On The Righteous Mind

Image retrieved from barnesandnoble.com

I was initially sucked in by the title – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Though I don’t get too caught up in political debate, I am a self-proclaimed liberal and often find myself wondering how those on the other side of the spectrum can vote as they do while still maintaining a sense of decency. So I knew Jonathan Haidt’s book, if it delivered even a fraction of what its title promised, would be informative and eyeopening. Plus, Haidt is a social psychologist, a brilliant combination of two disciplines that are fascinating to probe. Though I completed The Righteous Mind nearly one month ago, it has stuck with me like a bad habit – I can’t stop seeing the political and religious discussions around me in Jonathan Haidt’s terms.

Haidt’s book opens with an explanation of the workings of moral intuition. He makes a strong case that we experience gut intuitions first, then rationalize those feelings later, drawing on innumerable studies that the reader can’t help but exercise for him or herself. His aim is to elucidate how we make arguments to support our positions after we firmly entrench ourselves on one side or the other.

From there, he takes a global look at morality, proving American ethnocentrism in the process. In an attempt to define morality, Haidt suggests that the actual standards which define the moral code are far from universal. Though he identifies a distinct set of six moral principles held in the US, he determines that members of political and religious groups understand and use these aspects of morality in distinctly different ways.

Haidt’s book is not an admonishment of liberals, but he does encourage readers who fall into that category to allow themselves to entertain his argument (Haidt admits to being of a liberal mind too). Authority, liberty, sanctity, care, equality, and loyalty make the six “taste receptors” of morality, but liberals only make good use of a handful of these elements, while conservatives utilize the entire spectrum. Liberals are more likely to appeal to care, equality, and liberty – issues such as freedom from oppression, social welfare for the poor, and an end to animal cruelty are all typical causes that liberals advocate for and support. While liberals fail to address the tropes of authority, sanctity, and loyalty, conservatives pick up these arguments with gusto. This was the most clear explanation of why many poor middle Americans support the Republican party, although to do so seems anathema to their own best interest. For many of these people, a high premium is placed on submission to authority, religious practice, and loyalty to one’s country and family. Although the social policies of Democrats may favor these voters, the arguments of the Republican party appeal to their value system on a much wider basis.

But both political parties appeal to fairness and this is still a deeply divisive issue among the American people. Haidt suggests that is not that one party values fairness more than the other or even that one side’s appeal to fairness is stronger or more well constructed. Rather, fairness is defined in vastly different ways across the spectrum. Most liberals define fairness in terms of outcome – redistribution of income, for example, should be instituted in an effort to equalize the financial outcomes for everyone. Equality of outcome matters most for liberals. On the other side, conservatives believe in proportionality – everyone should be rewarded relative to the effort they put in. With taxation, for instance, a progressive tax policy would take from the rich in order to provide for the poor. To a conservative, such a policy violates proportionality, as the poor received much more than they contributed, while the rich received much less than they contributed. Though the entire book was worthwhile and eye-opening, it was this single argument that made the entire book worth reading for me.

Though Haidt spends more time on the political side of morality, rather than the religious side, that was just fine by me. His arguments are clear, concise, and relevant, even if overly simplistic. But the real value of his book lies in how Haidt challenges people from any political or religious walk of life to consider the opposing arguments and belief systems. People are so quick to support their own intuitions that they fail to realize how anyone could think differently than themselves. If we all considered the thought processes behind one another’s beliefs, we might find ourselves in a more peaceful and productive world.


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