The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt
With American political rhetoric growing more antagonistic by the day, Jonathan Haidt is one of several thinkers using moral psychology to attempt to foster understanding between the warring factions. In the three sections of The Righteous Mind, he explores the relationship between intuition and morality, the foundations of our moral thinking, and the unifying and divisive effect of morality on society.
In the first chapter, Haidt asks us to rethink our assumptions about the link between pure rationality and ethics. Moral judgements, for Haidt, are purely post-hoc attempts to rationalise decisions that have already been made at an intuitive level. The core motif used for this is a powerful one – the mind is a rider atop the charging elephant that is the gut, with the rider being employed to explain away the intuitive decisions of the elephant. Morality is not an attempt to determine truth, but to bring others around to our way of thinking. Haidt references numerous studies supporting his theories, though perhaps unsurprisingly, his words ring true on an instinctive level. During any debate, particularly one on the subjects of politics or religion, it is likely all participants will hurl out arguments supporting their case, and refuse to change their positions even when these are exhausted.
Haidt’s next chapter expounds the Moral Foundations Theory, in which the six moral receptors that underpin moral thinking are listed, and framed in terms of their evolutionary utility. While many liberals have understood conservatism as pathology, the Moral Foundations theory understands conservatism as a school of thought covering a broader moral range. Liberals are primarily focussed on care and harm, liberty and oppression, while conservatives are also swayed by the importance of loyalty, authority and sanctity. Much of the conflict surrounding extremely divisive issues can be understood on these grounds. Assisted dying, for example, is understood by liberals as a simple matter of care for the patient, and sanctity of life is set aside as almost entirely immaterial.
In the final section, Haidt sets about applying the theories he has thrashed out to political and religious divisions in the US. Here, the New Atheist model of attacking religion is taken to task, and Haidt examines the effects of moral thinking on groups.
The Righteous Mind wisely states its scientific case at great length before venturing into the potentially explosive business of commenting on individual political and religious persuasions. However, critics have suggested that Haidt’s largely favourable view of submission to authority, together with his bent towards moral relativism, have left him open to a charge of apologism for tyranny. Haidt’s model, founded on an understanding of group selection (an evolutionary theory apparently coming back into vogue) recognises the advantage tightly bound, morally homogenous groups have had over more diverse groups. Haidt understands, and even appears to condone parochialism, however in fairness he recognises it is possible for societies, such as Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany to err too heavily on the side of in-group/out-group divisions.
While Haidt writes as an American addressing American problems, there are some fascinating sections on the core differences between WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) morality and the rest of the world’s moral thinking. To us WEIRDoes, it seems self-evident that the individual belongs at the heart of any moral or political theory. However, elsewhere in the world, the individual is less significant than the community or divine law. This is not simply a matter of superficial ethical differences; for Haidt, we understand morality within entirely different frames of reference, or matrices, which blind us to the matrices of others.
Perhaps the greatest strength of The Righteous Mind is its accessibility. While Haidt draws heavily upon Durkheimian sociology, Darwinian evolutionary theory, and Humean and Kantian philosophy, it will be possible for readers without any grounding in these subjects to grasp the import of his arguments. Aided by his succinct “In Sum” sections, Haidt makes his case clearly and concisely throughout.
Overall, The Righteous Mind is a fascinating text: cogently argued, relatively easy to understand, and considerate towards both sides of the political divide. While Haidt is much stronger on understanding the mind than on solutions to the problem of poisonous rhetoric, his book will be of tremendous value to anyone looking to understand their political adversaries.