- - Friday, March 2, 2012

By Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon, $28.95, 448 pages

No one needs, possibly, to establish with scholarly display and panoply that Americans don’t like each other very much these days. The trick lies in establishing with some plausibility the reasons they don’t like each other very much.

There’s a trick beyond that one as well, and it’s the really tough one - namely, figuring out what to do about the whole mess. Jonathan Haidt doesn’t exactly excel in the latter enterprise with the few bon bons (“change the procedures for electing politicians,” etc.) he scatters at the end.

I ask: Who cares? Don’t we know that every problem in the world gets solved twice a day on the Internet and the talk shows? Why further detain the author of so highly readable, highly insightful a book as this one, to whom some gratitude is owed, not least for daring from inside the liberal snakepit of academia to say a good word for conservatism?

And for liberalism. We’d expect that, wouldn’t we, from an author - a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia - who, until very recent times anyway, described himself as a liberal atheist. Whether he’s more recently “gotten religion” is an opaque question, but no reader of “The Righteous Mind” is likely to envision him voting for Newt Gingrich.

The principal posture in which one envisions him is that of a scrappy, voluble, discerning patriot standing between the warring factions in American politics urging each to see the other’s viewpoint, to stop demonizing, bashing, clobbering. For the greater good.

“My goal,” Mr. Haidt says, “is to change the way a diverse group of readers - liberal and conservative, secular and religious - think about morality, politics, religion, and each other.” He doesn’t stereotype, but he offers bold assertions, meant, on the basis of observation, scholarship and even website exposure, to demonstrate that by their own intuitive lights, liberals and conservatives need to cultivate mutual respect. (Libertarians, too, but they don’t figure as much here.)

It sounds like “Can’t we all just get along?” - the immortal query that came from the Los Angeles riots of two decades ago. It’s that, but also much more than that, because Mr. Haidt sees the two philosophical dispositions as supplying each other’s vacancies in significant ways. He does so on the basis of the Moral Foundations Theory he developed, categorizing the intuitive embraces that Americans of different philosophical stripes bestow on particular values. (Intuition, as distinguished from reason, seems to Mr. Haidt - a follower of David Hume - as the driving human force.)

It turns out, not surprisingly, that liberals ground their worldviews upon the values of “Care” over “Harm” to individuals, “Liberty” over “Oppression” and “Fairness” over “Cheating.” Fine. Not that we can’t figure all that out just by listening to liberals talk. But listen to this: Conservatives, whose guiding lights are “Loyalty,” “Authority” and “Sanctity” value the foundational liberal values also, “although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care [for the downtrodden] and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral objectives.”

What conservatives really, truly have got is instinctive appreciation of moral capital. And that, friends, includes religion, for which Mr. Haidt voices appreciation from his own, originally Jewish-secularist corner. Religion fosters moral behavior. Moral communities are communities that last and prosper. Their residents believe “that people need external structures or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive.”

These structures sustain the community - hold and bind it together. Not knowing this, not seeing it, Mr. Haidt argues, “is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism.” Also why liberalism “is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.”

“The Righteous Mind” is no apologia for conservatism, certainly not for the Republican Party. A subtext, nevertheless, seems to be that the range of liberal intuitions (anti-oppression, pro-caring, etc.) is notably narrower than the conservative range. To one degree or another, conservatives, on Mr. Haidt’s showing, buy the whole intuitive package - anti-oppression AND pro-religion, etc. On Mr. Haidt’s website (YourMorals.org) “we have found that social conservatives have the broadest set of moral concerns, valuing all six foundations relatively equally, whereas liberals, “in their zeal to help victims” often “push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital.”

Alas, we’ve fallen into Manichean mode over the past couple of decades; we wage wars that (as we see things) pit good against evil, and you know who the good people are, don’t you? “We” are whoever “we” may be.

What do we do, Mr. Haidt? That’s where I said the book lets us down, at least if we were counting on a book to roll back two decades of American dysfunction. Mr. Haidt’s real contribution, in my judgment, is inviting us all to sit at the table - without shame, if one is conservative, because what’s to be ashamed of in setting effective watch over your society’s moral capital and being recognized for it? “Each [ideological] team,” Mr. Haidt invites us to conclude, “is composed of good people who have something important to say.” Now for the saying.

• William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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