In this essay I will focus on ways in which The Righteous Mind challenges Christians. Haidt’s empirical observations of a matrix of six moral “taste buds” coheres with Biblical ethical material—the Bible has a great deal to say about care, fairness (both equality and proportionality), loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. Haidt suggests that different groups selectively apply one or more of these moral foundations and that this may explain political polarization. So, political conservatives tend to operate out of all six moral foundations and liberals mostly from only two.
However, the same sort of selectivity exists in different parties within the church and leads to similar divisions and inability or unwillingness to listen to others. Conservative evangelicals tend towards a deontological approach to ethics. In practice, this means that loyalty and authority are highly valued and explicit commands (from proof texts) are prioritized, while equally biblical themes of justice or release from oppression may be relatively ignored. Whole biblical genres (especially Wisdom) may be neglected. Those who care passionately for justice or fairness in society may be dismissed by conservative evangelicals as “going liberal” or buying into a “social gospel.” Conversely, those same conservatives may be deemed rigid moralists or legalists.
Haidt’s moral matrix helps expose Christians’ selective listening to biblical ethical material and a concomitant ethical reductionism shaped more by Enlightenment rationalism than theological categories. Recognizing we are not tabula rasa when we read Scripture would be a good start.
Haidt’s picture of the elephant (innate intuitions) and rider (our post-hoc rationalizations) is a genuinely useful aid to understanding how people hold moral convictions. He presents us with a wealth of empirical research to support this picture of an innate moral sense, then attempts to explain in evolutionary terms how this came to be. There is a great deal of interesting and, dare I say, inventive explanation at this point, but you don’t have to agree with Haidt’s explanations of how it got there to agree that it’s there. Haidt appeals to Hume when arguing that morality is founded more on intuition and emotion than on rationalism. Though he singles out Kant for criticism,Even diagnosing autism! See pp. 136–37. Haidt traces the problem all the way back to the classical world. There may be some truth in this, but it’s not the whole picture. C.S. Lewis argues against precisely the sort of rationalistic approach of which Haidt is so critical.C. S Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001). However, in Lewis’s case, he laments a modern departure from classical forms of education which were designed to train and direct the affections—not, therefore, a neglect of the elephant so much as a recognition of its presence and power and the danger of letting it take charge. Perhaps the target for Haidt’s critique should be the Enlightenment project more generally. However, to imagine that Hume the empiricist saves us from the rationalism of Kant is probably to misunderstand Hume. His point was that because moral instincts were not empirically verifiable, moral positions were only an expression of emotional preference.
An interesting conversation partner might have been Alasdair MacIntyre who, as a Marxist atheist, found that the Enlightenment project had failed to give him a rational basis for condemning Stalinism as evil. In judging the Enlightenment project to have failed in its attempt to establish a universal rational ethic apart from divine revelation, he was following Nietzsche. However,Perhaps the target for Haidt’s critique should be the Enlightenment project more generally. Nietzsche’s solution that since God was dead all that was left was will to power was not one that Macintyre wanted to embrace. Instead he found himself returning (through Aquinas and Aristotle) to concepts of natures and ends.Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 109–20. And this leads us back to Haidt’s observation of an innate or natural moral sense. This, he says, is not unalterable, but is organized in advance of experience through which it develops. But does it necessarily follow that morality is only an evolved adaptation? This repeated assertion in Haidt’s work leaves the truth question unexpressed and unanswered. But what if that innate moral sense signposts a normative, “given” morality? What if religious intuitions didn’t just evolve, but rather reflect a God-given faculty of knowledge gathering that is damaged, but still operating? Does innate morality, organized in advance of experience, then point towards what the bible calls the conscience, that faculty within us that whispers that we are actually accountable to a moral norm outside ourselves? Haidt’s observations cohere with a Christian theological anthropology. Human persons are “innately” image bearers, but that image is marred by sin, the noetic effects of which are powerfully explanatory of the empirical observation that innate morality finds multi-faceted expression across persons, cultures and history.
So much for natures, what about ends? Haidt’s framework almost completely lacks any sense of ends or telos. Within a naturalistic worldview, it is hard to see how there could be a telos that would shape our moral decisions in the present. The closest Haidt gets is some sort of “getting along with one another.” From a biblical perspective, the telos of a restored and renewed creation shapes present ethical behavior. Restoration of persons “in the image of Christ” (that is, towards the perfected humanity set out in the example and teachings of Jesus) cannot be accomplished by means that are not Christ-like. In practice this idea is a profound rebuke to any Christians who would seek to justify means by ends. Abuse of power cannot be justified by an appeal to certain favorable outcomes. Immoral means cannot be employed towards greater moral ends. Biblical ends define Christ-like means characterized by self-giving, self-sacrificial loving service of others.
Nowhere is this more tested than in how we deal with differences. Haidt’s moral matrix is descriptive rather than normative and, having no clear end, it is difficult to see how he would adjudicate competing moral claims. He goes some way to help us listen and perhaps understand each other better. But recognizing, for example, that I am operating in the care/harm area and you are more concerned about loyalty/betrayal doesn’t necessarily help when I want to overthrow an abusive authority and you consider me disloyal for it. This is where Haidt’s language of different moral “taste receptors” may mislead. I don’t think Haidt is saying that morality is only a matter of taste, but I’m not sure his “moral pluralism” solves the problem. It seems evident that moral convictions tend to be held as though they are authoritatively true—otherwise, why fight over them? This in part helps to explain the deep polarization in US political life at the moment.There is an approach to morality that has often (though certainly not exclusively) been exemplified by Christians that is ugly and fundamentalist. Each side claims moral authority for positions they hold to be self-evidently true (!). Calls from Haidt to try to get along with each other a bit better are all very well, but they are an appeal to a moral framework (his moral framework) in which “getting along with each other” is more important than being right on issues. And who is to say that he is right in that assertion? In fact, it is a claim of moral authority and sadly many would reject it—they just don’t agree that getting on is a higher value. So who’s going to adjudicate? And how? No matter which way we turn, there is always an appeal to moral authority, even from the moral pluralist.
At this point Haidt might remind us of his warning about moral monists. I am sympathetic. There is an approach to morality that has often (though certainly not exclusively) been exemplified by Christians that is ugly and fundamentalist. Moral authority is used to overpower opposition and coerce compliance, in contrast with the pattern of self-sacrificial giving set out by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5–11. Those who would claim the name of Jesus while adopting anything other than a posture of humility, kindness and loving service towards those who oppose them are taking his name in vain. This means that how we hold to moral positions is just as important a moral consideration as the specifics of what we hold to. A Christian moral monism must, by definition, be characterized by love for one’s neighbor.
Finally, Haidt argues that most moral discourse is post-hoc rationalization but that the elephant of moral intuition can be turned in its course by the influence of others in a community. The church at its best has known this for centuries. The moral sense needs to be renewed and redirected. One could say that in the church post-hoc moral formation is shaped by divine self-revelation and carried out in a loving community that serves the world. Haidt might recognize many of these features of such a moral community, though call them by different names and attribute them to different sources. At its best, such morally formative community should never produce the monistic fundamentalism to which Haidt objects. Rather it should produce a full-orbed outworking of Haidt’s six moral foundations in a posture of humble, loving service towards the world—an embodied moral theology, if you like.