Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Source of book: Borrowed from the library, but I really need to buy this one

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.

~ Michael Feingold, theater critic for The Village Voice

This is the vision of the Democrats, get children abused, kill them in the womb as much as possible, be sure there are as many dysfunctional families as possible, as many homosexual families as possible and children abused as much as possible, so government can grow their child welfare services even more, so that they can kill more kids, so that more adults can commit adultery, so that more kids would be murdered, so that more kids would be abused, so more government would tax and regulate and tax and regulate to produce the worst possible hellhole on planet earth.

~ Kevin Swanson, Christian Patriarchy leader, Pastor, and Radio Show Host

Clearly, I picked the most extreme examples. Neither of these two is particularly representative of the average person on the Right or the Left, but they are fairly representative of the rhetoric that has been increasingly common on both sides of the political coin. Politics has indeed become more polarized than it used to be, and people seem increasingly willing to ascribe evil intentions to the other side.

The first quote is offered in The Righteous Mind as an example of someone who should have an imagination, but is unable to imagine someone acting from a different moral matrix from his own. The second quote is one I have used before, from one of my least favorite figures on the Christian Right. Thankfully Kevin Swanson is no relative of mine.

The similarities between the quotes are striking. Two media figures who simply cannot imagine that the other side might be anything other than intentionally malevolent.

The full title of this book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The author originally intended to call it The Moral Mind, but settled on “righteous” because, as he puts it, “But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.” In this book, the author explores how humans develop systems of morality and “righteousness,” and why these systems are alike and different.

There is far too much in this book to easily digest, much less to discuss in a blog review, so I will just hit a few highlights.

One word of caution at the outset to my fellow Christians: Haidt writes from an atheistic and Darwinistic viewpoint. The reason I mention this is that it would be easy to read his foundational ideas and reject the book based on those differences. I believe this would be a mistake. Haidt’s view of the origins of the human ability to form social groups (similar to animals like ants and bees) is not necessary to set up his conclusions. It is easy enough to simply acknowledge that we were created with these characteristics, whether by the invisible hand of God, or the invisible hand of natural selection, or some combination thereof.

Another caution I would give is to avoid the pitfall of assuming that the different moral “frameworks” discussed in this book can be divided into “Christian” and “non-Christian,” “good,” or “evil.” The whole point of this book is to examine how people with a similar human morality can come to radically different ideas and points of emphasis. This isn’t Gandalf versus Sauron, but “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

One of the key concepts in this book that I wholeheartedly agree with is that humans are not - at our core - rational creatures. We are not fully irrational, exactly, but we are not primarily governed by the intellect. Rather, we tend to form our conclusions through an intuitive process, then use our intellect to justify our decisions. Haidt refers to the intellect as the “press secretary,” but I might go with “lawyer,” for obvious reasons. This concept has been something that I have become more aware of since my law school days, and throughout my legal career. If anything, we are trained to do this. We take the pre-determined result we want (namely, our client’s view of the case) and build up a legal and intellectual case for our client’s position.

If I am honest with myself, this is very often how I go about making moral decisions as well. The author describes the intellect as the rider of an elephant. He may think he is controlling where the elephant goes, but most of the time, he is along for the ride. This isn’t to say that we don’t overrule our intuition using our intellect, because we do, but it happens less than we think, and it doesn’t happen easily.

This explains why it seems nearly impossible to reason other people out of their beliefs. Lecturing the rider usually doesn’t change the way the elephant leans. Instead, opinions change, not as the result of pure logic, but as a result of contact with other people in situations where we have affection or admiration or a desire to please that person. In other words, empathy and friendships matter. More about this later.

One of the most striking things about this is that this tendency is a good thing in practice. There is actually a group of people who are able to function using logic alone, and lack the moral emotions that drive the rest of us.

These people are known as psychopaths.

Indeed, the ability to function from pure reason with no moral emotion is exactly the root flaw in psychopaths, and why they are able to do unspeakably evil things to others without guilt. On the flip side, even very small children, who can hardly be considered the most rational of humans, show intuitive responses to moral questions. In fact, toddlers can intuit their way to remarkably moral answers long before they can come close to articulating the questions.

