It gives me great pleasure to respond to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. This book is a sumptuous feast: substantive research garnished with personal stories and delivered with delightful prose. Building on his work in moral psychology, Haidt presents a social intuitionist model (SIM) of moral judgment. He argues that our moral decisions stem primarily from moral intuitions that are rapid, effortless, and automatic cognitive processes (p. 53). Moral reasoning then provides a post hoc and biased justification for our moral judgment. Although individual reasoning and personal reflection can change our moral judgment and intuition, Haidt asserts that such instances are rare. We do not typically look for evidence that contradicts our initial judgments (p. 55). If moral change is to occur, it happens within a social context.

Cognitive Science and Scripture

Vintage, 2012

Haidt developed his model within the domain of moral psychology. His work builds on the dual-process theory of cognitive process that is common in cognitive and social psychology. It is a theory that posits two types of cognitive processes. System 1 is intuitive and fast, making minimal demands on working memory. System 2 is reflective and slow, making substantial demands on working memory. For Haidt, moral judgment as a mode of thinking is driven by System 1 (moral intuitions), not System 2 (moral reasoning). Intuition is the master; reasoning its servant (p. 59). Using the metaphor of a rider and an elephant, Haidt compares moral intuitions to the elephant and moral reasoning to the rider. Although riders may have the illusion that they are in control, “elephants rule” (p. 64).

In contrast to Haidt’s reliance on a dual-process theory, others prefer a single-process or even a triple-process theory. Given the diversity, which theory (if any) is consistent with Scripture? Moreover, how should System 1 or System 2 be understood within a biblical framework? How does moral intuition and moral reasoning relate to what Scripture calls the heart, the mind, and the conscience? In answering these questions, it may be tempting to reinterpret Scripture within the framework of cognitive science. Nonetheless, as believers who affirm the authority of Scripture, we must interpret Scripture within its own context. Cognitive science and moral psychology may help us understand how moral decisions are made. However, we should let Scripture inform us as to how moral decisions should be made and how moral formation should occur. To this end, I put the Haidt’s SIM in conversation with the Pauline letters. My interactions center on two foci: social and intuitionist.


Haidt contends that moral formation is a social rather than a solitary activity. We do not spontaneously look for evidence to change our decided judgments. However, the moral reasons and judgments of our friends and community can “sometimes trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible for us to change our minds” (p. 55).

Haidt is surely right that moral formation occurs in a social context, for Pauline ethics is primarily communal. Paul exhorts believers to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess 5:11).Scriptural quotations come from the NIV. We are “to instruct one another”The prevalence of “one another” in Pauline ethical instructions underscores the communal context of moral formation. (Rom 15:14) and “to teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs” (Col 3:16). The prevalence of “one another” in Pauline ethical instructions underscores the communal context of moral formation.

Despite Paul’s focus on the community, it would go too far to say that there is no room for personal reflection, individual meditation, or self-edification. For example, Paul notes that those who speak in a tongue edify themselves (1 Cor 14:4). Paul does not advocate the speaking of tongues within the community, for he wants the entire community to be edified. Nonetheless, he does not rule it out for personal edification. He, after all, admits that he speaks in tongues more than anyone in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 14:18). Other New Testament examples of private prayer and meditation are seen in Paul’s solitary retreat to commune with God in the wilderness of Arabia (Gal 1:15–17) and Jesus’ example and call for private prayer (Luke 9:18; Matt 6:6).Although some would say that Paul went to Arabia to preach, he probably went to Mt. Sinai to present himself before God when his entire worldview was turned upside down, as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road. See N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2018), 62–64.

Haidt does not discount the possibility that people are capable of private moral reasoning and can change their mind by personal reflection. He thinks that most people, except philosophers, are not very good at it. But perhaps the reason why Haidt dismisses personal reflection is that his model leaves no room for a talking God and for the appropriation of the mind of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. First, God speaks to us in diverse ways. He speaks to us through prophets and through the counsel of trusted friends. But surely one of the ways that he also speaks to us is through Scripture, through our personal reading of his word. Second, the agent of transformation and empowerment for moral living is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit which indwells every individual believer “effects ethical life by means of intimate relationships created by the Spirit” with God the Father and Jesus the Son.Volker Rabens, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul: Transformation and Empowering for Religious-Ethical Life, WUNT 2/283 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 126. As Haidt notes, relations are important for moral transformation. But since the Holy Spirit indwells every individual believer, the Spirit is able to broker such intimate, transformative, and empowering relationships with the living God and the risen Christ in our private meditation, prayer, and reading of Scripture. Might the SIM then be tweaked to allow space for this dimension of Christian formation?


