Jonathan Haidt and the Possibility of Moral Instruction

In The Righteous Mind (2012) and The Happiness Hypothesis (2006),(1) social psychologist Jonathan Haidt goes to the heart of today’s polarized, profoundly unsatisfying disputes over right and wrong, justice, and fairness. He argues that we become so obstinate and so heated because none of us possesses a reasoned morality. Rather, we take up intuitive positions, and only then does our reason come in, to justify and defend our gut commitments.

Haidt proposes six foundational moral intuitions: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In The Righteous Mind, he suggests that each of these evolved in response to a particular adaptive challenge facing human social groups. In this review, I focus almost entirely on his discussion of the sixth foundation, sanctity.

A Reductive View of Religion

First, it should be said that Haidt extends a rather large olive branch to religious people. Although he describes himself as “a Jewish atheist” (HH 183), he contends (against such New Atheists as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) that religions have been adaptive — for groups, not individuals, increasing trustworthiness and cooperation (RM 255-73). Religions may be primitive “moral exoskeletons” (RM 269), but it’s not yet clear that societies can thrive without them.

This qualified acceptance of religion slips a bit when Haidt considers origins. He acknowledges that such an undertaking is more speculation than science:

I didn’t want to make the classic mistake of amateur evolutionary theorists, which is to pick a trait and then ask: “Can I think of a story about how this trait might once have been adaptive?” The answer to that question is almost always yes because reasoning can take you wherever you want to go. (RM 122)

Yet to understand sanctity and religion, Haidt starts with the emotion of disgust; then, groping in the opposite direction, he discovers a vague “uplift” or “elevation” (HH 185-199; RM 13, 146-53), which he equates with agape love and the Holy Spirit (HH 199). Add in vastness and beauty, and one can even speak of “awe” and “transcendence” (HH 200-06; RM 227-28), emotions illustrated in both books by quotations from Emerson and Darwin responding to nature.

This is a good try, and a well-intentioned one, but I suspect that any religious person must feel let down by so thin an account of religious experience. Scientists are inclined to believe that the most economical explanation of any phenomenon must be the best one. If you come home and find your windows broken, it makes sense to think first of vandalism. But if you don’t find any brickbats, you might at least consider the possibility of an earthquake — especially if there are old records of a fault line running through the neighborhood.

Is any other account of religion possible for the scientist or social scientist? It is if we look back to an old but influential book. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto finds at the core of religious experience a Presence that he calls “the numinous.” It is felt as awful and overpoweringly majestic, raising in us the consciousness that we are but creatures; at the same time, it is attractive and fascinating, desired and sought for its own sake. (2). Primitive religion does make much of disgust, loathing, uncleanness, and impurity (122-24), but, says Otto, these of themselves could never give rise to religion and the sacred; rather, they can only be explained on the basis of the numinous (124, 132-35). The daunting aspect of the numinous becomes moralized as justice (Haidt’s “liberty” and “fairness”), and the alluring aspect as love (Haidt’s “care”) (140).

We can see this, at times, when the Bible speaks of what is loathsome and impure. It is after the Lord speaks out of the whirlwind that Job says, “I am of small account and vile” (Job 40:4, Amplified; Hebrew qalal: light, trifling, contemptible, cursed) (3) and, later, “I despise [Hebrew maas] myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6, NIV). Isaiah wishes that the Lord would come down to earth as long ago, blazing like fire, doing awesome deeds, making mountains and nations tremble (Isaiah 64:1-3). But His present anger is worse; He hides His face.

How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean [Hebrew tame],
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:5-6, NIV)

There is an echo here of Isaiah 6:5, when the prophet has seen the holy Lord:

Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone and ruined [Hebrew damah: also destroyed, cut off], (4) because I am a man of unclean [Hebrew tame] lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean [Hebrew tame] lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Amplified)

Sanctity does not begin with feelings of disgust and repugnance, which by reaction find their way to uplift and elevation. Rather, sanctity appears whenever the Holy makes itself known, and the disgust that (among many other emotions) results is first of all a revulsion at aspects of oneself.

I am not sure whether there is anything “adaptive” about so shattering an encounter. But it lies at the root of all religion and all specifically religious morality. Haidt is convinced that psychology can improve on ancient wisdom (HH xi, xiii, 109), but, without the Holy, all of us — social scientists or not — are like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, (5) gazing at shadows. Job and Isaiah have seen the Sun.

On Learning and Teaching Morality

Still, Haidt has much to teach religious people, particularly in his insistence that morality has a non-rational basis in our intuitions. We know too well the frustration of being drawn into arguments over choices and behaviors, self-evidently wrong to us, but just as self-evidently right or neutral to others. Reason and persuasion can accomplish little, and these exchanges usually end with the religious people calling their neighbors immoral (or worse), and the neighbors calling the religious people close-minded and intolerant (or worse).

