In his recent and absolutely essential book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt tries to understand why we disagree with one another — especially, but not only, about politics and religion — and, more important, why it is so hard for people to see those who disagree with them as equally intelligent, equally decent human beings. (See an excerpt from the book here.)

Central to his argument is this point: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” Our “moral arguments” are therefore “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

Haidt talks a lot about how our moral intuitions accomplish two things: they bind and they blind. “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices.” The incoherent anti-religious rant by Peter Conn that I critiqued yesterday is a great example of how the “righteous mind” works — as are conservative denunciations of universities filled with malicious tenured radicals.

So far so vital. I can’t imagine anyone who couldn’t profit from reading Haidt’s book, though it’s a challenge — as Haidt predicts — for any of us to understand our own thinking in these terms. Certainly it’s hard for me, though I’m trying. But there’s a question that Haidt doesn’t directly answer: How do we acquire these initial moral intuitions? — Or maybe not the initial ones, but the ones that prove decisive for our moral lives? I make that distinction because, as we all know, people often end up dissenting, sometimes in the strongest possible terms, from the moral frameworks within which they were raised.

So the question is: What triggers the formation of a “moral matrix” that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged?

I think that C. S. Lewis answered that question a long time ago. (Some of what follows is adapted from my book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.) In December of 1944, he gave the Commemoration Oration at King’s College in London, a public lecture largely attended by students, and Lewis took the opportunity of this “Oration” to produce something like a commencement address. He called his audience’s attention to the presence, in schools and businesses and governments and armies and indeed in every other human institution, of a “second or unwritten system” that stands next to the formal organization.

You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it, and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it…. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who it outside…. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in; this provides great amusement for those who are really inside.

Lewis does not think that any of his audience will be surprised to hear of this phenomenon of the Inner Ring; but he thinks that some may be surprised when he goes on to argue, in a point so important that I’m going to put it in bold type, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” And it is important for young people to know of the force of this desire because “of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

The draw of the Inner Ring has such profound corrupting power because it never announces itself as evil — indeed, it never announces itself at all. On these grounds Lewis makes a “prophecy” to his audience at King’s College: “To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours…. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes … the hint will come.” And when it does come, “you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world.”

It is by these subtle means that people who are “not yet very bad” can be drawn to “do very bad things” – by which actions they become, in the end, very bad. That “hint” over drinks or coffee points to such a small thing, such an insignificant alteration in our principles, or what we thought were our principles: but “next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.”

This, I think, is how our “moral matrices,” as Haidt calls them, are formed: we respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive. The element of sheer contingency here is, or ought to be, terrifying: had we encountered a group of equally attractive and interesting people who held very different views, then we too would hold very different views.

And, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us. And it’s worth noting, as Avery Pennarun has recently noted, that one of the things that makes smart people smart is their skill at such rationalization: “Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.”

In “The Inner Ring” Lewis portrays this group affiliation in the darkest of terms. That’s because he’s warning people about its dangers, which is important. But of course it is by a similar logic that people can be drawn into good communities, genuine fellowship — that they can become “members of a Body,” as he puts it in the great companion piece to “The Inner Ring,” a talk called “Membership.” (Both are included in his collection The Weight of Glory.) This distinction is what his novel That Hideous Strength is primarily about: we see the consequences for Mark Studdock as he is drawn deeper and deeper into an Inner Ring, and the consequences for Mark’s wife Jane as she is drawn deeper and deeper into a genuine community. I can’t think of a better guide to distinguishing between the false and true forms of membership than that novel.

And that novel offers something else: hope. Hope that we need not be bound forever by an inclination we followed years or even decades ago. Hope that we can, with great discipline and committed energy, transcend the group affiliations that lead us to celebrate members of our own group (even when they don’t deserve celebration) and demonize or mock those Outside. We need not be bound by the simplistic and uncharitable binaries of the Righteous Mind. Unless, of course, we want to be.


  1. Certainly there's something appealing in the idea that "intuitions come first … reasoning second" – who hasn't made a snap decision in an instant and only figured out the reason later? But this insight does not need to lead to the radical non-cognitivism Haidt espouses.

    Consider an example Julia Annas gives in her excellent book Intelligent Virtue. The expert piano player can play difficult pieces of music so fast that they obviously have no time to think about where to place each finger or how hard to play each note. Does this mean anything they say about their performance is a post-hoc rationalization, made to preserve their image as an intelligent pianist? No – great pianists carefully think about their playing as they practice, making reasoned judgments about how to play the piece, which through that practice are entrenched in their memory for when they perform at speed. The reasoning may be effaced in the performance, but it took place at some point, which is why it's fair to ask a performer _why_ they decided to play this way rather than another way.

    Morality is no different. The fact that someone acts in a situation without thinking does not entitle us to assume they have never thought how to act in a similar situation, or are necessarily dishonest in reconstructing their reasoning. Despite the impression created by philosophers' love of trolley problems and other difficult dilemmas, most moral actions are very repetitive: mundane, everyday decisions about whether to take another drink, admit another fault, run another red light, share another bit of gossip, and so on. Yet if we accept that reasoning can take place and affect future actions without having to be repeated for every action, we can easily reconcile immediate moral reactions with a cognitive account of morality. And such a premise is readily accepted in the teaching of every other practical skill, from music and carpentry to golf and medicine.

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