“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” So wrote the Whig statesman Edmund Burke in his landmark Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). More than 200 years later, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines the 21st-century moral attitudes that protect “the little platoons”—family, neighborhood, church, local community—in modern America and those that shatter those platoons into deracinated individuals.

To be sure, in The Righteous Mind Haidt looks at much more than the fate of society’s “little platoons” in his analysis of moral intuitions guiding modern Americans. He examines the frequency with which people reach a very quick moral judgment but then labor to develop some rational theory to justify it, surveys striking differences separating typical Americans from typical Indians, and probes the role of the senses in affecting our moral judgments. Still, very early in his exposition, Haidt introduces the pivotal distinction between a moral perspective that is “sociocentric . . . placing the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals” and a moral perspective that is “individualistic . . . at the center and makes society a servant of the individual.” The consequences of this profound distinction will matter a great deal to readers who cherish the family as the most immediate and important “little platoon.”

Beginning the research that culminated in this book as a partisan liberal, Haidt was initially committed to an individualistic and rational morality resting on “secular, questioning, and egalitarian” premises and strongly hostile to “authority, hierarchy, and tradition.” However, in the process of probing moral attitudes, Haidt found, first, that the secular and rational morality of modern American individualism looks highly aberrant by any global or historical standard; second, that emotion matters much more in shaping morality than he had supposed; and, third, that authority, hierarchy, and tradition sustain social health in ways he had not suspected. These unexpected discoveries have not yet made a social conservative out of Haidt; they have, however, made him much more sympathetic to the morality of social conservatives than are most contemporary academic psychologists.

Haidt recounts how his research led him to compare the moral attitudes of students at the University of Pennsylvania—where an orthodoxy of rational individualism prevailed—with moral attitudes outside of America’s academic enclave. These comparisons convinced Haidt that, when viewed with a global perspective, the American university is “a strange and different moral world.” Drawing on a study by Joe Heinrich and colleagues, Haidt ultimately judges the moral perspective of rational American individualists to be WEIRD— “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” He can only conclude that in their moral attitudes, WEIRD people like him are “the least typical, least representative people you could study if you wanted to make generalizations about human nature.” They are especially aberrant in their “independent and autonomous concept of the self,” a self not defined by “roles and relationships,” such as the relationships that hold the family together.

Haidt has come to realize that the morality of modern secular rationalism is bizarre not only in global terms but in historical terms as well. His reading has convinced him that the sociocentric answer [to moral questions] dominated most of the ancient world, but the individualistic answer became a powerful rival during the Enlightenment. The individualistic answer largely vanquished the sociocentric approach in the twentieth century as individual rights expanded rapidly, consumer culture spread, and the Western world reacted with horror to the evils perpetrated by the ultrasociocentric fascist and communist empires.

Social conservatives might challenge Haidt’s identification of Nazism and Communism as “ultrasociocentric,” since both totalitarian movements replaced the organic traditional structure of society with the lethal modern surrogate of Party. But no social conservative would dispute his overall judgment that the 20th-century triumph of rational individualism constitutes a rupture in the world’s moral history.

The doubts that Haidt first entertained about liberal individualism because of its global and historical peculiarity were only reinforced as he came to recognize its emotional desiccation. Even as a graduate student, Haidt found the standard liberal moral theory “too cerebral” to be satisfying. “There was hardly any mention of emotion” in its rationalist principles. Later work convinced him that in many instances “people made moral judgments quickly and emotionally,” not in the rational and intellectual way that liberal theorists had argued. Certain emotions— including “feelings of loyalty and sanctity”—are sentiments that “flip the hive switch, shut down the self, activate the groupish overlay, and allow the person to become ‘simply a part of the whole.’” To understand these emotions, Haidt has found himself relying on Darwinian theorists, who stress the importance of “group selection” in fostering the survival and success of groups—such as the family. 

But Haidt does not rely entirely on Darwinian thinkers in interpreting group-reinforcing emotions. He has also turned to the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who outlined a “vision of society, favored by social conservatives, in which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual, and in which order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued.” This is a vision sustained by intense emotion, not just a bloodless rationality. As Burke understood, we “love the little platoon we belong to,” clinging to the family with intense feeling, not self-serving calculation.

family meal

Haidt well understands that love for the family and the other little platoons of society finds sustenance in order, hierarchy, and tradition— concerns that fit organically into the conservative moral matrix that includes “loyalty,” “authority,” and “sanctity” but do not fit well into the liberal moral matrix that includes “care” and “liberty” and, to a limited degree, “fairness.” Haidt even concedes that among the groups he has studied, “social conservatives have the broadest set of concerns” and “detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive” and are therefore—unlike liberals—likely to “fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).” What is more, Haidt has established through survey research that conservatives understand the moral views of liberals much better than liberals understand the moral concerns of conservatives.

Haidt even lays at the feet of liberals the baleful consequences of their crusades “for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital.” He notes, for example, how “the [liberal] urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s . . . reduced the value of marriage, increased out of wedlock births, and weakened African-American families.” Haidt has drunk long enough at the wells of conservative wisdom to see through the illusion that liberals create when they argue that it is they and not conservatives who really care about society. Yes, it is liberals who want government programs providing safety nets for the poor. But, Haidt points out, the “strong safety nets” provided by such government programs are “not sociocentric”: “They just do a very good job of protecting individuals from the vicissitudes of life.”

