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The Taste for Being Moral

Vatican Museums/Scala/Art Resource
Raphael: The Judgment of Solomon, circa 1518–1519


Human beings want to understand themselves, and in our time such understanding is pursued on a wide front by the biological, psychological, and social sciences. One of the questions presented by these forms of self-understanding is how to connect them with the actual lives all of us continue to lead, using the faculties and engaging in the activities and relations that are described by scientific theories.

An important example is the universal human phenomenon of morality. Even if we come to accept descriptive theories of the different forms of morality based on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, or developmental and social psychology, each of us also holds specific moral views, makes moral judgments, and governs his conduct and political choices partly on the basis of those attitudes. How do we combine the external descriptive view of ourselves provided by empirical science with the active internal engagement of real life?

This problem is posed and to some extent addressed by Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and part of the interest of the book lies in its failure to provide a fully coherent response. Haidt is a social psychologist, and he sets out his descriptive theory of the origins and nature of morality and of moral disagreement. But the book’s overall point is partly normative, not just descriptive. Haidt makes definite recommendations of a clearly moral nature, and he seeks to support them with the help of his descriptive findings about morality. These two aspects of the project do not fit easily together.

Haidt’s empirical theory, which he calls “moral foundations theory,” is an example of evolutionary psychology. It is the hypothesis that a set of innate “modules” of moral response were fixed in humans by natural selection, and that these responses, further shaped by cultural evolution in various more specific forms and combinations, underlie the widely divergent moralities that we observe not only across the globe but within pluralistic cultures like that of the United States. Specifically, Haidt argues that group selection—selection for genetic traits whose presence benefited social groups of early humans in competition with other groups, rather than individual selection for traits that enhanced the reproductive success of individuals in competition with other individuals—is responsible for the main moral dispositions. The existence of group selection is a highly contentious issue in evolutionary biology. Haidt defends it in this case on the ground that moral norms can include cheap enforcement mechanisms, such as forms of group pressure, that cancel the genetic advantage for any individual of trying to benefit from the group’s success while not following the norms—free riding, in other words.

Haidt distinguishes six basic types of moral response, which he likens to distinct taste receptors, so that different moralities are like different cuisines in the use they make of these responses. Each type manifests itself through intuitive emotional reactions, positive and negative, to a specific value or its violation, so he gives them double-barreled names: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt believes that all these responses developed in their basic innate form because they suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperation possible among people who are not close relatives. Individual natural selection can explain psychological traits that benefit the individual and his close kin; but group selection, he argues, is needed to explain those traits that benefit individuals only by sustaining norms that preserve the cohesion of the group.

I will say more about these categories in a moment, but Haidt’s general point is that functioning moralities must draw on these intuitive emotional responses to control behavior, and that reason plays a relatively minor role in morality—often merely as a source of rationalizations for what our gut feelings tell us is right or wrong. The main argument of the book is that the secular liberal moralities found in some sectors of advanced Western societies assign too much importance to reason, and rely on only a subset of the basic responses he describes, whereas conservative moralities, in those societies or elsewhere, get their strength from invoking all of the moral categories equally. This explains what seems to liberals to be the irrational success of conservatism in American culture and politics. Haidt insists that it is wrong for liberals to regard the conservative outlook with contempt, and that they need to broaden the basis of their own moral appeal if they want to increase their influence.

Haidt describes his own research, based on interviews and questionnaires in the US and abroad, about the distribution of different combinations of moral attitudes; he also offers evolutionary speculation, anthropological data, and evidence from brain research and studies of animal behavior. I will not attempt to discuss all this material. The contemporary phenomenon he describes is familiar to any socially conscious resident of the United States, even if the description is not fully accurate. Three of his categories—loyalty, authority, and sanctity (to shorten their double-barreled names)—are very important to conservatives but unimportant or even repellent to most liberals. Loyalty to a group excludes and devalues those outside it; authority suppresses the autonomy of the individual; sanctity (e.g., as a bar to stem cell research, euthanasia, pornography, and flag desecration) postulates values that do not depend on human interests. These norms clash with the concern for individual interests and aspiration to universality that are at the heart of liberalism.

According to Haidt, liberals appeal primarily to the care module, together with a version of liberty that makes it a bar to the oppression of the weak by the powerful. They have a lesser concern for fairness, interpreted by Haidt as a requirement of reward proportional to social contribution—not equality. In other words they ignore half of the possible emotional supports of morality, whereas conservatives care about all six of the basic values. Though liberals often fail to acknowledge it, conservatives don’t care only about sexual morality, religion, and patriotism; but liberals, says Haidt, care only about poverty, civil rights, and civil liberties.

He credits Émile Durkheim with having understood that collective religious and patriotic emotions not only bind people together but give their lives meaning, and enable them to avoid the anomie—rootlessness and lack of norms—that results from an excessive preoccupation with individualistic aims. By contrast, he rejects John Stuart Mill’s identification of morality with the universal advancement of individual interests and the prevention of harm done by one person to another.


