Let me begin by thanking each of the contributors for their thoughtful entries in this conversation; I thank Professor Haidt as well for a book well worth interacting with. His other commitments precluded him from responding to these contributions, so I will wrap things up, trying both to exercise sympathy with Haidt’s project and to address pushback that my colleagues have offered. I will finish by showing ways in which all of these can enrich moral philosophy, especially from within a biblical framework.

Summary of Appreciations and Critiques

Vintage, 2012

I observe that all of the contributors express a great deal of appreciation for the overall argument of The Righteous Mind. Indeed, they find it very compatible with their own beliefs: Haidt “has provided one of the strongest scientific arguments for the truth of the Bible that I have come across” (Birkett). As a general rule, when the contributors have pushback or critique, it lies not with the empirical side of Haidt’s discussion, and not with the theory as such, but with some of the philosophical aspects of the analysis and integration with the larger picture of the common good. In this way the symposium exemplifies something that we often encounter in healthy engagements of science and faith; and realizing this will enable me to offer a mediating proposal between Haidt and one of the critiques (see below). Further, since Haidt wrote primarily as a scientist, he did not address some of the matters that a religious community would need to consider as they appropriate his work; some of the critiques aim to begin this process, and I will develop that as well.

The appreciations fall into two broad categories:

(1) humans are fundamentally moral (and even moralistic!), which ties in with historic considerations of “natural law” (Birkett, Charles, Jipp, Lau);

(2) recognizing how different Christian communities give differing weights to the various moral foundations can help us to negotiate our differences less tribally and more constructively (Bradley, Stirling).

The critiques also fall into broad categories:

(1) the question of a transcendent standard by which different communities structure their moral lives is a tension in Haidt’s presentation (Birkett, Charles, Jipp, and Stirling);

(2) the related question of how the empirical conclusions connect to a larger narrative (Charles, Jipp);

(3) the place of “evolution” in the development of communities’ moral matrices may seem to imply an undirected process and therefore an ultimate unaccountability for communities (Charles, Stirling);

(4) a need to pay more attention to moral transformation on the part of both persons and communities (Lau).

Considering Critique 1: Is there a transcendent standard for morality?

Haidt has created a tension for himself in the differing ways that he has used the term “moral monism.” Earlier in the book, it refers to “the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle” (p. 132), while later it has expanded to include “anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation” (p. 368).The choice of Hume as a philosophical companion, as Stirling notes, also fosters this tension, since Hume is usually associated, not only with locating moral decisions in the emotions, but also with thereby connecting them to preferences that may be subjective. I think we all agree that he has established the first,Hence, those religious ethicists who reduce every sin to a form of idolatry would do well to take note! but has introduced some unclarity with the second, especially since he had acknowledged that he rejects the idea “that ‘anything goes,’ or that all societies or all cuisines are equally good” (p. 132). He also notes that humans are tribal but do not have to be, which indicates a notion of a greater good. But, as Stirling asks, how shall we adjudicate competing moral claims? As a scientist, Haidt is free not to address that question, and therefore I do not count it as a defect that he has not done so. But sooner or later one will have to face it; there is some standard external to the communities themselves, to which, for all their differences, they are accountable.

The Western natural law tradition combines elements from the Mediterranean cultures—the Graeco-Roman along with the Judeo-Christian. C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man (1943) looms large for Jews The Western natural law tradition combines elements from the Mediterranean cultures—the Graeco-Roman along with the Judeo-Christian. and Christians in this tradition, and here and elsewhere Lewis foreshadows many of Haidt’s themes (say, about the affective aspect of the moral life, or about the relation between “conservative” and “progressive” moral structures), and is thus a companion to Haidt’s later book (The Coddling of the American Mind, 2018). Lewis claims that the great moral traditions of the world have more in common than they do in opposition, and his notion of the Tao might correspond to the six moral foundations in full operation, and balancing each other. This can offer some guidance to the transcendent, but not enough, and religions generally appeal to specially inspired revelation. Thinkers in the Jewish and Christian traditions have disagreed how the two strands work together. I side with those who insist that the special revelation does not work against the natural, but perfects and guides it (e.g., Lewis, Herman Bavinck).C. S. Lewis, “On Ethics,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 44–56; Herman Bavinck, “Common Grace,” Calvin Theological Journal 24 (1989), 35–65. In that essay Lewis also notes something that explains Haidt’s conclusion that the progressive ethical system employs a subset of the moral foundations: “It is no more possible to invent a new ethics than to place a new sun in the sky. . . . New moralities can only be contractions or expansions of something already given. And all the specifically modern attempts at new moralities are contractions.”

Considering Critique 2: Is there a satisfactory grand narrative to guide us?

It is the task of apologists, theologians, and philosophers to commend their religion’s particular version of the moral matrix as good, true, and beautiful. Haidt fears an oppressive moral absolutism; Charles, Jipp, and Stirling sympathize, and show how their Christian vision can allow for a kind of principled pluralism. This leads to the second line of critique, the larger narrative. The Jewish narrative runs through the exodus of slaves from Egypt, and therefore stresses empathetic treatment of the social “other”; going on from there, the Christian narrative runs through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and calls for humility and service (even to the least of these), and renders all humankind accountable before their Maker.

Considering Critique 3: What role does evolution play?