Haidt’s SIM differs from the rationalist model in claiming that moral judgments are generally the result of moral intuitions rather than moral reasoning. It is important to note that Haidt is making a descriptive and not a prescriptive claim. But if his model is correct, how should we design environments and programs to foster Christian moral formation? I would love to hear his thoughts on it, but three suggestions come to my mind.

#1: Don’t blindly trust your moral intuitions.

Moral intuitions are cognitively cheaper than moral reasoning, they require less resources. As cognitive misers, we tend to favor moral intuitions. Such cognitive laziness may however bring suboptimal or even disastrous results; after all, moral intuitions as “feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.”Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018), 34. The obvious advice then is that we shouldn’t blindly trust our moral intuitions or our moral emotions. Scripture informs us that the heart is deceitful (Jer 17:9–10; Eccl 9:3; Mark 7:21–22). It also exhorts us to cultivate self-control (1 Tim 2:9; 2 Tim 1:7; Tit 2:2, 5, 6, 12) and not allow ourselves to be governed by sinful impulses and worldly passions (Rom 7:5; Gal 5:24; Tit 2:12; 3:3). The task of controlling such impulses falls on System 2. As Daniel Kahneman remarks, “One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.”Daniel Kahneman, “Of 2 Minds: How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice [Excerpt],” Scientific American, June 15, 2012, So, even though the rider (moral reasoning) may not be good at questioning and controlling the elephant (moral intuitions), Christian formation requires the development of such skill. Paul wants believers to be mahouts, not just riders—they must be able to ride and train their elephant.

#2: Shape your moral intuitions.

Haidt notes that the best way to change people’s mind is to elicit new intuitions. In other words, they have to be an elephant whisperer. Pauline exhortations give us examples of this. He exhorts his readers to cultivate godly habits (1 Tim 4:7); he urges them to set their affections on things above (Col 3:2); he appeals to their honor and shame (1 Cor 9:24); and he draws on vivid imagery that will evoke disgust if they should contemplate visiting prostitutes (1 Cor 6:15). Moreover, thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Jonathan Edwards recognize the importance of shaping one’s emotions in the Christian life.

Haidt’s encouragement to be an elephant-whisperer in the mold of Dale Carnegie (p. 57) is however suspect. On the one hand, Carnegie’s advice generally makes sense. Paul’s rhetoric of persuasion bears this out. In his letters, he typically gives thanks to God for his readers, and he sings their praise before persuading them to undertake difficult moral choices (Phlm 4, 5, 15–17). Yet, Carnegie’s advice to be warm and fuzzy and to “never say ‘you’re wrong’” (p. 57) cannot be adopted if the stakes are high. When Paul’s readers (those whom he has tenderly nurtured in the faith like a father and mother; 1 Cor 4:15; Gal 4:19) reject gentle counsel and inch towards the abyss of moral apostasy, Paul changes his tactics—he rebukes and shames them (1 Cor 6:5; 15:34; Gal 3:1). Such rhetoric is harsh and intense. Paul knows that his children may reject his discipline. Nonetheless, Paul recognizes that stiff medicine is required, for he sees the destructive impact of sin. He cannot be warm and fuzzy when the fate of their souls is in the balance.

#3: Don’t neglect your moral reasoning.

The SIM presents moral reasoning as a slave to moral intuition. This may be an accurate description of what happens generally, but it cannot be a prescription for Christian formation. Pauline ethics is not just a disparate list of dos and don’ts or a jumbled mix of intuitions. It is embedded within the story of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Thus, Pauline ethics does not make sense without Christian theology. Christian moral formation requires a complete overhaul of one’s worldview in light of the age-to-come that is brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection. Consequently, we are not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we might discern and do the will of God (Rom 12:2); we are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5); we are to set our mind on things which are true, noble, pure, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8); we are to put on the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge” (Col 3:10); and we are to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Such sweeping cognitive language must involve an overhaul of both System 1 and System 2 processes; for Scripture’s language of “mind” is the cluster of thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs that provides the criteria for one’s moral intuition, judgment, reasoning, and action.

Paul does not just want his readers to do what he tells them to do. He wants them to think for themselves, to work out how they are to live out their salvation within a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2:12, 15). He seeks to cultivate genuine Christian virtue. He wants them to do the right things for the right reasons and with the right attitudes and affections. Thus, both moral intuition and moral reasoning need to be shaped according to the mind of Christ.