The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion


Read 26/01/2020-14/02/2020

Rating 3 stars

Jonathan Haidt wrote The Righteous Mind in 2012, four years before many of us finally became aware that the political world had tilted on its axis and everything we thought we understood about the democratic process had unravelled. Haidt, it’s true, had pinpointed the change as starting in the 1990s, but for many of us, 2016 was Year Zero.

After the last UK General Election, numbed by the routing of Labour in places long held to be its heartlands, unable to understand why people had fallen for Tory propaganda, mystified by a refusal on the left of Labour to contemplate why they had lost, I saw a number of respected journalists and commentators mention this book.

Haidt is a psychologist. Over a substantial academic career, he has developed a theory of human morality based on empirical evidence and influenced by ancient philosophy, modern politics, advertising and soundbites. He believes that we are predisposed to not get along, but we are also capable of cooperating with those who hold different views to us in order to achieve a greater good. As he says in his introduction, referring to a plea Rodney King made in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots triggered by his own brutal beating,

We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so let’s at least do what we can to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.

Personally, I find seeing the other side of the argument and not dismissing it out of hand difficult. I loathe right wing politics and don’t want to engage with people who hold such beliefs. Their morality seems too different to mine. I was curious to see how Haidt might influence me through this book. He managed it, briefly, in the second part of the book, where he discusses his own similar loathing for conservatives in the US and the impact a 3-month research trip to India had on him. He travelled there to study cultural psychology and immersed himself in a culture “woven mostly from the ethics of community and divinity”, as opposed to the ethics of autonomy frontlined in the liberal West. He went home a pluralist, more willing to try to understand the perspective of people with a different morality to his.

Before I got to that point in the book, though, there was a lot of build up in the form of Moral Psychology 101-style introductions to theories across the research spectrum and to Haidt’s theory. I’m curious about psychology and the tools it offers to help us understand ourselves individually and collectively. I’m interested in what makes us tick as a species, why we behave in particular ways, and how we rationalise our behaviour. The Righteous Mind had plenty for me to get stuck into. Haidt lays out each chapter with an introduction, an examination of theory, and a summary of what he has told the reader. It’s mostly readable, but sometimes I found his style soporific and self-regarding.

I was very interested in Haidt’s route to developing his own theory of morality, in particular his interest in anthropology and cultural psychology. I found his explanation of the differences between the culture I’m part of, which is individualistic and secular, and the more collective, religious cultures elsewhere fascinating. These differences play into how different cultures frame morality and how our different moralities can lead to conflict, as each group believes its approach is the right one and won’t countenance adjusting its stance in response to a different point of view.

In the West, since the Enlightenment, we’ve developed a belief that we are rational, that our morals stem from an understanding of the world. What Haidt took from his interest in anthropology and cultural psychology was that across cultures morality stems from intuition.

Haidt’s theory of morality uses what Haidt calls a social intuitionist model, where intuition comes first in our response to an event, prompting our moral judgement on the event. We then develop our reasoning about that judgement and use it to try to influence other people to our position. If we then engage in dialogue with those other people, then their moral judgements and reasoning might influence our intuitions and judgements. If we don’t engage in discussion, but reject those whose moral judgements differ from our own, then we become entrenched in our beliefs and only surround ourselves with those who agree with our moral judgements.

Haidt makes the point that

We make our first judgements rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgements. Yet friends can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometimes trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible to change our minds.

This is something that I know to be true. I have a tendency towards developing pretty fixed ideas about right and wrong. I can be strident in my opinions. With some of those fixed ideas, being married to someone who has a different perspective on their morality has meant that I have softened or changed my stance, because my husband has given me a different way of looking at things. It’s been a gradual and progressive process rather than Damascene, but it has been a change in me.

Building from this base of social intuitionism, Haidt begins to look at prejudice, politics, the influence of advertising, and how “human minds, like animal minds, are constantly reacting to everything they perceive, and base their responses on those reactions.”

Haidt goes on to examine what happens when reputation is added to the mix, and the ways in which our morality is affected if we think we can get away with something. He bases this on Glaucon’s challenge to his brother Plato in The Republic of whether anyone granted invisibility would be incorruptible. The implication of this challenge is that we are only virtuous if we fear the consequences of getting caught. This grabbed my attention because I am constantly afraid of getting caught, for no reason, and have a high sense of justice at the core of my being. I don’t know why, it’s always been that way. Injustice, the sense of anything not being fair, of people getting away with terrible things at the expense of others’ well-being makes me furious. It’s why I can’t stand politicians like Johnson and Trump who don’t care about the consequences of their unjust behaviour, because they feel entitled and fear no opposition. We live in an unjust world where the powerful exploit the weak and we are divided against each other, split into factions that scheme against each other. That is a paraphrasing of Socrates’s analogy of just and unjust cities. It serves as a summary of what has been going on in British politics for the past 4 years, at least. It’s a situation in which reason has gone out of the window and instinct or passion has been allowed to rule unchallenged.