Haidt argues that these divisions persist because of different orientations toward the foundational moral intuitions. Conservatives value all six more or less equally, but liberals emphasize care and liberty, while libertarians build almost exclusively on liberty (RM 295-309).

Can’t we change? Can’t we listen to and learn from one another? In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt takes the position that one must change one’s “repertoire of available thoughts” — and that willpower won’t accomplish this. He discusses three effective methods: meditation, which can “change automatic thought processes”; cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck’s deliberate challenging of negative thoughts; and Prozac, which works rather mysteriously to transform personalities (35-44). In The Righteous Mind, he takes a different approach, acknowledging that other people influence us and cause us to change our intuitions and judgments, both through reasoning (which may trigger new intuitions for us) and simply by expressing their preferences. Private reflection, my ability to change my own judgments, he believes to have a much lower success rate (46-49).

This is a big shift in books written six years apart, and Haidt doesn’t account for it. But even his later view offers little support for traditional moral instruction. Our moral intuitions and judgments, he says, are not shaped or changed by lectures on moral principles, nor by stories of virtue rewarded and vice punished, nor even — more surprisingly — by role models and good examples. There must be interaction, a dialogue; it is another’s response to my intuitions that has the power to challenge and change me.

I submit that there is some truth in this, truth that churches and Christians should not ignore. By and large, we do not succeed in persuading others through our moral reasoning. The lives we intend as exemplary strike others as priggish and self-righteous, lived inside a sanctimonious bubble. We are much better at lecturing than at listening and responding. We are not regarded as wise, but as inflexible.

If we devoted ourselves to the pursuit of Biblical wisdom, it might change us, both in some ways that Haidt discusses and in some that are not on his radar at all. Here, I will touch on five aspects of Biblical wisdom.

1. The Fear of God

Again and again, the Bible emphasizes a theme stated most memorably in Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (RSV).(6)

When we read this verse, we tend to interpret “fear” as “reverence,” but we run the risk of diluting the Biblical meaning. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1971) defines “reverence” as “profound adoring awed respect,” but the fact remains that I can revere Shakespeare. The fear of God comes closer to Otto’s sense of creature-consciousness in the face of overwhelming majesty. In the Presence of the Holy One, I am not merely hushed and respectful; I am shaken and very nearly annihilated.

This fear does not lead directly or logically to a set of moral principles and behaviors. In Scripture, it is only because God Almighty chooses to make His ways known that we have commandments and statutes; apart from this, we are left dependent on the moment-by-moment revelation of His will, and might like Abraham be called to sacrifice a child (Genesis 22). Initially, the Presence of the Holy One has a wholly negative force, morally speaking: it stops us in our tracks.

We see this in the account of a pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It begins when he has a dream that terrifies him (Daniel 4:5): a “holy one” warns that he will be stripped, scattered, his mind changed “so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men” (4:17, NIV). The prophet Daniel, who is also terrified by the dream (4:19), urges the king to respond with a thorough reformation in moral behavior: “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquility” (4:27, RSV).

We are not told whether Nebuchadnezzar pays any heed to these words. But 12 months later, the warning is fulfilled when he privately claims for himself the glory that belongs to God. He endures a period of helpless madness. When his sanity is abruptly restored,

I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; . . . All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases . . . Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of Heaven, because everything He does is right and all His ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble. (4:34-35, 37, NIV)

The story ends here. It is complete with the acknowledgment, the heartfelt surrender before the Most High. It doesn’t require (what we so often insist upon) a consequent, Ebenezer-Scrooge-like life of good works. So too, in Psalm 49, the “words of wisdom” that “give understanding” (verse 3) are largely a recognition that all men must die: something to halt us, not to direct our steps.

2. The Problem of Holiness

Fear stops us cold; then it wants to move in, set up shop in our lives. The problem at the center of Israel’s calling is first presented to Moses as a living riddle. How can a bush — dry and wooden, considered little more than fuel — burn and not be consumed? (Exodus 3:2). Even so, how can the incandescently holy God dwell in the midst of people — frail and fallen, bent on sinning, mortal as dust — and not destroy them? In times of judgment, this is the cry of every heart: “He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it” (Lamentations 2:3, NIV). “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?” (Isaiah 33:14, NIV).

After the incident of the golden calf, the Lord offers Moses and the Israelites a strange proposition: He will send an angel to guide them into the promised land, and He will drive out every rival; “but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you” (Exodus 33:3, RSV). It is the one safe course, and yet the people mourn, and Moses pleads, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here,” from the wilderness (33:15, NIV). This is the attractive quality of the Holy One. Even when Moses and all his generation except for two men do in fact die, “consumed by Your anger” (Psalm 90:7, NIV), he doesn’t regret the decision; looking back over their walk with the Lord, he exclaims, “Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?” (Deuteronomy 4:32, NIV).