The second major theme of the book is that of “moral taste buds.” We as humans respond to moral stimuli just as we do to physical input. Haidt identifies six “tastes” that we respond to. The ways these tastes combine and the way we fit our viewpoints into these flavors are our “moral matrix.” In general, the differences we see in moral systems, whether it is between different cultures, different times in history, and in political and moral differences today can be understood as differences in the proportions of these flavors, and the way that we tie specific issues to them. I cannot do justice to the way the author explores the flavors and how they apply to modern American (and other) politics, but it is quite intriguing.

The six “flavors” are:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Liberty/Oppression
  3. Fairness/Cheating
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation

These are at the heart of many disagreements where people tend to talk past each other. A great (simple) example of this is when liberals and conservatives talk about poverty. This is an oversimplification, of course, but generally, liberals see poverty as a combination of Care/Harm while conservatives see it as Fairness/Cheating. That is, liberals will see the poor as being harmed by unjust systems and thus in need of care; while conservatives look on the poor as cheaters getting a free ride from the system. Both views tend to oversimplify the complexities of poverty, but the issue isn’t rationality, it is how the elephant leans. You can see the evidence of these different “leans” in the quotes at the beginning of this post. Feingold sees “Republicans” as having no heart. He is responding to a Care/Harm view, and cannot see outside of that view of the issue. Swanson, in contrast, sees a Fairness/Cheating viewpoint, and cannot see how anyone could view the issue otherwise.

The third idea in this book is that of the “hivish” nature of humans. On the one hand, we often resemble the Darwinian viewpoint of life. We act out of selfishness, just like other animals, trying to be the “fittest.” On the other, we, like other “social” animals, are capable of sacrificing ourselves for the greater good. For the “hive,” if you will. This section is fascinating, because it explores the ability that humans have to function as groups. Armies are a great example, but even such entities as orchestras (dear to my heart) have the same characteristics. We function as a “superorganism,” greater than the sum of the parts, in the furtherance of a greater goal. This is a positive feature of our “hivish” nature.

On the other hand, those “hives” that often function in the most “hivelike” manner are cults and totalitarian political systems. The individual has been suppressed completely in service of the “hive.”

One of the beauties of the way that modern democracies function is that they are the sum of small hives, smaller organizations, sometimes in competition, that function to prevent despotism, largely by providing meaningful common goals, and thus preventing a despot from convincing the members to sacrifice all autonomy in order to gain meaning in life.

For what happens when catastrophe destroys the small hives, I recommend Anne Applebaum’s excellent book, Iron Curtain, reviewed here

The author closes with some interesting musings on potential ways to increase the quality of political discourse and aid the understanding between competing moral systems. I find many of his ideas to be compelling, which is unusual for a book of this sort. Often, when an author moves from the abstract to the specific, things go downhill. (Just a quick mention here of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, as an example of a good book with a disappointing last chapter.) However, in this case, Haidt actually has some good suggestions.

I think the reason why is that he draws from his own political and moral journey. Haidt comes from a liberal family, and has lived primarily in the world of liberal academia. However, his journey was triggered by time spent abroad in the Third World, where he observed first-hand other moral systems based on emphasis on other “flavors” than the Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression favored by Western liberals. He came to realize that these other “moralities” were also moral in a true sense, if as imperfect as any moral system will inevitably be. It was just different, and thus hard to understand until one has been immersed in it. This led Haidt to reconsider his own views of conservatism, and to look at how the flavor proportions differ. As a result, he moved toward the center politically, while also gaining an appreciation for the other side. A particularly good observation, in my (politically center-right) opinion is that in addition to “social capital,” there is “moral capital,” which represents a common moral framework leading to trust. In general, conservatives of all stripes (not just the current right/left split in 21st Century America) are concerned with the preservation of moral capital, on the grounds that what damages the “hive” is also damaging to the bees. I think this has been one of the main grounds of contention between right and left (as described above). Conservatives in many cases feel that actions taken to care for others can have the unintended consequence of damaging the small hives of society, such as families and other groups. I appreciate that the author understands that risk, and thus doesn’t dismiss conservative thought on this issue.

Another thing that was surprising about this book is that Haidt is generally positive toward religion, which is in contrast to the “New Atheists,” who view religion as a disease to be exterminated. While Haidt is not religious himself, he views religion, not as a virus preying on humanity, but as an adaptation enabling and supporting the positive aspects of “hive” behavior. In other words, it developed and remains because it is a net benefit to the survival of humans as a greater social group. Now, obviously, as a Theist, I disagree with the underlying assumption of religion as a mere adaptation, but the whole discussion of this issue in the book is fascinating and thoughtful. I give Haidt serious brownie points for honesty when it comes to this issue.

