The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is extremely valuable for understanding these matters. I recommend it highly. (For a very good review in the New York Times, click here.)

Haidt is trying to explain the “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude. I’ve noted previously a whole genre of books by left wing intellectuals diagnosing conservatism as a form of mental illness, or delusion, or selfishness. Haidt acknowledges this too, confessing that he began as a typical academic liberal thinking that way. But the intellectual journey resulting in this book brought him to a very different place.

Start from the notion that our views are the product of reasoned thought. Haidt introduces the metaphor of an elephant and rider. The rider is your conscious rational mind, which you may believe is in charge. But the elephant is your unconscious thinking, your intuition, which is far bigger and stronger. The rider is really the elephant’s servant, whose job it is to come up with rationalizations justifying the elephant’s movements.

This is particularly true in the realm of moral thinking. Again, we may think we’re reasoning. But it’s usually the elephant answering the questions, with our conscious rational minds producing explanations to fit those answers.

The British edition's cover. Which is better?

The book is mainly about the moral foundations underlying political proclivities. Haidt is a psychologist, and his research centered upon detailed questionnaires filled out by thousands. Their answers showed that our moral thinking utilizes six distinct modules that Haidt analogizes to taste receptors (sweet, sour, salty, etc.). They are: caring (versus harm); liberty (vs. oppression); fairness (vs. cheating); loyalty; respect for authority; and sanctity (vs. degradation).

Liberals focus mainly on the first two – caring and liberty. They do have a strong concern with equality, which Haidt originally thought part of “fairness.” But more careful consideration led him to parse things differently: fairness is mainly about people getting what they deserve, reaping what they sow (or “karma”). That’s a value conservatives emphasize, and is at odds with equality. So Haidt moved equality into the “liberty/oppression” module.

Liberals do also have some affinity for fairness in the karma sense, but it’s subordinate; they’re much more concerned about equality. Thus, again, liberal morality concentrates on just two of the six modules. But conservatives, in contrast, tend to utilize all six. Indeed, as to the latter three – loyalty, authority, and sanctity – many liberals actually see them negatively. (“Patriotism” being a dirty word, for example.) This makes liberals even more different from conservatives.

What makes someone liberal or conservative in the first place? Nature and nurture. Genes matter; as Haidt explains, they don’t dictate our personalities but do create predispositions. Those predispositions affect behavior, which in turn affects how other people interact with you, and that feeds back into your own further development. Life experiences combine with genetics to make the person.

Haidt perceived that while most Americans do sort out along the liberal-conservative spectrum, some don’t fit: libertarians. In some ways they resemble liberals, similarly rejecting the latter three modules, with their moral concern heavily concentrated in the liberty module. Yet libertarians tend to align with conservatives because liberals’ enthusiasm for muscular and intrusive government makes them a common enemy.

Note, importantly, that whereas liberals are down on three categories of moral concern important to conservatives, conservatives do not similarly reject any moral concerns important to liberals. To the contrary, conservatives do embrace the same moral concerns, but less single-mindedly, and tempering them with the further ones that liberals dismiss.

 

The labels read "Conservative" and "Liberal"

This asymmetry produced one telling result. Haidt also asked liberals to answer his questionnaire pretending to be conservatives, and vice versa. Conservatives were pretty good at guessing the answers of actual liberals, but liberals were very bad at doing the reverse. This is perhaps unsurprising, inasmuch as conservatives do actually share moral values with liberals, but liberals don’t see them that way. So liberals tended to caricature them as grotesquely uncaring and selfish. (Thus, I think that while each side engages in demonizing the other and impugning motives, the left is actually rather more guilty of refusing to see sincerity and good intentions on the other side.)

While Haidt does subscribe to a key pillar of the left – that markets and the “superorganisms” of corporations must be regulated (actually, even libertarians agree, in principle) – he faults liberals’ blindness to the great virtue of markets, indeed their outright hostility toward markets. In particular, Haidt identifies what is surely the root of America’s health care mess – that the system doesn’t work like a market in which sellers vie for business by competing on price, service, and quality. (I’m scribbling this on a cruise ship – if only the medical industry did half as much to please customers!)

Haidt also now feels liberals make a huge mistake in rejecting the moral modules of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. He invokes Emil Durkheim’s view of society, grounded not in atomistic individualism, but the human proclivity for “groupishness” and “hiving,” when we act like bees in a hive. The resulting social cohesion, which Haidt terms “moral capital,” helps stave off the anomie and dysfunction when individuals fail to see themselves as, partly at least, components of a greater whole. Liberals may indeed agree, in concept, but fail to grasp how importantly its realization depends on values of loyalty, authority, and even sanctity. That blindness leads liberals down wrong paths (like 1960s style welfarism) that undermine society’s moral capital and ultimately the very values they hold dear.

 While I found Haidt’s analysis very enlightening, I was somewhat disappointed that after establishing his premises so well, he didn’t spend much time applying them concretely to current American political and religious divisions, and hardly even tried to offer serious solutions. But maybe that would be asking too much; after all, Haidt does show how deep those divisions go.

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7 Responses to “The Righteous Mind”

  1. Scott Perlman Says:

    Outstanding recommendation. It will be delivered in 2 days and I shall attack it. And regarding his lack of applying his concepts to the current American political and religious divisions and offering up some serious solutions, I know an excellent mind who happens to be a quite decent writer that could provide a real thought provoking essay using Haidt’s foundation.

    [FSR comment: Yes, but I believe Steven Pinker is busy right now with other things.]

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  5. CurtsMom Says:

    It looks interesting but I have a question. These days, there is a significant portion of people that consider themselves conservative, but clearly are not and lean more to neo-conservatism. I wonder if he addresses this issue in the book. Has anyone read it yet who could shed light on this for me.

    [FSR Comment: Thanks for your interest. This matter of political labels is very confused. Haidt in his book generally takes “liberal” and “conservative” to mean no more or less than the common understanding of what they mean in current American political discourse. “Liberal” in particular is a very slippery word that has a very different meaning in Europe; but, again, Haidt uses it in the common American sense. “Conservative” too has a commonly understood meaning in today’s America that actually differs from what it means elsewhere, and earlier in America; certainly the whole religious dimension to conservatism is a new accretion that was totally not part of the conservatism I grew up with. “Neoconservative” refers to a particular strain which emphasizes, most prominently, assertive foreign policy to advance democratic ideals. We don’t hear much about neoconservatives since the Bush administration passed from the scene and Haidt doesn’t mention the word. He does talk about “libertarians” as I noted in my posting.]

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