Haidt’s line is that Glaucon was right when he realised that “the most important principal for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behaviour will always bring bad consequences.”

On those grounds, then, we’re not living in an ethical society, because otherwise the behaviour of those on the far right of British and American politics would be triggering bad consequences. Instead, the powerful are gaining more power and the weak are ever more exploited or abused.

When those in power have no respect for ethics or morals, what do you do? Haidt didn’t offer me much hope, because Haidt doesn’t think moral reasoning is about the pursuit of a truth to live by, against which behaviour can be measured. He believes that moral reasoning has “been shaped, tuned, and crafted to help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes”.

We’re all politicians, then. And those who abhor the current politics need to find a way to convince others to support them against those who are wielding power.

Accountability isn’t working. Politicians need to believe that they are accountable to the electorate. In order to consider their position evenhandedly, they can’t know what the views of the electorate are. They also need to believe that the electorate is well informed and interested in accuracy.

It seems to me that the Tory party in the UK relies on a majority of the electorate not being interested in accuracy and not being well informed about the consequences of political policies. Polling gives them the impression that they know the electorate’s views in advance. They quite possibly don’t believe that they are accountable to the people who vote for them. They probably feel accountable to those who fund the party they represent.

Elsewhere in the book, Haidt makes the point that you can’t bring someone else round to your way of thinking by ignoring what they are saying and telling them that they are wrong. It strikes me that this is where Momentum’s influence on the Labour party led to Labour getting it wrong in the last general election. Labour didn’t listen and they told those inside and outside the party who didn’t share their views that they were wrong. They made people feel lectured rather than heard. The Tories, meanwhile, made a good show of listening and tailoring their campaigning to what a majority wanted to hear, guarding their (false) reputation in the process and persuading people, to whom they were traditionally anathema, to support them.

In part two of the book, Haidt broadens out morality, acknowledging that morality is about more than just harm and fairness. He claims in his discussion of what else makes up morality that he will provide a set of tools for the better understanding of moral arguments from a different perspective. I don’t feel that he makes good on that claim.

What Haidt’s toolkit boils down to is the need to develop an understanding on the left that conservative politics appeals across a broader range of moral foundations than liberal/socialist politics. Those moral foundations are rooted in long-standing threats and opportunities to human life that over time have adjusted to modern triggers. They consist of care/harm (looking out for the vulnerable), fairness/cheating (reaping the benefits of two-way partnerships, tempered by proportionality), loyalty/betrayal (forming cohesive coalitions), authority/subversion (forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies), sanctity/degradation (avoiding the contamination of that which we hold sacred) and liberty/oppression (cooperating to prevent domination of a group by a self-appointed leader). Those on the left focus more strongly on the care/harm and liberty/oppression foundations, in a reflection of the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill, with society built around the equality and freedom of individuals. Those on the right span across all of the foundations in a reflection of Emile Durkheim’s vision of society structured around hierarchical social groups such as the family. For those who subscribe to the moral foundations ignored or rejected by the left (fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation), those on the left seem immoral. Haidt suggests that these are also the foundations which matter the most to sections of society built around the importance of hierarchical social groups. The working class, and those who live in rural communities, for example. Politicians on the right seem to understand better that these groups vote along moral lines and not political lines. The language of the left is a moral turnoff for them. In the UK, it might be possible to go back to the years when Labour had the support of working class people and see that unionisation, in its function of protecting the livelihoods of workers, took the role of the hierarchical social group. Over the past 40 years, British society has changed, employment has changed, unions are weaker, the hierarchical social groups of the working class have shifted back towards those that align with the moral foundations shared by social and political conservatives.

Haidt focuses on US politics, but what he says about Democrats holds for the left in the UK.

Until Democrats understand the Durkheimian vision of society and the difference between a six-foundation morality and a three-foundation morality, they will not understand what makes people vote Republican.

So is the left done for? Is there any way that socialists and liberals can win against the conservatives? Are people on the left willing to look beyond their heartfelt belief in the moral foundations of care/harm and liberty/oppression and accept the importance of the other moral foundations to the people they are trying to reach?

Politically, I consider myself to be a socialist. I believe that we are all equal, all deserving of fair treatment, all entitled to support when we need it, all entitled to freedom from oppression by the powerful. But I also recognise that we live in a capitalist society, that revolution isn’t coming any time soon, that history shows that the idealism of revolution has a short duration and oppression by the powerful is inevitable. Compared to some on the left, I am politically moderate. Compared to those on the right, I’m a red blooded communist.

Morally I am driven by a sense of justice, where we should seek as a species to do the best by everyone, we shouldn’t cheat each other or take advantage of each other, and I have a dislike of authority for authority’s sake. I’m for consensus, against imposition. I’m more inclined towards individuality than to being part of a group and don’t appreciate anyone who tries to dominate me. And yet I believe in the importance of respect and am obedient of the rules that bind society and prevent anarchy. I also have a strong sense of loyalty to those I include in my personal group and shun anyone I feel has betrayed my trust. It takes a while for me to assess and accept new people into my personal group.