Haidt mentions the evolutionary process as a given; moral structures are evolved in order to enable communities to flourish. It is true that many use the scientific theory of biological evolution to argue that ultimate reality lacks both mind and purpose; but this is a misuse of the science, which cannot tell us any such thing. From a theistic perspective, whatever process of descent with modification is involved—both biological and social—is nevertheless God’s process, and serves his ends. Indeed, Haidt’s work seems to be strong evidence that God has guided the process (as Birkett observed). And there is no reason besides philosophical prejudice to propose ahead of time that no “outside interference” producing innovations has come to bear on these processes.For more on this see C. John Collins, “How does the Hebrew Bible speak about God’s action in the world,” Presbyterion 45:1 (Spring 2019), 19–40, and “Divine Action in the Hebrew Bible: ‘Borrowing’ from Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and ‘Inspiration’,” in Daniel Block et al., eds., Write that They May Read: Studies in Literacy and Textualization in the Ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Scriptures, Essays in Honour of Alan R. Millard (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020), 221–39. Actually, rightly understood, even if there is development, it should put to rest the notion that somehow these moral structures are arbitrary and dispensable: they are adaptions to real needs imposed by the world in which we live.

Considering Critique 4: Can moral preferences be changed?

Haidt does not say much about how moral preferences can be changed, and about moral formation (as Lau notes). In the later book he frequently commends Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a valuable antidote to unhealthy emotional thinking (Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, ch. 2). Hence not all moral reasoning is rationalization (although the unwary reader of The Righteous Mind might think so). Communities do implicit moral formation of their members; and a wise community will do so intentionally. Again, I do not fault Haidt for not treating this subject; it is not part of his project. But those of us in ministry will find clarification in Haidt’s presentation: ideally, our task will involve helping our communities to like the set of moral values that we profess, and to present them in their most attractive form.

Further: What shall we do about our failures?

Another topic that Haidt does not address—nor was he obliged to—is the matter of failure in moral performance, whether on the part of communities or particular members. For example, perhaps a community has wandered form its own moral moorings, and may need a reformer’s voice, and call to repentance and renewal of its vison (this is one of the functions of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible). Human beings regularly fall short of their ideals; this hardly falsifies the ideals, though it ought to undercut self-righteousness. The biblical religion is one of redemption, of God’s way of recovering sinful people, of forgiving them and reviving them. A biblically healthy community shares the aspiration toward the full-orbed goodness in all the areas of the biblical version of the moral foundations on the part of all its members, at the same time as it provides security and stability for those members who aren’t very good at being good.

A Constructive Example: The Daughters of Zelophehad

I will finish these reflections with a testimony of how Haidt’s work has made attractive some things that might otherwise be hard to admire. Anyone reading the book of Numbers is confronted with all manner of odd regulations and requirements. I will use only one, and be brief (my forthcoming commentary will say much more).C. John Collins, Numbers, in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament.

Zelophehad was a man in the tribe of Manasseh, and he had five daughters and no sons. After his death, his daughters raised a question with Moses: If land could be inherited by sons only, then what would happen to their father’s name? God honored their inquiry by allowing daughters to inherit in such cases. However, after a while to think things over, the leaders of Zelophehad’sI am in awe of the way in which this solution yields legal principles that maintain the community in the land that allow all six of the moral foundations to receive their proper due. clan realized that this could lead to other problems, if the inheriting daughters were to marry men from outside their clan: the inheritance would belong to the children of these marriages, who would be counted as part of their fathers’ clans—and then the lands could be alienated from the tribe of Manasseh (irrevocably, as it seems). The solution was to restrict the daughters in such cases to marrying only men from their own clan, and Zelophehad’s daughters agreed (See Num 27:1–11; 36:1–12).

A modern Westerner is troubled by this limiting of the girls’ liberty to marry whom they choose. (He might even argue, “Isn’t it bad enough that they are already limited to fellow Israelites?”) Some find the daughters to be challenging Moses’s authority and other aspects of Israel’s life. However, the moral foundations allow us to see what is happening more clearly. The young women seek the preservation of their father’s name in the clan: this involves loyalty to their father, together with the sacredness of the family’s place within the clans of Israel. They also exercise respect for authority: the authority of the system of assigning inheritances, Moses’s authority to hand down divine laws, and, ultimately, God’s authority in calling his people and in administering his covenant. The solution honors the sanctity of the inheritance, embodying as it does membership in the sacred people of God. But it also exercises a kind of fairness, and also of caring, to women in these circumstances (much as the Levirate did), ensuring that they are not left landless and therefore destitute and dependent. Ordinarily an Israelite woman would have had more liberty in choosing a husband, but here it must be restricted in order to keep all the other values in effect. As long as the clan is large enough, one can hope that the restriction is not too onerous. At least the daughters of Zelophehad did not find it so!

I am in awe of the way in which this solution yields legal principles that maintain the community in the land that allow all six of the moral foundations to receive their proper due. This invites Israel to view the statutes in the Torah as intensely practical, accommodating life as they actually meet it in a humane and holy fashion, suited to their agrarian setting. Should an Israelite accept this invitation, he or she will go from admiring the Torah to admiring, indeed loving, the God whose Torah this is. (We should also admire these five daughters, who show moxie, love, loyalty, and respect mingled together!)

My admiration increases when I compare it to the situation that English common law produced, as evidenced in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), in which five unmarried daughters in a similarly agrarian setting face an uncertain future because their father’s property is entailed to the nearest male relative, with no provision for them if they do not marry.


So here in Haidt’s scientific work we have something that works well with the virtue ethics tradition: but it does more than simply coordinate with it, it enables us to see things we might not otherwise have seen, and even to admire things we might otherwise not have appreciated. James Thompson argues that for the apostle Paul, “the telos of the church is their moral formation, which guides Paul’s persuasive task,”Apostle of Persuasion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 96. and Haidt has offered helpful categories for such formation. For all of this I am grateful.