One of the suggestions that Haidt makes is therefore compelling: we need to spend time with people outside of our cocoon. Increasingly, people are segregated in neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces. More people than ever before (in the United States) live in congressional districts skewed 20% or more toward one party. We associate with people we agree with, and we become not just like each other - but more polarized - as a result. I discussed this phenomenon more in my review of Cass Sunstein’s outstanding book, Why Societies Need Dissent - a book I believe everyone needs to read.

As the author stresses, our own frameworks - our very ways of viewing ourselves and others - easily become tribal.

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness...And if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the “other” group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.

I believe this book is one of the best I have read this year, and it may even make my list of most influential books in the future. I highly recommend it to my friends, liberal, conservative, and in between. 

Some musings on the moral matrix and the teachings of Christ:

One of the interesting things that came to mind while reading the author’s views on the different moral “flavors” is just how much Christ turned completely upside down.

Sanctity was no longer about the externals.

“There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” Mark 7:15 (NASB)

Authority was exploded.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 20:25-26

Loyalty was no longer to earthly groups, and would no longer be used as a means of exclusion.

Rather than focus on fairness, we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Fairness is replaced with grace - wholly undeserved and freely given to us, and to be given by us to others.

Liberty no longer means the mere absence of oppression, but life abundant.

And care for others becomes not just one of the flavors, but the very essence of the law and of the Kingdom. And this care extends not just to those in the group, but to all. “Who is my neighbor?”

Another interesting bit is that the discussion of “what makes a man unclean” came after a complaint about hand washing. One of the studies that Haidt cites in the book is one where subjects were asked about moral issues with or without washing their hands first. The results were that those who washed their hands before answering the questions became much more moralistic toward others. Perhaps the feeling of self righteousness caused by cleanliness? Mark’s Gospel notes that Christ’s statement that it is what comes out of a man defiles him made the Pharisees furious.

This phenomenon explains the true danger of legalism. We wash the outside of the cup (or our hands), and then feel both more righteous and more judgmental. We are blinded to the evil within while becoming more acutely aware of the failings of others. The focus on the externals we find easy to clean leads us to neglect the more important heart issues - the things that come out of a man - and condemn others for failing to wash their hands the right way.

The author also points out that the traits of “domestication,” whether in other animals or in humans, are those of children. “Smaller teeth, smaller body, reduced aggression, and greater playfulness, carried on even into adulthood.” Or, perhaps, “"Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Just a few thoughts.

Note on my history:

I grew up in a family that was pretty universally strongly Republican and conservative. However, the neighborhoods in which we lived were urban working class, with a majority of the residents non-white. Thus, I was also in constant contact with those on the “other” side, if you will. In addition, the worlds of classical music and law tend to skew left or center-left, depending on the geographical area, so I have had continual interaction with a wide variety of political viewpoints. Importantly, because these were people that I liked, admired, and wished to get along with, I couldn’t just dismiss differences of opinion as evil.

I think this meant that my natural disposition as a conservative leaning person and the political viewpoints taken for granted in my family warred with my experience. I kept hearing the claims that "the other side is just evil" from both sides, and it bothered me, because I knew and loved people on both sides. I have found that politics has become more and more distasteful to me as it has gotten more polarized, for that reason. The demonization of both sides by the other is frustrating, and the internet has made it difficult to escape.

Although there are no easy cures, I believe Haidt is on the right track that we need to have more mixing and less isolation.


  1. Count me in as another one frustrated by the polarization of politics. I'd love to figure out what I think about politics and economics, but according to society and the internet, the only two options are being a liberal who hates the family and the Constitution, or a conservative who hates women, minorities and the planet. To get past these I would have to find a reasonable person who can see both sides. Except does that person even exist? *sigh*

    What usually happens to me is I form an opinion about something based on non-political (or at least not directly political) considerations, and only afterwards find out that it will get me thrown in someone's political box. For instance, applying Haidt's framework, I know intuitively that gender roles/stereotypes are crap because I didn't conform to them as a child, nor did many of my relatives, or my friends both male and female. When I was old enough to analyze them rationally, I came to the conclusion that they didn't work on a rational level either. This basically puts me in alignment with feminism on this point.

