Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

By Jonathan Haidt
New York, Pantheon Books, 2012
419 pages   Non-Fiction

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt has changed my view of the world, more than anything I have read recently. In three sections, Haidt, who is a professor of Moral Psychology, builds a case for why it is important to “understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.”

Haidt begins with the premise that “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.” He believes that moral thinking is like a politician searching for votes, saying whatever is necessary to get the vote rather than making a rational, thought out response. Many of the decisions we make comes from tribalism that has been with us since primitive times. We deploy our reasoning skills to support a team. The moral matrices we develop bind us together and blind us to other viewpoints or moral values.  

I found the most meaning for my own morality in the second section of the book. Haidt describes six moral foundations that determine our entire decision making: the care/harm foundation, the fairness/cheating foundation, the loyalty/betrayal foundation, the authority/subversion foundation, the liberty/oppression foundation and the sanctity/degradation foundation. He suggests that liberals emphasize the care and fairness foundations with not much emphasis on the other four foundations. Conservatives emphasize all of the moral foundations giving them an advantage in the political wars.  

The third section of the book asserts that “morality binds and blinds.” He suggests that humans are selfish but also groupish. We tend to make selfish decisions but we are also capable of transcending our selfish natures and become part of the whole. 

I have hardly done justice to the principles of Haidt as presented in The Righteous Mind. Suffice it to say that it is a brilliant book and is absolutely right on when it comes to understanding why we think and act as we do. The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal does a much better job of summarizing the theme of the book: “The reason is evolution. Political attitudes are an extension of our moral reasoning; however much we like to tell ourselves otherwise, our moral responses are basically instinctual, despite attempts to gussy them up with ex-post rationalizations.” Liberals are liberal and conservatives are conservative because liberals are strong on evolved values like caring and fairness and conservatives value caring and fairness, too, but tend to emphasize the more tribal values like loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Here is how I have used what I learned from reading The Righteous Mind. I made a mental list of the six foundations and as I watched the debates before the election, I checked the values off my list. I had to chuckle, because as I watched the third debate, I had checked off five of the six values. All I was missing was sanctity. Then, just at the last minute, Romney seemed to be checking off the list in his mind as well, and he said the word God. Check! He had emphasized all six values in a conservative way.

Another article I cut out of the paper coincided with my new understanding. The writer says that Romney argued that he would honor each phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance (true conservative foundations—loyalty, authority, liberty, and sanctity). Later in the same article, it says, “Mr. Obma says American values are, first and foremost, about making sure that everyone has a “fair shot” at the American dream.” Here we have care and fairness. 

And then, I got to use the foundations again. A student I was helping with a paper had to write an essay about charitable giving, comparing the idea of charity from the wealthy with the foundations of Haidt. I said to him, “You are in luck. I just read Haidt’s book.” After I told him about the foundations, we were able to look at charitable giving from the six foundations. The Muslim—which my client is—gives from the sanctity foundation. Allah tells him to give. The example we used about Bill Gates had him using the care and fairness foundations. He was quoted as saying, “Why should my children be healthy while children around the world suffer.” 

Needless to say, as my husband and I were reading this book (we read aloud from the book every morning for about 4 months), we had some spirited discussions, he being a Republican and I a Deomcrat. Sometimes it was difficult to get up from the breakfast table. Now, when he spouts something, I am able to tell him which moral foundation he is espousing. I gained a better understanding of why my morality functions like it does--why I am a "bleeding heart" liberal. And he was able to put a label on some of the things he has come to distrust in the more conservative portions of the Republican Party. 

The reviewer in the Washington Post argues that Haidt doesn’t make to any real decisions about why we are so divided by politics and religion and what we should do about it. Probably I would think that as well, but the real value of this book is in the look at the moral foundations that propel us and guide our decision making. It is the need for all of us to look at each other’s viewpoints with fresh eyes and an attempt to understand rather than demonize.

Read this book. It will change your perspective.

We first heard about this book on Bill Moyer’s PBS Show:
Jonathan Haidt’s main website:

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