Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” offers insight into why we disagree with each other and how we might better communicate. Late in 2020, it is an important book for Americans who are seeing the “lesser angels” of their compatriots.
If the Age of Trump has taught us much of anything, it’s that the minds and moral inclinations of our political adversaries remain a dark and unknown land. And, if the partisans in my newsfeed are to be believed, an appalling one at that: Facebook PSAs inform me that Republicans are blood-drenched robbers fixing to murder you for a quick buck, while others highlight the fact that Democrats seek only to destroy our nation so they can cosplay Orwell’s 1984.
What sort of monsters surround us? we ask, anxiously.
Surrounded by this sound and fury, now is a good time to read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2012). In this deeply compelling and bracingly contrarian foray through moral psychology and the American political landscape, Haidt sets out to help us better understand our own moral inclinations and thus, more importantly, the moral inclinations of others.
“Good” is, perhaps, the operative word in his title. Throughout The Righteous Mind Haidt displays active curiosity regarding his subject (people’s moral convictions and political beliefs) and frankness concerning his own predispositions and biases. Haidt writes as a self-professed liberal atheist, but he has scant patience for those who dismiss the legitimacy of moral matrices beyond their own—the rationalists, New Atheists, or liberal progressives painting religious or “traditional” beliefs as backwards and deplorable. To reduce the convictions of our adversaries to ignorance or malice is, at the end of the day, ignorant.
If we draw the right conclusions from moral psychology, Haidt argues, we can gain insight both into why people believe what they believe and how we might more effectively communicate with them. Along these lines, The Righteous Mind offers a trove of useful insight—whether you are seeking to reason with a family member across the Thanksgiving table or trying to activate the moral inclinations of your donors in an end-of-year appeal.
MORAL INTUITION PRECEDES MORAL REASONING
We do not, Haidt argues, arrive at our moral convictions rationally. Rather, we inherit, possess, and are socialized into a set of moral intuitions—instinctive reactions of attraction and repulsion that precede any mental reasoning we do. While reason plays a role in guiding and refining our moral intuitions, it generally functions not as judge but as press secretary, justifying decisions that have already been made.
As such, attempts to persuade others simply through reasoning are bound to fail. Think Julius Caesar: Brutus goes before the people and offers principled reasoning for Caesar’s assassination, and the people nod in agreement. Then Mark Antony delivers his funeral oration, showing how much Caesar loved them and how grievously he was betrayed, and the streets run with blood. If we want to understand and persuade others, we have to speak to the moral inclinations first.
CORE MORAL CONVICTIONS
To continue the Shakespearean jag: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet. This line could stand, more or less, as Haidt’s basic message to his fellow liberals throughout The Righteous Mind. The WEIRD (i.e., western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) moral matrix of American liberals relies almost exclusively on notions of care/harm and liberty/oppression. But if we step outside the WEIRD individualist paradigm, we find that fairness (as proportionality, not as equality), loyalty, authority, and sanctity are also grounds for moral convictions.
These six basic principles—care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity—form what Haidt calls the “tastebuds of the righteous mind.” They’re basically universal. But, Haidt suggests, conservatives enjoy a messaging advantage insofar as conservative morality rests equally on all six foundations, whereas liberal moral matrices rest only on the first three—often to the extent that loyalty, authority, and sanctity aren’t even recognized as valid foundations at all. Not coincidentally, they are also the moral foundations most useful for binding individuals together into cohesive moral communities.
MORALITY IS A GROUP ACTIVITY
Binding individuals together into cohesive moral communities is, it turns out, absolutely critical to a flourishing society. Humans in Haidt’s telling are homo duplex, “90% chimp and 10% bee”—and it’s the 10% bee and our innate “groupish-ness” that mitigates our basic selfishness, bonds us within cooperative enterprises, and leads to happiness. Those “irrational” groupings (religions, tribes, countries) that enmesh people in a shared moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness are unrivaled in making people transcend self-interest, care for others, and devote themselves to greater goods. Better neighbors and better citizens, thanks to individuals living in groups.
This “hive switch,” as Haidt calls it, helps explain why voluntary associations are an irreplaceable component of any functional society. It is through a shared sense of belonging that “moral capital” emerges. We build moral capital through living, working, and cooperating with people within a common moral matrix.
The primary insight of social conservatism, and what Haidt calls “the fundamental blind spot of the left” (italics original) is that attempts to reform the social order inevitably affect moral capital. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t good or often required, or that homogeneity is an unalloyed good. But if you’re looking to make pluribus into unum, you need a hefty dose of shared institutions, shared practices, shared commitments. Emphasizing diversity and differences instead has the lamentable effect of making people more suspicious and atomistic. Our “hive switch” remains unflipped.
A SOCIETY TORN
To understand the moral and political convictions of others we must understand morality as 1) originating in intuitions not reason; 2) operating on a range of six foundational principles; and 3) conditioned by, and perfected within, groups. Insofar as The Righteous Mind is a polemic, it targets the assumption that rationalist liberal individualism has a monopoly on, or even an adequate understanding of, virtue.
The only way we can preserve a viable nation against the encroaching tides of partisan viciousness, social fragmentation, and anomie, Haidt maintains, is through recognizing the moral legitimacy and insights of our political adversaries.
The Righteous Mind came out before Barack Obama’s second term. The intervening years have seen the rise of Trump and Antifa, Robin DiAngelo and MAGA, “deplorables” and cancel culture. The moral absolutism of the woke left and the moral indignation of the Fox News right turns a blind eye and deaf ear to Haidt’s deeply illuminating study of righteous minds in divided times.
Before we reach for the pitchforks once more, before we watch our civil society descend even further into a loud, mutual disdain—it’s worth reading The Righteous Mind.