The Righteous Mind

Reviewed by Kathy London

This book by Jonathan Haidt is sub-titled “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”. This strikes me as one of the most important social topics today. I found the book to be enjoyable and accessible. Haidt’s style is conversational, with little jargon. I got a real sense of human beings, not just data. If you find your blood pressure rising at some points, you’ll be happy to know the book lays out the evidence in detail and is thoroughly footnoted so you can do your own evaluation.

I’ve often listened to pundits on cable-TV ask “why?” Why is the political opposition so hypocritical, so biased, so wrong? Haidt argues that disagreements do not reflect good and evil – the “other side” is composed of good people with something important to say. He hopes to give Americans a new way to think about politics and religion, to drain the anger and make conversations more civil, and more fun. I think this is important, so this article is both a book report and a review.

I suggest you read the introduction, at least the “What Lies Ahead” portion. While Haidt draws heavily on science, his message can be found in ancient texts: Whether an 8th Century Zen Master Sen-ts’an: “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against”; or a more familiar quote: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3-5.

Haidt draws on everything from philosophers to bumper stickers to illustrate his points, but the book’s core is data-driven. He says that hypotheses are cheap; theories are useful when tested, supported, and corrected. (You can participate in the research at the YourMorals web site.) My own style tends to be analytical, so I appreciate this approach. I enjoyed reading the many psychology experiments, though if you don’t need to be convinced of a particular point you could skim them. Each chapter ends with an “In Sum” section. You might want to read the chapter summary first, and then decide where you want to read carefully. You may even want to read the “Conclusion” chapter first, so you’ll know where to watch for surprises.

A lot of animal analogies are used in the book. One favorite says we are each a passenger riding on an elephant: the elephant is our intuitive reactions and the rider offers post hoc rationalizations. The title of the second chapter says it more simply: “The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail”. This tail does not wag the dog.

On religion, Haidt shows how our obsession with righteousness is the normal human condition. It has produced large cooperative groups that kinship would not justify. Religion is not just “believing” but also “doing” and “belonging”. He thinks the “New Atheists” miss the point that religion has helped people create communities with shared morals that reduce violence and cruelty.

Haidt describes “moral capital” as an “interlocking set of values, virtues, norms…and institutions” that mesh with human psychology and “enable a community to regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible”. Everyone understands economic capital – the things we need (money, tools, and workers) to produce goods and services. Moral capital is also needed for successful individuals, companies, and communities. Conservatives understand this better than liberals and detect threats to moral capital that liberals do not see.

The core of the book is the Six Moral Foundations. Think of them as analogous to taste receptors in your tongue. Everyone has the same taste receptors, but we don’t all like the same foods. Similarly, everyone has six “moral receptors”. But we don’t all rely on them to the same extent or in the same way. Here, I think, is Haidt’s explanation for why people are “hypocritical”. What triggers the foundations, and to what intensity, is complex and intuitive.

Care: People despise suffering and cruelty. We want to help the under-dog and the victim. This foundation is so strong, we even apply it non-human things, such as baby animals.

Fairness: People have a deep, intuitive sense of karma; rewards and punishments should be proportional to actions. We will punish a cheater, even if it means harming ourselves. (I found the studies demonstrating this to be especially interesting.)

Loyalty: People trust and reward those on their team, whether the team is a small group or a nation. Traitors are viewed as worse than enemies.

Authority: People respect hierarchy. Authority must take on responsibility for order and justice in society. We should fulfill the obligations of our place within the group. This sort of awareness is even encoded in some languages that have different verb-forms for polite and familiar speech.

Sanctity: People know that some things are noble and pure, others are degrading and base. Sacred values, including symbols and ideas, bind groups together. This can be expressed through traditional religion, but also through other concerns, such as for the environment.

Liberty: People hate bullies. Powerful elites must know their limits and authorities must earn trust. We are vigilant against signs of tyranny and will band together against illegitimate restraints.

People who identify as conservative, liberal, or libertarian share these foundations, but rely on them to different extents. This is where the book begins to feel important and not simply interesting.

Libertarians are most sensitive to Liberty, to the extent that they call on the other foundations very little. But markets really are miraculous. They bring supply, demand, and ingenuity together, and the rest of us should listen.

Haidt says he is a liberal, so he spends time analyzing where liberals go wrong. Liberals are most sensitive to Care, Liberty, and Fairness, but willing to trade fairness to protect victims. In their zeal to help victims, liberals often push for changes that weaken groups and actually hurt the people they are trying to help. Yet, liberals have some good points. They are experts in Care, and see the harm done to individuals before conservatives do. Some big problems really can be solved by government regulation.

Conservatives use all six foundations, which Haidt says gives them a political advantage, makes them more numerous and more likely to understand others. They rely more on Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity than liberals. While they are willing to trade care of individuals for other foundation values, they protect communities we all need to thrive.

Liberals and conservatives are more akin to yin and yang than good and evil. We need both perspectives, not just to be fair, but to create a successful country. To understand others, Haidt says you must consider all six Moral Foundations and which foundations relate to a controversy.

Haidt discusses where Americans have gone wrong in political life and how to address the issues. (Haidt presents more on this topic, including disagreements with his views on the CivilPoltics web site.)

Social relationships are necessary for people with differing foundations to trust and listen to each other. Haidt shows how, since the 1960s, Americans have been losing their social relationships across liberal/conservative groups. Political parties have become more purely liberal or conservative. Technology and lifestyle changes have been isolating: if you want to find people who voted for Obama, go to Whole Foods. If you want to find people who voted for McCain, go to Cracker Barrel. This kind of alignment of politics with seemingly unrelated views has always puzzled me. Haidt shows why this is so.

Friendly relations, commonality, and trust make it easier for people to listen to each other. Establish bonds with people before you try to convince them your position is right. You might both see the issue in a new light. Conversations might become more respectful and more constructive.

Haidt offers us this advice: “If you really want to open your mind, open your heart first.”

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