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

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt book reviewTakeaway: Different people view the world differently, not just because they see the world differently or because they experience the world differently, but because they are different people.

Finally after the election, I sat down and read The Righteous Mind. I have heard about the book for a while, but I did not really want to read it. After yet another article or Facebook post that fundamentally seemed to miss the point about how and why people disagree, I broke down and picked the book up (and because it was briefly on sale as an audiobook.)

Jonathan Haidt is an evolutionary psychologist. Evolutionary psychology is a slightly different take from traditional psychology. It is a more systems oriented focus than an individualistic focus. Despite its more systems oriented focus, the types of research that Haidt cites is somewhat similar to the types of Behavior Economics research that Dan Airley uses.

The Righteous Mind is attempting to look at why people disagree. It doesn’t assume that some are right and some are wrong. That is too simple. Instead it is looking at the approaches that people use to understand the world around them. And approach matters. Much of what we ‘know’ is intuitive. We do not intentionally think through whether we prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream and make a rational decision. We have tastes that are internal and emotional and include experience and external influence. Those, and more, influence our choice, but the choice is not completely predetermined.

The book has way too much content to summarize. But the central metaphor and the central theory are worth explaining. Haidt said that decision making is like a rider and an elephant. The rider is the rational portion and the elephant is the emotional/intuitive. It is not that the rider always is in control. The elephant matters with inertia and power. The rider can overcome the elephant, but it depends on how strongly the elephant is already moving in a direction how much work the rider has to do to change the direction.

The central theory that Haidt posits is Moral Foundations Theory. This suggest that different groups use different combinations of six different moral values to form their worldview. These six (as stolen from Wikipedia) are:

  • Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm.
  • Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating.
  • Liberty: the loathing of tyranny; opposite of oppression.
  • Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal.
  • Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate author; opposite of subversion.
  • Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation.

Conservatives and progressives (as two examples, although he does spend some time discussing Libertarians as another alternative) have different broad biases in how they view these moral foundations. Conservatives tend to value all six, although not necessarily in equal measures. Progressives tend to primarily focus on Fairness and Liberty. But even in the areas where conservatives and progressives agree, there is usually differences in how that value is communicated. For instance, Fairness by conservatives is often though of as ‘getting what is deserved’ while for progressives it is more about helping all members of society have fair access to social, financial or other types of capital.

I found the Moral Foundations Theory broadly helpful. As with any social science theory, it is a model to help explain the world and not actually the world itself. All models are inadequate and in their attempt to explain, they necessarily minimize other parts of the world. But as a self identified progressive I see my own discomfort with authority, in-group loyalty and purity values. Just a couple weeks ago I had a Facebook conversation with a friend about my lack of nostalgia or even understanding for family homes or communities. That was an illustration of my own lack of the in-group loyalty value.

I think the ideas of The Righteous Mind are helpful. But as I have been reading Thomas Friedman’s new book “Thank You For Being Late“, the vocabulary and ideas from The Righteous Mind have ben helpful tools for evaluating Friedman’s argument.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion 
by Jonathan Haidt Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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