Top critical review
Cave Man Ethics
Reviewed in the United States on January 26, 2018
I purchased this book because I am interested in the idea that morals may be inborn -- part of human nature -- and that each culture shares certain basic values. I started reading the book enthusiastically, but by the end I was skimming pages and dismayed that the author had so seriously failed to provide any solutions to our political problems.
Haidt starts by dividing the human mind into what he calls the elephant and the rider. The rider is the reasoning, rational mind, whereas the elephant is the irrational, impulsive and intuitive mind. He argues that human moral decisions are guided by the elephant, and that the rider just comes up with a rationalized, post-facto "reasonable" justification after the decisions have been made by the elephant. Of course, anyone who has been alive for more than a couple decades may have noticed this kind of "logic" in his fellow humans. It goes like this: "Here are my biases, now how do I make an argument to justify it."
Later in the book, he goes into more detail and lists the specific intuitions that may bias people towards certain moral conclusions: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation.
However, he doesn't call them biases (that's my own terminology). He describes them as something like the taste buds of morality, whereupon one may develop certain "tastes" over a lifetime that cause one to be liberal (progressive) or conservative. Just like we may have a preference for sweet food, we might also have partially inborn and partially acquired intuition for, to make an example, loyalty, which may lead one to make statements like "My country, right or wrong" in the face of unethical behavior by one's government.
Haidt rejects rational thinking entirely. Indeed, he goes so far as to label those who engage in systematic rational thinking as "autistic" (pg 136). He labels modern, civilized countries as WEIRD (an insulting acronym he made up). He also has no interest in individual rights, such as America's Bill of Rights. Rather, he finds solace in the ignorance of impoverished villagers in northeast Brazil and primitive people of India who wipe their butts with their hands (really! see pg 122). He praises studies which show that ignorant people prefer collectivism and use their intuitions (prejudices/biases) when making moral decisions. Critical thinking? Rights? To Haidt, they're irrelevant. He's openly hostile to critical thinking. He disparages psychological studies of advanced ("WEIRD") countries as "statistical outliers" (pg 112).
Essentially, his ethics can be summarized as "cultural relativism", except that Western cultures are always wrong and those on the upper half of the bell curve (advanced, civilized societies) are WEIRD. Since humans are incapable of reason (according to Haidt), we can only navigate ethical and political decisions by intuitions. Whose intuitions should we follow, you ask? Well, that's unclear, although he does provide some helpful graphs of the intuitions of different political views towards the end of the book. I guess whoever shouts the loudest gets to make the rules.
I don't actually disagree with any of Haidt's psychological studies. I just come to entirely different conclusion. When Haidt finds ignorance and prejudice, he wants to build a code of ethics out of it. Where I find ignorance and prejudice, I want to educate people and help them to understand the points of views of others. How can this come about? Well, first one must accept that there is a real, physical reality out there, and that certain actions make sense in the real world and others don't. If you compare today's political discussion with that of previous generations, you can see how far we've fallen. For example, read "The Federalist Papers" and compare that to any modern day politician's anti-intellectualism, and you can realize how much America has lost since our founding in terms of critical thinking and honest debate.
The Enlightenment-style system of individual rights has advanced society enormously. Unfortunately, there are still pseudo-intellectuals like Haidt who want to drag us back into the stone age, or worse, towards fascism, religious fundamentalism, or communism. I find this book disturbing and could go on and on about problems I have with it, however I think I've said enough to get my point across.