Haters Gonna Haidt: A Critique of and Alternative to Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

Braus
5 min readJun 21, 2023

Chapter 32 of the book The Future of Good by Adam Braus

Last week a professor from Penn State was caught conducting sexual acts with his dog in a park. He was arrested, lost his job, and his reputation. Why does this matter? Well, it provides a refutation (of sorts) to a very popular theory of morality described in great detail in a New York Times best selling book entitled The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The professor’s unsightly situation illustrates that doing something that doesn’t harm anyone can still cause you or others misery, and it is that possibility of misery that signals to your brain that it is wrong, not just our culturally influenced preference or taste.

Let me explain.

During the 2000s Jonathan Haidt, a Yale-educated NYU professor of psychology, came up with dozens of bizarre and provocative ethical dilemmas that explored people’s moral beliefs and sentiments. Here are three examples:

Mark went to the grocery store and bought a chicken. Took it home. Made love to it. Then threw it away.

Maria and Dan were adults who were brother and sister. One night they decide to make love. Maria is using the pill which has 99 percent success rate of contraception. They do not make love again, and they did not regret their actions, and during their lives they always remember that as a special night that brought them even closer together.

Jerry’s dog Larry was hit by a car and died. Jerry was distraught and in order to grieve his loss, Jerry decided to butcher, cook, and consume a meal of some of Larry’s flesh. He did the action entirely hygienically and in private.

Haidt enumerates many of these dilemmas in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book reached number six on the New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction. In the book, Haidt relates how he conducted scientific interviews to discover whether people thought the actions in the dilemmas were right or wrong — moral or immoral. Haidt asked people about Mark and his chicken or Maria and Dan’s tryst and listened as they decided whether the action was immoral or moral. Haidt used his gross moral dilemmas to suggest, as David Hume did, that morality is primarily a matter of taste. Put precisely, Haidt called it “preference sculpted by social intuition.”

The philosophy of moral tastes Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind is a near consensus opinion among academics and psychologists. In a nutshell, it says that everyone believes things are good that they like, and everyone believes things are bad that they don’t like. We have some common likes and dislikes, but nothing is absolute. As the saying goes, “You can’t argue taste,” and, for Haidt, morality works the same way. In particular, Haidt’s analysis and contemporary morality, in general, are obsessed with whether or not an action harms anyone. Haidt’s weird dilemmas break modern people’s brains because no one is harmed; nevertheless, many consider these actions immoral. Haidt concludes that harm is not sufficient to explain our moral intuitions.

So, is morality the same as our taste for spicy food, where some have learned to tolerate and even prefer very spicy food and others cannot? Are people’s reactions to these dilemmas sufficient evidence to conclude that morality is a matter of preference? And should we be paying so much attention to harm, or is misery more essential to morality?

For Haidt, these dilemmas seemed to point out the contradictory nature of people’s moralities because in them no one is harmed, yet many people considered the acts in them immoral. People’s reactions to these dilemmas will continue to seem contradictory so long as we believe that the fundamental basis of morality is harm. Once we replace harm with “avoidable misery,” these contradictions evaporate and any disgust and worry about these scenarios makes a lot of sense.

For Maria and Dan, if the contraception failed, their secret became known, or later they regretted what they did, they would cause a mountain of misery for themselves and their community. They and their family and community would feel shame, sadness, anger, disgust, social opprobrium, loss of face, and destruction of relationships with their parents, friends, and other family members — not to mention the potential of a pregnancy and child. All of these potential miseries are avoidable if Maria and Dan simply abstained from incest. Likewise, having sex with a dead chicken or eating a dog, even if someone attempted to do these things hygienically and in secret, could lead to unpredictable risks for one’s health and especially our social standing. What kind of diseases could someone catch? How would people in our communities treat us if they knew we did these strange things? Our brains can detect these risks and begins throwing very reasonable red flags in the form of moral urgency not to engage in these behaviors.

The amygdala scans the world for avoidable miseries, and the cerebral cortex can either suppress the resulting moral urgency or not. Some of Haidt’s respondents decided the actions were moral. These folks’ frontal lobes were suppressing their amygdala’s panic. Based on a rational theory of harm, these respondents could rationalize the morality of consensual incest and the other behaviors, but only by stifling their innate instinct to reduce avoidable misery. We instinctively panic whenever we encounter a misery we or someone else could avoid, even a hypothetical one. Haidt’s dilemmas are analogous to going through a haunted house at Halloween, reading Fifty Shades of Grey, or watching a scary movie. You know, rationally, that you are safe and it is a harmless activity, but your amygdala is going wild.

This explains, in part, why Haidt’s book is so entertaining and how an otherwise dull work of social psychology and ethics sold so many copies. Haidt’s gross and line-crossing dilemmas are devilishly fun to entertain in the privacy of reading the book. There is nothing wrong with some smutty ethical dilemmas.

But this leaves us with the question of whether morality is the same as our taste for spicy food in that some can tolerate very spicy dishes and others cannot? Do we need a theory of preference sculpted by social intuition if we already have the instinct to minimize perceived avoidable miseries for ourselves and other beings? What else changes if we swap our obsession with reducing harm for an obsession with reducing avoidable misery?

If you would like to learn more about how morality certainly does exist (and is not the same as our preference for spicy food), how our brains are wired to eliminate avoidable misery and how morality itself is based on this evolutionary, biological principle, and much much more you can buy my book The Future of Good. Thanks!

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Braus

Educator, Founder, Engineer. Interested in Evidence Based Education and Solving BIG Problems.