Haidt’s evolutionary approach requires that an effectively motivated morality be grounded in dispositions that have been favored by natural selection. Universal, rather than group-centered, dispositions are not plausible candidates for such selection. This leads him to acknowledge only limited forms of the values of care and fairness. Care, he believes, is based on the need for human groups to protect the young during their lengthy period of helplessness; it cannot be naturally generalized to concern for the welfare of all humans, let alone all sentient beings. Fairness he identifies with the principle that participants in a cooperative enterprise should be rewarded in proportion to their contribution, and cheaters and free riders should be punished. He denies that there is any moral interest in equality per se—only an aversion to excessive domination, a particular type of imposed inequality that goes beyond the legitimate hierarchy approved by the functional value of authority.

One of the things missing from this picture is a conception of fairness, important for American liberalism and the European left, that condemns as unfair those hereditary class inequalities that give some people much harder lives than others merely because of the accidents of birth. This is not an interest in equality per se, but an objection to certain social causes of inequality—and not just those causes like racial segregation that are infringements of liberty. There may not be a credible evolutionary explanation for this sense of unfairness, but it is real all the same, and it has motivated the left for some time. Yet such a response is probably too dependent on reasoning and requirements of moral consistency for Haidt to take seriously—just like the extension of concerns to provide care and avoid harm beyond one’s own community:

It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

He urges liberals to respect the varying parochial moralities and religions that they are accustomed to deride as backward or intolerant, and to acknowledge their genuine moral character. However, Haidt insists that he is not a relativist. He has moral views of his own, and presumably this means that he believes that they are true, or at least more likely to be true than the alternatives. But what does it mean, in the light of Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, to believe such a thing, and what grounds might he have for believing it?

What he says is that his descriptive theory of the six types of moral response and their group-preserving function works well “as an adjunct” to normative theories, “particularly those that have often had difficulty seeing groups and social facts.” He himself favors what he calls a “Durkheimian utilitarianism,” which

would be open to the possibility that the binding foundations—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—have a crucial role to play in a good society…. When we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good. I just want Bentham to read Durkheim…before he tells any of us, or our legislators, how to go about maximizing that total good.

There are two problems about the relation of this view to the six-modules theory. First, utilitarianism itself doesn’t have a plausible foundation in any of them. The closest candidate is care/harm, but the utilitarian principle, which counts everyone’s interests equally and requires that a society aim to maximize the total good, rather than merely protecting the helpless and suppressing intrasocietal aggression, is a huge expansion of the scope of care. It is the kind of principle that could only be based on reasoning of some kind, rather than instinct—even if it is applied only within the bounds of a single society.

Secondly, Haidt’s Durkheimian utilitarianism reduces the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity to a purely instrumental role. Religion, patriotism, and sexual taboos, for example, have no validity or value in themselves, according to this view; they are merely useful in creating bonds that allow collective achievement of the greatest total good, which utilitarians identify with the satisfaction of individual interests. But can such values and practices as loyalty and authority serve this function if they are seen as purely instrumental? Can they even exist? The purely instrumental, utilitarian endorsement of these “binding” moral attitudes seems essentially that of an outsider, someone who does not share them in their authentic form.

When it comes to discovering factual truth, Haidt is a great believer in reason, especially if it is exercised in the collective practice of mutual criticism characteristic of science. Reason is what allows us to go beyond instinct, intuition, and perception, as well as superstition and myth. But when it comes to normative truth Haidt is distrustful of reason, though he does not rule it out of bounds altogether. His conception of its place in moral thought is obscure (though at one point he suggests that a legislature might function as a site of collective reasoning about public policy). I have no idea what he thinks is going on in his argument for a Durkheimian form of utilitarianism. Is he expressing intuitions that he believes are present in him as the result of biological and cultural evolution? Or is he making a normative claim that takes those intuitions as data but rests on some further moral foundation? Or both?

We cannot ignore innate human instincts and cultural conditioning, but anyone who wants to think seriously about morality must be prepared to evaluate such motives from an independent point of view that is achieved by transcending them. For example, if one wishes to evaluate the various norms of sanctity and pollution, authority and hierarchy that still uphold the subordination of women to men in many societies, it is necessary first to ask whether the interests of men and women should be counted equally in assessing any such norms. If the answer is yes, that is essentially to deny that those norms carry their own intrinsic validity: if they devalue the interests of women, they should be rejected even if they are strongly resistant to being dislodged.

Reflection and argument of this kind have played a significant role in moral reform, but Haidt’s picture of different moralities as composed, like different cuisines, from different blends of the six moral modules, suitably adapted to social circumstances, leaves little room for the pursuit of moral understanding and progress through rational reflection and the search for consistency. Yet this kind of thought is part of moral life, including Haidt’s, and any theory of moral psychology should try to understand it. Social cohesion may be a necessary function of an acceptable morality, but it is not the only one.

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