Book review: ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon/Random House (2012), hardcover, 392 pages
This book confirmed a lot of what I’ve learned from studying sociology and anthropology, but it added the dimensions of moral and evolutionary psychology to help me get a better understanding of why people in America just can’t get along these days.
According to Haidt, morality evolved as a functional adaptation that helped groups work together beyond kinship networks to build larger societies and eventually civilizations. Most moral systems rest on six foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty, and sanctity, placing equal value on all six and allowing each to color perceptions of the others. But in the West, people who are Westernized, educated, individualistic, rich, and democratic (i.e., liberals) place great value on care, fairness, and liberty but very little value on authority, loyalty, and sanctity. In fact, they often view authority, loyalty, and sanctity as immoral because they see them as restricting personal liberty. Plus, their ideas of what constitutes care, fairness, and liberty are different from the traditional views because they’re not colored by ideas of authority, loyalty, and sanctity. For example, while the traditional (i.e., conservative) view of fairness is based on proportionality—meaning if one works for it, one should be able to keep it, and it’s unfair to take it away from one who works and give it to one who doesn’t—the liberal view of fairness is based on equality of outcomes, meaning if one person has a lot more wealth than another, that’s unfair.
Beyond the cultural dimension, the psychological dimension Haidt brings to the table is that liberals and conservatives have a lot of trouble getting along because we humans are programmed to think moralistically and groupishly. We’ll take our group’s side in any argument and find plenty of post hoc justifications as to why our group is right and the other group is wrong. Individual reason doesn’t break down bias—confirmation bias guides our reason to find justifications for what we want to believe about our group. We’re also constantly seeking approval from our own group, so the only reliable way to find common ground is to create groups that consist of people who disagree with each other. When the desire to come together and create a larger group trumps our individual confirmation bias, then we can put reason to work to find common ground.
However, we don’t do that anymore in America because our two major political parties have become so polarized and ideologically pure. Members of Congress from the two parties don’t socialize anymore, their families don’t live in Washington, and their children don’t go to the same schools. They exist in separate groups, so they have no groupish interest to agree on how to solve problems. They’re just fighting for their own groups, and they see the other group as immoral and therefore unworthy to be compromised with. The only instance in which they do come together is when the “hive switch” gets flipped and we all start working together against a common threat, as with 9/11. But beyond that, we’re just acting tribally and parochially.
My major takeaway from this book is that if we want to try to start bridging the divide in this country, discussing the issues isn’t the way to do it. First, we’ve got to create a sense of community, and that means getting together to socialize and work toward common goals that have nothing to do with politics. Only once we’ve broken down the sense of “us” and “them” and just created an “us” that we all value and want to be a part of will our intuitions and confirmation bias make us want to start finding reasons to agree with each other rather than disagree. That’s very hard to do on the national level, but we can do it on a local level, so in my opinion, that’s step one.