of those he considers morally whole—care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. He believes liberals, because they do not sufficiently value fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity, are morally deficient. The attributes he champions, however, when practiced among social conservatives, often mask a rapacious cruelty to the weak and oppressed. Slaveholders in the antebellum South, courteous and chivalrous to their own class, church going, fiercely loyal to the Confederacy, in short morally whole in Haidt’s thesis, created a hell on earth for African-Americans. One could say the same about many German Nazis and members of most cults. Haidt, although he acknowledges this dilemma in his moral constructions, would do well to ask himself whether there is something deeply flawed in a model of moral behavior that a slaveholder, a member of a cult or a fascist could attain.

book cover

 

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt

 

Pantheon, 448 pages

 

Buy the book

He concedes that “even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the twentieth century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.”

This is a remarkable passage. It apologizes for bigotry and repression by social conservatives at home because these conservatives had an abstract enthusiasm for liberation movements 3,000 miles away in countries most of them had never visited. Not that liberals are immune from this specious morality. They can shed tears over Darfur and never mention the carnage in Iraq. The definition of the moral life, as the Bible points out, is how we treat our neighbor, not our concern with moral abstractions or the sanctity of our tribe. Charles Dickens got this in “Bleak House” with his great parody of the liberal crusader Mrs. Jellyby, who ignores the welfare of her children for her causes in Africa.

Haidt holds up what he believes are military virtues, writing that “in a real army, which sacralizes honor, loyalty, and country, the coward is not the most likely to make it home and father children. He’s more likely to get beaten up, left behind, or shot in the back for committing sacrilege. And if he does make it home alive, his reputation will repel women and potential employers.”

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