Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Fear the Geeks Even When They Bring Gifts...

There has been a fair amount of stir recently, in Catholic and conservative publications, about a new book called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The latest issue of First Things magazine opens with a piece on it. With evident satisfaction, R.R. Reno writes:

"It wasn't a conclusion he thought he'd come to. When he was a young graduate student, Jonathan Haidt presumed that "liberal" was pretty much a synonym for "reasonable", if not for "obvious". Now as he writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he has found that liberalls have limited moral vision. One that is, I'd say, therefore certainly less reasonable than conservatism's, and for the vast majority of people in the world far from obvious."

He goes on to describe Haidt's claims; that "our moral outlooks are largely intuitive rather than reasoned" (fairly obvious, I'd say), and that "people tend to be liberal or conservative because they have different emotional responses to the same social realities" (again, fairly obvious, though some people like to insist they have arrived at their views purely through a process of reason. I don't really believe anyone who makes this claim).

The meat of Haidt's sandwich is the claim that conservatives have more "receptors" for moral intutions than liberals do. Liberals only have "receptors" for "care, freedom and fairness" while conservatives also take "loyalty, authority and sanctity" into consideration.

It's true that, when arguing with a liberal or a progressive, I often feel scandalised that they don't even seem to perceive things that I do-- for instance, they don't seem to care about national identity, or the difference between the sexes, or a sense of rootedness.

But deriving some sort of pseudo-scientific theory from this fact is, I think, a leap too far. I am sure the liberal thinks I am sottishly insensible to concerns or hopes or aspirations that he cherishes. I do believe I inhabit a wider and freer mental world than he does, but I don't think there's anything obviously true about my claim. I think he could claim the same thing.

It is unwise of conservatives or religious people to take books like The Righteous Mind to their hearts. Believing in the freedom and dignity of the human soul as I do, I am not much interested in a social scientist's attempt to anatomise our minds, whether it is Haidt in this book or Theodor Adorno in The Authoritarian Personality, a famous and influential attempt to pathologize right-wingers.

It's true that I haven't read Haidt's book, only reviews of it (most of them short), and perhaps I am being unfair to it. But I am much more interested in arguments and philosophies themselves, rather than theories about why people hold those philosophies or make those arguments.

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