Jonathan Haidt on the Righteous Mind

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

I enjoyed Russ Roberts’ recent EconTalk podcast with Jonathan Haidt on The Righteous Mind, but one passage jumped out at me as quite “meta” — when Roberts and Haidt reflexively asserted that slavery was a clear exception to any kind of relativism about political morality:

Let’s look at the people who appear to be victims in this society and if they themselves think they are victims, that’s enough of a reason for us to condemn it. So, African slaves did everything they could to flee; they hated it; there is no reason to think that this was a legitimate moral order that they approved.

As I commented there, many slaves, at least at the time of Abolition, did not see themselves as victims, did not try to flee, and did not see the system as illegitimate, as you can see from the slave narratives collected by the WPA as the last living slaves were in their dotage.


  1. Barnabas says:

    Haidt interviewed on The Gospel Coalition podcast.

  2. It’s interesting how the old “all morality is relative” almost always works out to include the caveat “except mine, which is absolutely true for all times, places, and peoples.”

  3. William Newman says:

    I think if a regime has to fight to keep its subjects from escaping, it’s pretty good evidence that it’s bad for them. The world is complicated, and it might not be sufficient evidence for outright proof, sure; but it puts a pretty heavy burden of proof on someone who wants to argue against.

    I count people voting with their feet more heavily than people giving opinions, and I count people giving opinions after the fact less heavily still, and I count other people selectively reporting those opinions after the fact less heavily still.

    This is not, I believe, particularly political correctness on my part; it applies to people apologizing for the Soviets in the same way that it applies to people apologizing for 19th century slavery.

    (“It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable. Although it is undoubtedly true that few citizens of the west would trade their degree of economic comfort and political freedom for life in the Soviet, it is also true that a Soviet citizen thinks that he is living in a paradise in comparison with life in China or in earlier times.” — Samuelson _Economics_, “Alternative Economic Systems” chapter. And it is also true that they use barbed wire and mines and machineguns to keep their subjects from escaping, something that the chapter-length treatment declines to mention.)

    A surprisingly large fraction of people may stay put even in bad conditions — not just political conditions, but natural disasters too. And almost no matter how bad things are, a surprising fraction of people can screw up their lives for themselves worse later. And there are all sorts of interesting and serious tradeoffs around ordinary slavery and sovereignty and surrender and conscription and debt slavery and so forth, and it’s easy to go from bad to worse, or to get to better only at such a high cost that it probably wasn’t worth it. But that doesn’t excuse the tendency to make laughable arguments about how good the slaves have it, and to stubbornly unthink how they are prevented from escaping.

  4. Toddy Cat says:

    I think that both Isegoria and William Newman have a point. As I have argued before, slavery was probably not as bad as advertised, and certainly many slaves did not see themselves as victims – but at the same time, you didn’t see many free Blacks in the Northern states trying to sneak into Antebellum Virginia or Georgia in order to sign up as slaves. Personally, I don’t think that the Civil War was worth it, considering that it also resulted in the mass death of slaves after the war, and very questionable “freedom” for the remainder. But there’s no denying that freedom has great value, ultimate value to some. There’s more to quality of life than statistics.

  5. T. Greer says:

    Of all the books written on this subject, I have found that William Freehling’s Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay has a better feel for how the social realm of the antebellum South actually worked than any other scholar who has written on the subject. One of his overriding themes is there simply was no one South for most of the antebellum. How slavers, their yeoman-farmer neighbors, and the slaves themselves thought about and dealt with the domestic institution varied. Kentucky back-country slaves did not have the same experience as Mississippi plantation slaves, who in turn did not have the same experience as Marland city slaves or South Carolina gentry slaves. Even those on one plantation had very different experiences — the man in the kitchen, the man assigned to be an overseer, and a normal plantation hand all felt very differently about their privileges (or lack thereof).

    Thus it makes sense if there is some variability in how “victimized”, “oppressed”, or even just “lucky” each man and woman felt.

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    Very true.

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