Proceeding from Moral Intuitions

Haidt challenges several of the prevailing view of how people come to assimilate political ideas:

1. They read political philosophy and are swayed by the rational arguments therein
2. They assimilate their views from the broad cultural soup and dispose of arguments that fail to convince them
3. Their life experiences in respect of their economic class and social-economic position determine their politics

All true to some degree but Haidt would observe these views are rationalizations and reasoning about the world and that what matters, what is decisively is the underlying intuitive response which is alerted by an emotion about what is moral, what is right or wrong. Haidt follows the famous lead of the Scottish philosopher

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”

According to Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model moral judgment is predominantly intuitive, driven primarily by automatic emotional responses that are effortless and produced by unconscious processes. Haidt use the analogy of the elephant and its rider with emotion and intuition being the elephant and reason and rationality being represented by the rider. Reflection and reason are used according to him to serve the purpose of justifying and rationalizing the moral judgments that were made previously.

What underlies the emotions that underlie intuitions? Well our personality psychology mediated by our experience. Haidt’s success in the Righteous Mind is to get the level of explanation correct; the previous attempts at building a political psychology from personality theory have not worked to anyone’s satisfaction.

So what which personality traits and psychological dispositions support which moral foundations? Haidt’s doesn’t entirely know but his research is ongoing in this area but much remains to be done. A recent paper attempted to asses which personality traits for example underpin Political Libertarianism and this can be seen here

This is controversial: millions of political science students have been taught to read political philosophy in a way which suggest that the critical reading itself will lead to the formation of personal political view points, whereas Haidt is saying that exact opposite is going on – moral intuition are first seeking reasons and rationalizations to sustain themselves in partial and biased readings of Bentham, Marx or Rawls.

The liberal commentator Thomas Frank in his despairing “What’s the matter with Kansas” wonders why poor and working class Americans can be induced in huge numbers to support the Republicans finds his answer in the Righteous Mind – poor people and rich people have a range of moral intuitions which can usurp narrow economic calculation and many of these intuitions support a Conservative politics. But before Conservatives rejoice they will have noted that many affluent voters vote Democrat and this is for the same reason, some of them have moral intuitions about fairness that are inconsistent with voting Republican.

One of the moral foundations – In-Group Loyalty explains some class based politics. In the UK voting Labour was a marker of working class identity and solidarity for half of the 20th century and Conservative politics played to class loyalties to an extent but also loyalty to Britain in the sense of patriotism was a diver of Tory support. Haidt provides support for the group loyalty view of politics.

Many great insights like this one from Haidt but more on that here

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