This is the paradox of knowing, grounded in the One who is real, and of being so known as to be almost obliterated. His servants “delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3, NIV; compare Nehemiah 1:11; Psalm 112:1). Even rebellious kings are enjoined, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11, NIV), for His Presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

Our fear of the Lord extends to His words (Psalm 119:120) — not rules taught by men (Isaiah 29:13), but whatever declares His ways, helping us to hate and shun evil (Proverbs 8:13; 3:7; Job 1:1, 8), the wildness that seeks to live apart from Him. So our fear deepens because He is Just (Job 37:23-24), because He is forgiving (Psalm 130:4), because He keeps promises (Psalm 119:38), because He is not arbitrary and implacable. Fear leads to trust (Exodus 14:31; Psalm 115:11).

Of course the burning bush points to Jesus, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, NIV). The blazing fire in Him illumines and heals instead of destroying, and cannot be quenched even by death. The news of His rising awakens “fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8). The New Testament, no less than the Old, is permeated with the fear of God (e.g., Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; 1 Peter 1:17). It is not a fear of punishment (1 John 4:18) — any more than, as Satan charged, it is a self-seeking servility (Job 1:9) — but it continues to tremble at His word (Philippians 2:12; Ephesians 6:5).

Truly to fear Him requires a changed heart: “. . . give me an undivided heart that I may fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11, NIV; compare Jeremiah 32:29). This leads to a thoroughgoing transformation, summed up in the calling, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, RSV; compare 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). We may even become fearsome to animals (Genesis 9:2) and to others (Genesis 35:5; Psalm 105:38; Deuteronomy 2:25; Esther 8:17).

3. The Wisdom from Above

Nebuchadnezzar goes out of his mind, while Moses, because of a hissy fit, is denied entry to the promised land; yet both affirm, not merely that the Most High God has the right to do what He pleases, but that what He does is right:

He is the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He. (Deuteronomy 32:4, NIV)

Over time, those who know God come to see that, though His ways frequently astonish, ultimately they are good. He binds Himself to His creation, keeps promises, shows steadfast love. So, in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom personified speaks as His first creation, the foundation of all that He has made and done:

The Lord created me at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old. . . . I was beside Him, like a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. (8:22, 30-31, RSV)

The words of God come with power, “making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7; compare 119:98-99). In its opening invitation, the Book of Proverbs expands upon these benefits: wisdom brings prudence, discretion, discernment, a disciplined life, and power to do “what is right and just and fair” (1:2-6, NIV). But the first step is one of correction; Wisdom says, “If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you . . .” (1:23, NIV).

Who wouldn’t want to be the confidant of God? Always, though, this comes at a steep price. No less than Nebuchadnezzar, we must turn from madness and surrender our lives. Throughout Scripture, God the Holy One confounds all human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:19-20, quoting Isaiah 29:14; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18-20). No one is more to be pitied than the man “wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:12). When Jesus rejoices that the Father has hidden the truths of salvation “from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21; Matthew 11:25, NIV), He is fleshing out Proverbs 11:2: “with humility comes wisdom” (NIV).

If humility invites wisdom, wisdom produces further humility (James 3:13). James offers a stark contrast between a so-called wisdom that is earthly and even demonic, characterized by jealous desire and ambitious self-promotion, and the heavenly wisdom that “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, fully of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:14-17, NIV). It is not intellectual mastery so much as a standing in the Presence, and then, like the Fire that desires to come near without consuming, a bearing with. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV).

4. Written on the Heart

Do we, then, not know what is right? Paul’s answer is that we know and don’t know. Rebellion darkens our minds (Romans 1:21) and sears or corrupts our consciences (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). Only as we come to know God can we learn His ways and walk in them.

Precisely here, Haidt misunderstands the Bible. He believes that the Biblical writers hold what he calls the “nativist” position on the origins of morality: “that moral knowledge is native in our minds. It comes preloaded . . . in our God-inscribed hearts” (RM 5). In support he quotes Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (RM 324n.). But, of course, Jeremiah is not talking about a preloading; he is describing a new work that God will do to change existing minds and hearts. Compare Ezekiel’s promise: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NIV).

In fact, the Bible doesn’t fit any of Haidt’s schools of thought on the origins of morality: nativist (innate), empiricist (from experience), rationalist (self-constructed), or his own view, combining innateness with social learning (RM 5, 26). Biblical wisdom is learned through a process of renewal. The Holy Spirit becomes our teacher (John 16:12-15; 1 John 2:27), using the Scriptures to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15, NIV). The interaction that challenges my moral intuitions is first of all a dialogue with God.