Haidt might have scrutinized more skeptically liberals’ claim that they are people who “care for victims of oppression.” Yes, liberals were in the forefront in the fight to give African Americans a fair chance in American society. However, they were also in the forefront of those shouting down Patrick Moynihan and others who warned that family disintegration was imperiling the social future of these same African Americans. Before accepting at face value liberals’ characterization of themselves as defenders of the oppressed, Haidt should perhaps have considered how much liberals have invested in government programs that grow when more and more Americans become long-term clients of family-surrogate bureaucracies. Perhaps he would have been less credulous in accepting liberals’ representation of themselves had he remembered Orwell’s remark about political activists whose desire to serve others is fatally entangled with a desire to rule over them.

The very fact that Haidt has traveled far in acknowledging the soundness of conservative morality actually makes it hard not to question his representation of himself as one who—with John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell—would prefer a ying-and-yang complementarity of liberals and conservatives. Professing a desire for “a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance,” Haidt asserts that “public policy might really be improved by drawing on insights from both sides [liberal and conservative].” But Haidt’s own book raises serious doubts about his attempt to draw these two very different moral perspectives into fruitful dialogue.

In the first place, Haidt hides a vexing question in the passive voice of references to “ideologies [that] are kept in balance” and to public policies that “might really be improved by drawing on insights from both sides” of the ideological divide. Who does the balancing? Who does the improving of policies? If it is people like Mill and Russell who take over the balancing and improving, then social conservatives will see through the game immediately. Mill may have acknowledged that “a party of order or stability” was theoretically necessary for a “healthy state of political life,” and Russell may have reasoned that “philosophers . . . who wished to tighten social bonds” were a protection against “the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.” But when push came to shove, both men wielded their considerable influence against social conservatives. The balance Haidt hopes for will very quickly dissolve into an imbalance in which liberals dictate the terms.

To a distressing degree, that is in fact the world in which 21st-century Americans live: even within the Republican party, social conservatives often find that their concerns matter very little to those in power. In the GOP, the problem is partly explained by the influence of libertarians, a group whose liberty-above-all orientation causes them, in Haidt’s analysis, to “join liberals in scoring very low on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations” of morality. Given the importance of these foundations to family life, it is entirely predictable that libertarians would be no allies of social conservatives. And outside of the Republican party, the problem is even worse, especially in the media and academe. Haidt himself acknowledges that conservatives and Christians “face discrimination . . . in the academic world.” Consequently, Haidt’s fantasy world of liberal-conservative balance will strike most social conservatives as utterly irrelevant.

As one who yearns for a balanced ying-yang world, Haidt unsurprisingly applies the maxim that “morality binds and blinds” to liberals and conservatives in an even-handed way. But social conservatives will recognize the injustice in this even-handedness. Haidt’s own research indicates that liberals’ moral matrix is far more individualistic, far WEIRDer, than the conservative moral matrix. His own research also indicates that because liberals’ moral matrix is far narrower than that of conservatives, conservatives understand liberals’ moral concerns far better than liberals understand conservatives’ moral concerns. Hence, liberal morality binds less and blinds more than does conservative morality. 

Yet Haidt reserves in his ying-yang utopia a special place for liberals— who, by his own showing, advocate measures that drain away social and moral capital. Haidt partly explains this reservation when he argues that only liberals understand the need “to limit and regulate corporate behavior.” To be sure, libertarians who call themselves conservatives are very slow to recognize this need, but Haidt should have seen in his own data indications that social conservatives understand (even when they do not share) liberal concerns, including those that lead to government regulation on some corporate activities.

Why does Haidt finally hang back, preferring a hopelessly hypothetical advocacy of a ying-yang ideological balance to a real commitment to conservative principles? The answer to this question might lie in his curious perspective on religion. Identifying himself as an atheist, Haidt makes it clear that he is open to a conservatism that pragmatically fosters moral capital by helping people to form and sustain “little platoons,” including especially the family. But Haidt also makes it clear that he wants no truck with a conservatism rooted in a religious orthodoxy that insists on “a set of beliefs about supernatural agents” and upon a “transcendent moral order.” And here he confronts a problem that he handles awkwardly and implausibly.

Haidt realizes that even in 21st-century America much of the littleplatoon-sustaining moral capital that he finds in conservatism springs from the religious commitment of people who do, in fact, believe in “supernatural agents” and in a “transcendent moral order.” He recognizes and values that moral capital, but he cannot or will not take seriously the religious beliefs that produce it. Because he values religion as a “moral exoskeleton” that will “suppress selfishness” by “enmesh[ing believers] in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions,” he resists as socially destructive the attacks on faith by Dawkins, Dennett, and other New Atheists. But because he himself rejects religionists’ beliefs, he must explain—or rather, explain away—“gods and religions . . . [as] grouplevel adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.” 

Haidt’s perspective on religious (un)truth is troubling for a number of reasons. He apparently supposes that society can milk religion for the moral capital it generates while its intellectual elite dismiss its doctrines as socially serviceable illusions. But a religion that is anything less than the worship of “the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9, emphasis added) is very quickly nothing but Rotarian Clubs and Unitarianism.

To be sure, deep religious commitments very often do yield all the moral and social benefits that Haidt highlights. When shared, such commitments do powerfully buttress society’s most important little platoon, the family, which the faithful recognize as a social pattern ordained of God. It is therefore quite unfortunate that Haidt has chosen to analyze religion in a way that separates the question of its social beneficence from the question of its truth. A wiser approach would recognize how often these two questions coincide. Sociologists and philosophers alike can learn much by heeding Jesus’ words: “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? . . . Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7: 16, 20).

As someone who has identified many of the good social fruits manifest in the strong little platoons of conservatives and many of the noxious weeds in family-breaking liberal projects, Haidt may yet learn more about the deep-down connection between social good and divine truth.

Dr. Bryce J. Christensen is senior editor of The Family in America. His review is reproduced with permission from The Family In America, a MercatorNet partner site.