    Except when I express that opinion in public (at least around conservatives), I find out that because I don't think gender roles/stereotypes are accurate, I am a "progressive." (Pretty hilarious since I voted for Romney in the last election.) I also discovered that I apparently hate the family, the Bible, God, marriage, men, children and America. Fascinating.

    I suppose in their "other" framework, they really must think gender stereotypes are honestly true, and see them as essential to the proper functioning of society. That makes no sense to me on either a rational or intuitive level, and I honestly believe that it hurts people (including the people who promote it), but I suppose that must be how they see things.

    1. This could be a whole series of blog posts, couldn't it? I've spent a good bit of time thinking about it, and I think that Haidt's perspective could explain one particular part of the problem:

      For many conservatives, the preservation of "the family" is the primary moral matrix that they use. Haidt tells of his experiences in the third world, where the individualism common in the West and particularly in the United States is largely replaced by a more communal and societal viewpoint. Thus, the needs or desires of individuals are far less important than the greater needs of society or the family. To a large degree, then, "traditional" gender roles are viewed as *necessary* to the survival of society and families, and this justifies the damage done to non-conforming individuals.

      On the other hand, I certainly do believe that there is a component to this which is not really about the moral matrix but about perception of gender. I believe that many conservatives hold (often unconsciously) to gender essentialism. They really do believe that men and women are fundamentally different in practically all ways - particularly intellectually and emotionally. You and I, as non-conforming individuals know this to be baloney, but those who are more comfortable within the traditional roles don't see the problem. To get back to one of Haidt's points, I believe that (to use and example) women who prefer to make children and a household their primary or sole vocation have great difficulty imagining anyone else could think differently. And, then they are left with the uncomfortable suspicion that maybe someone (like their spouses) might expect them to change roles.

      I could certainly keep on going on this point, but I may have to do it in a future post or series.

  2. Yeah, I agree there's more going on than just the moral matrix. For instance, if you could demonstrate via studies that egalitarian marriages led to fewer divorces and less domestic violence (which may have already been demonstrated, but I don't have the stats on hand), then a conservative who claimed that only a return to male headship can protect the family (and thus benefit society), if they were consistent, would have to rethink their position. Not necessarily the position that preserving and strengthening the family unit is good for society (which is a not unreasonable assertion), but their view on exactly how to go about that. And at that point it would become apparent whether they're really interested in strengthening families, or only about advancing male control.

    Most conservatives I know don't hold to gender essentialism unconsciously at all. They know they believe in it, it's central to their worldview, they like it, and they can't distinguish it from either Christianity or conservatism. (To be fair, I know liberals who believe in gender essentialism too, though it seems to be more from habit than principle - i.e., they say things like "men are a different species" when they're frustrated with their husbands, etc.) I think with conservatives it comes from some combination of the idea that feminism is anti-family (so logically they must be antifeminist if they are pro-family), and the idea that they'll lose one of the supports of their anti-gay marriage argument if they accept that men and women aren't fundamentally that different.

    And I will say, some of the mental hoops I have seen conservatives jump through to avoid dealing with data against gender essentialism are pretty peculiar. In the last conversation I had, when I pointed out that studies don't show that many significant differences between men and women, the conservative claimed that the feminist establishment was suppressing the research showing differences and/or preventing it from being done in the first place. IMO, when the only argument you have left is a conspiracy theory, you lost the argument a long time ago.

    1. With you 100%. It's interesting how *many* issues within the conservative/evangelical culture have gotten to the conspiracy theory point in the argument. And our parents and grandparents wonder why they lose so many of us?

      One of my theories on why many males (particularly older ones) cling to the gender essentialism despite the evidence against it is the fear of being expected to do "women's work." Exhibit A would be the obsession that patriarchist/complementarian teachers seem to have with housework. (See Wilson, Douglas, and Strachen, Owen.)

      I also intend at some point to write more about the "feminist" strawman that even many who are functionally egalitarian like to carp on. I think it is some amalgam of the worst of Helen Gurley Brown and Andrea Dworkin. The idea that "feminism" is man-hating and (paradoxically) promiscuity-loving. I'll have to break out a quote by the great philosopher Inigo Montoya, I think.