The Righteous Mind

Why and how do people arrive at certain political and religious perspectives?

That question drives The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012). Author Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Moral psychology is his field.

Haidt cracks the door on his thesis with this simple statement: “We humans all have the same five taste receptors, but we don’t all like the same foods.” Yes, of course, from the very same sensory equipment, we live in a dazzling diversity of foods, flavors, cooking methods, serving pieces, etc.

The same kind of matrix frames our “moral judgments.” Through exhaustive research, Haidt identified six “foundations of morality.” These six “taste receptors” form the basis of our moral behavior. We all have the same ones; from them we develop our own political and religious “taste” preferences (the two words of each foundation represents a scale from the principle to its antithesis).

  • Care/harm
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation


What This Means for Politics and Religion

Author Haidt, a self-described “liberal Democrat,” was invited to address a Democratic Party gathering following the 2004 election. His topic: “Republicans Understand Moral Psychology; Democrat’s Don’t.” In fact, he says that liberals largely reject half of the six foundations of morality: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Strangely, according to Haidt, “very conservative” people value all six equally.

From that, he writes about his excitement about Barack Obama, as “a liberal who understood conservative arguments about the need for order and… tradition.” But after a few months, Haidt became worried. He saw Obama working from only two of the foundations, care and fairness.

Of conservatives, Haidt writes, “…their broader moral matrix allows them to detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive…they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family). Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.

Haidt, an atheist, devotes much space to “the hive” – that mysterious dimension where humans lose themselves in something larger and transcendent. He challenges liberals on their disregard of the sanctity foundation. For example, he writes that liberals have difficulty understanding the conservative revulsion about a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine or elephant dung wiped across an image of the Virgin Mary.

So, helpfully, he asks if liberals would understand the sanctity better if Jesus and Mary were exchanged for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela?

Can We Disagree More Constructively?

As stated earlier, we all have wildly differing tastes in food. Wouldn’t we think it strange to have talk radio and cable news programming built around demonizing those who prefer Thai food or Riesling wines? Can you imagine a book built around a thesis that to love cheeseburgers is to be a traitor?

We all live in a matrix of six moral judgments. Just as our common taste receptors allow people to run to a multitude of food choices, so our placement within the moral foundations allows us to try and adapt various political and religious tastes. Anybody have a problem with that?

Yes, they do. But why?

So much of the conflict is rooted in genetics. Haidt: “After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, scientists recently found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to neurotransmitter functioning, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain’s response to threat and fear…conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger…liberals have less need for order, structure, and closure.”

It seems to me that Haidt has taken an enormous first step in trying to help everyone see the whole spectrum more clearly and objectively. As a liberal and an atheist, he vigorously challenges his fellow liberals and atheists in their languid and predictable thinking about political conservatism and religion.

For example, he writes about moral capital (the resources that “enable a community to suppress selfishness and make cooperation possible”) and social capital, “the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties.” He sees both as blind spots for the left.

Haidt furthermore writes that this “is the reason I believe that liberalism – which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity – is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital…”

To my surprise, Haidt never does engage much of a critique of conservatism (or conservatives). He wants to see more respect, civility, and objectivity in our public discourse, and he models it!

The Righteous Mind is, like it’s author, generous and noble.

He concludes: “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is comprised of good people who have something important to say.”


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