Perhaps for some people these exchanges are like the moral discourses of Proverbs: a Father earnestly laboring to inoculate the next generation against both waywardness and snares. For some, they may add up to a comprehensive set of moral rules and principles, a Torah or way, as Moses describes:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, . . . Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6, NIV)

Even in the Old Testament, though, the way is much more than a code of laws. As Haidt says, ancient wisdom relies less on rationalistic logic than on evocative maxims and role models that address our emotional, intuitive side (HH 159-60). The Bible is filled with narratives, parables, riddles. But a listing of genres still doesn’t do justice to the richness of the Biblical conversation between God and humanity.

In the Book of Hosea, the prophet’s marital woes usher us into a revelation of the heart of God. Like a jealous husband, He takes us on an emotional journey, marked by sharp turns and sudden outbursts. He no longer loves Israel; He has always loved her and cannot now give her up. The Israelites are no longer His people; they will always be His people, and He will redeem them. He will scatter them to the winds; He will plant them and create a fruitful vine. And when this emotional roller coaster shudders to a stop, the last words of the book are these:

Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9, NIV)

This book resists summary and systematization. We just have to read it, again and again. It’s as if God has set aside Proverbs 1:23, and, although we have not heeded His rebuke, has poured out His heart to us anyway. Wisdom and discernment grow in us as we share this journey with Him. We feel, ever so dimly, His pain, His hope, His love; and all the while, His ways are being written on our hearts.

5. Walking with the Wise

Yet there is also, in the Bible, a form of social learning. God in His kindness gives us wise and godly people, at least a few of them, though we may have to seek them out and attach ourselves to them. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20, NIV). I take it that this “walk” is less a matter of formal instruction, and even of words, than most of us would prefer. It is especially an opportunity to observe another’s journey through life: how he or she handles people, responds to disappointment and injustice, spends time, makes choices, fears and loves God. Remembering such mentors, we “[c]onsider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” knowing that Jesus — their Lord and ours — doesn’t change with times and circumstances (Hebrews 13:7-8, NIV). They are not perfect but, as members of Christ’s Body, they make some of His ways visible to us: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV, and often).

Sometimes these relationships involve conflict and confrontation, and some of our most effective teachers are difficult people. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV). This is a slow, painful, rasping and grinding process. I may need to receive correction (Proverbs 15:31, and often), or the other may just grate on my nerves, my pride, my willful self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, we must learn from one another because we are being fitted together into one Body, working cooperatively to reveal God’s “manifold wisdom” (Ephesians 3:10). Our wisdom is corporate, springing up as we meet to worship and serve. The “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 2:7, RSV) is made known in this, that together “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16, emphasis added).

Where Then Is Wisdom?

More than 50 years ago, Watchman Nee wrote:

Nothing has done greater damage to our Christian testimony than our trying to be right and demanding right of others. We become preoccupied with what is and what is not right. We ask ourselves, Have we been justly or unjustly treated? and we think thus to vindicate our actions. But that is not our standard. The whole question for us is one of cross-bearing. You ask me, “Is it right for someone to strike my cheek?” I reply, “Of course not! But the question is, do you only want to be right?” As Christians our standard of living can never be “right or wrong,” but the Cross.(7)

Haidt reminds us how much we focus on moral behavior (our own and others’), and how much we rely on formal, verbal moral instruction to shape it. A better and more Biblical course would be to pursue wisdom.

Wisdom is a paradox. Like all gifts of the Spirit, it often seems to benefit everyone except the recipient. If one tries to grasp and hold it, it evaporates. It must be received afresh every day, in each new situation. When the manna from heaven was stored, “it bred worms, became foul, and stank” (Exodus 16:20, Amplified); the same thing generally happens when, apart from the Spirit’s prompting, we take the word or example that “worked” in one context and mechanically try to apply it in another. It must be worn lightly, for God is ever choosing the least likely person in the room to administer correction or deliverance.

Wisdom is standing in the Presence of the Holy One in fear and trembling. It is the humility that comes from acknowledging that one has lived long in a darkened madness, with the mind of an animal. It is the Cross, and dying, and being raised to serve within a corporate Body.

In the end, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is our only wisdom — “that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30, NIV). He declares us just and washes away our uncleanness; He leads us through the valley of sanctification; He will deliver us from every trace of bondage and decay. He is all we have, and all we need.

(1) Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic-Perseus, 2006); Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon-Random House, 2012). In the citations that follow, I will abbreviate these works as HH and RM.
(2) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (1917), transl. John W. Harvey (1923), 2nd ed. (1950; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958), 8-32.
(3) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 886; Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 53.
(4) Brown, Driver, Briggs, 198.
(5) Republic, Book 7.
(6) Compare Proverbs 1:7; 3:7; 14:16; 15:33; Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Micah 6:9. In Proverbs 30:3, Agur confesses that he is deficient wisdom because he lacks (adequate) knowledge of the Holy One.
(7) Watchman Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 20; emphasis in original.