It is said that there are two topics one should always avoid in polite or social conversation: politics and religion. It is well known that these two subjects are frequently divisive and polarizing, often leading to heated arguments and even physical violence. Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His newest book The Righteous Mind sets out to explain why these subjects have the potential to be so inflammatory. To do this Haidt, a social psychologist, first lays out a two part theory that seeks to explain the structure and origins of humanity’s varying moral systems. He then ends his erudite and illuminating work by explaining why politics and religion divide us. He proposes that our moral systems are at the root of our political and religious beliefs. Thus misunderstanding and xenophobia are inevitable characteristics of our collective mortal coil.
The Righteous Mind has an overarching thesis comprised of three sections each coupled to a central metaphor. He begins with the claim that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”. Tied to this premise is a metaphor of an elephant and a rider. Haidt proposes that our gut instincts and feelings are the elephant and our faculties of reason the rider. In this scenario Haidt proposes a Humean model of moral reasoning in which the rider is in service of the elephant; the foundation of his theory of moral systems. Secondly it is proposed that “there’s more to morality than harm and fairness”. The central metaphor in this section is that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” Here he puts the meat on the bones of his framework laying out a six foundation basis for human morality: harm/care, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. Finally he claims that “morality binds and blinds us” and ties this proposition to the central metaphor that “we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” This is my favorite section of the book because it is here where he makes good on his promise to explain why politics and religion are so divisive.
Haidt chose to subtitle his book Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and the subtitle tells a lot about the viewpoint he writes from. This book aims not to win political arguments or convert religious people. He instead wants to provide a palliative to demonization and demagoguery. Giving readers a framework with which to understand the worldview of persons of differing moral and political persuasions, Haidt encourages us to use his work and website (http://www.yourmorals.org) to engage others meaningfully. I think he is largely successful to this end. His work has the potential to be very enlightening for a liberal like myself struggling to understand the conservative mindset and vice versa. Haidt identifies himself as a liberal atheist but this does not cloud his thinking. He puts forth a very convincing argument for his proposition that conservatives have a better understanding of human nature than do liberals. This may have some liberals balking but his scholarly credentials are quite evident and considerable whilst he describes his move to the right over the course of his research.
The Righteous Mind is thought provoking and wide-ranging. The writing and thinking on display here show the outcome of years of serious study and consideration of the nature of morality and humanity itself. Haidt’s work is timely given the political climate prevailing in our country while we face some of the biggest challenges in several generations. This book truly should be read by everyone. Of course he can’t help those who have no desire to understand their political counterparts.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Published by Pantheon Books, New York