One of the things that interested me about the EU Referendum was how I found myself agreeing with some politicians on the right. I remember in particular an interview with Anna Soubry after the result and feeling empathy with her viewpoint on this issue. In Cameron’s government, I had tolerance for Ed Vaisey, who seemed like he had his head screwed on, despite his Conservative beliefs. Michael Heseltine, too, has long struck me as a decent person, again despite his politics. I wouldn’t vote for any of them, but I can see why some people would.

The rabidly partisan on both sides of the political spectrum seem to be taking up all of the oxygen of discourse at the moment. This is something that worries me, because I can’t see how it enables the achievement of the communal good. I also can’t see how Haidt’s so-called toolkit is going to help combat partisanship.

Following on from the broadening of the components of morality is a discussion of humanity as selectively hivish, cooperating for the greater good in communities as and when it suits us. There was some interesting material on brain function, and some theorising on what makes a good leader of a hivish organisation. It was at this point that I almost stopped reading. Haidt introduces a list of ways in which leaders of organisations can make the team within that organisation more hivish. Top of the list was “Increase similarity, not diversity”. My jaw dropped and continued to drop further as I read on.

To make a human hive, you want to make everyone feel like a family. So don’t call attention to racial and ethnic differences; make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating the group’s shared values and common identity. A great deal of research in social psychology shows that people are warmer and more trusting towards people who look like them, dress like them, talk like them, or even just share their first name or birthday. There’s nothing special about race. You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies. [My emphasis]”

I did read on, because I found this paragraph unsettling and I wanted Haidt to provide some context. I tried to understand what he was saying, in the hope that I could find something justifiable about his apparent wish to be colourblind, but my injustice, harm and oppression hackles came up and all I could feel was appalled. He seems to be saying that, to build a cohesive team, a person must disregard the things that are different about people, including race, including ethnicity, and focus instead on things like similarities in the clothes they wear and the way they talk. But this diminishes a core part of what makes people who they are. The clothes a person wears might relate to their ethnicity. The way a person speaks can also be a signifier of ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are key factors in whether a person feels that they belong, and white privilege in Western society means that people of colour don’t feel like they belong. To say “there’s nothing special about race” is a poor choice of words at best. It seems Haidt believes that a refusal to acknowledge the barriers faced by people who aren’t white, male and middle class when they try to join an organisation is perfectly fine if you want to build a team that is “more hivish, happy, and productive”. Even his examination of whether hivishness should be disregarded since fascist leaders are so good at developing it in their followers is iffy, backed up as it is with a pair of fantasy nations, in the hivish one of which citizens experience “team building, and moments of self-transcendence with groups of fellow citizens who may be different from them racially, but with whom they feel deep similarity and interdependence.” I’m sure there will be some who think I’m being overly sensitive, and looking for something that isn’t there, but Haidt is big on moral values being about intuition, and my intuition on reading his words on this subject was that they stink.

There’s evidence elsewhere in the book that Haidt has a tendency to only think about his own social group’s experience of the world. In talking about the relevance of group selection to the development of moral foundations, he gets pulled up by a female evolutionary psychologist who points out that group selection also involves women and children, that competition between groups isn’t solely about fighting, but is about who is “the most efficient at turning resources into offspring.”

Not everything is about men. Not everything is about white men. But hey, by Haidt’s reckoning, I’m a progressive liberal, so I would say that.

The rest of the book is a combined take down of New Atheism, a meditation on how religion evolved to bind communities more closely, an exploration of how we’re genetically predisposed from birth to lean left or right politically, and a rumination on how we might be different but we shouldn’t shun discourse or reject out of hand opportunities to learn from our opposites.

Was it worth reading? For the most part, yes. Did it help me to understand why the Red Wall turned blue in the last UK General Election? A fair amount, actually, yes. Has it given me tools to try to navigate politics differently? Perhaps. I won’t know that unless I try out Haidt’s theory of using discourse to break down partisanship.

Haidt has some interesting things to say. At times, though, I wish he had expressed himself differently, acknowledged other people’s lived experiences more, and offered up something more nuanced.

3 thoughts on “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

  1. I’ve read an earlier book by Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis. I’ve been intending to re-read it at some point but I think I’d go for this one first. I wish we could sit down over a coffee and discuss this one, Jan!


    1. He refers to The Happiness Hypothesis in The Righteous Mind, Sandra. I haven’t read it yet. I need a rest from heavy political thought after reading this one! I’ve continued thinking about it, and why it makes me feel simultaneously depressed and frustrated, why some of the things he says niggle at me. It has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone. I’ve been talking about it with my husband this morning, too. He’s very good at helping me see other angles. I’ll be interested to know your thoughts on The Righteous Mind, if you choose to read it.


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