Review and Reflection on “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

This book was published in 2012.  But really, it’s pretty timeless.  Twelve years later and I find what Haidt wrote to be so very helpful.  The subtitle is what grabbed my attention: “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”  If that’s not timely, I’m not sure what is.  

And before we move on, let’s just take a moment to focus on the key two-word phrase in that subtitle – “good people.”  We are so very polarized.  We are reminded of this often through our media.  I often wonder if we’re being told over and over again that those who disagree with us are not just of a different opinion, or even wrong, but are “bad” people for their beliefs.  And if they are bad, then we should fight against them, we should defeat them, we should maybe even dehumanize them?  Us vs. them.  Oh how easy we slip into that dichotomy. 

So why is this book needed?  Simple – politics and religion aren’t going away and we have to figure out how we can coexist with those who see the world differently from ourselves.  Because the reality is there is not one person on the planet who agrees with you 100% of the time on 100% of the issues at hand.  Not one.  

“Etiquette books tell us not to discuss these topics in polite company, but I say go ahead.  Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together.” (Pg. xviii).  

Haidt breaks this book into three parts.  Part I – “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”  This is all about our natural intuitions that drive what we do.  We load on moral reasoning to support our intuitions.  “If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.  But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense.  Keep an eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value.” (Pg. xx-xxi)

Part 2 – “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.”  (Pg. xxi) This is what I found to be the most fascinating and helpful part of the book.  Here Haidt takes a look at six moral matrices that every person has and is helpful to explain why we have so much disagreement in our political and religious landscape. 

Part 3 – “Morality binds and blinds.” (Pg. xxii).  This is about how humans group themselves and compete with other groups.  There’s a long history of human development going on that we often are blind to.  Most humans operate on the idea that history started when they were born and will end when they die.  That doesn’t work well with the reality that humanity has been developing for a long, long time and there are some inherent things operating within that we are unaware of most of the time.  

Haidt begins chapter 1 with an essential question that lays a foundation for everything else – “Where does morality come from?”  It’s really about the key difference that we see underlying so much of our political and religious differences.  Does society exist for the individual or the individual for the society?  This question may be one of the long-standing questions ever since humans clumped together in what we call civilization.  

Another key question that Haidt deals with is how to win an argument.  Oh Boy!  It’s the question we’re all dying to get the answer to.  Is it a huge amount of facts and figures?  Is it stats and data?  Is it soundly defeating our opponents’ arguments?  Social media seems to think that is the answer.  Yet, how many times have you changed your mind because you saw some meme or post on whatever social media platform?  Probably never.  And you probably never will either.  Most of what we post on social media isn’t about trying to win an argument, it’s about fortifying our own arguments and making our opponents look bad.  

Haidt quotes Henry Ford in relation to this topic – “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” (Pg. 57).  You aren’t going to win people over through argument.  “It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode…. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness.” (Pg. 58)

The fascinating thing about this whole book is Haidt’s use of righteousness.  He traces the word back to Norse, old English, and Hebrew roots.  But the interpretation of it has mostly to do with being correct or having the right beliefs.  Another way of looking at righteousness has to do with being in right relationship.  This is having been a major cause of division in Western civilization since at least the time of the Reformation and counter Reformation when correct belief overpowered all else.  We’re still suffering the effects of this overemphasis.  

Another key question that Haidt deals with is this – is it better to appear to be doing right when in reality a person is bad, or is it better to be a good person who everyone else thinks is bad?  Here Haidt makes the claim that “Appearance is usually far more important than reality.” (Pg. 88).  While that sounds terrible on the surface, he offers a lot to back up the notion.  “…the most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” (Pg. 86). This of course raises all sorts of questions.  What about tyrants and would-be tyrants, who rise to power through the use of force, violence, abuse, manipulation, and whatnot, all with throngs of supporters?  I guess it depends on how terms are defined.  

I’m skipping over a lot of great material in order to get to the core that I want to focus on – the moral matrices.  Haidt identifies six that exist in all of us.  The real question is how much we value each one in relation to the other.  And when it comes to our conversations with others, are we able to see and hear how that person values the six matrices?  

  1. Care/harm – this is about things tugging on our heart strings.  It about care of others, animals, creation – especially the most vulnerable in society.  This deals with suffering and cruelty.  
  2. Fairness/cheating – this is about trust, sharing, doing the most good.  The word for this is altruism. Collaboration is a key element here.  And on the other end, it is about punishment for cheaters because they are breaking those trusts.  
  3. Loyalty/betrayal – This is about asking if someone is a team player.  It’s about group cohesion and identity with one’s “tribe.”   Who is a part of us and who is a part of them?  In this matrix, traitors are far worse than enemies.  Enemies are known, but traitors break trust.  
  4. Authority/subversion – This is about hierarchies and authorities.  Rank and status are important here.  It is about behaving according to expectations associated with the rank and status.  Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice.
  5. Sanctity/degradation – This is about people placing infinite value on objects like flags and crosses, places like a battlefield or holy lands, people like saints and heroes, and principles like liberty, fraternity, equity, and patriotism.  These help us to form moral communities of like-minded people who share foundational values.  
  6. Liberty/oppression – this is about combatting oppressions.  Liberty has to do with equality.  The key question here is equality for who?  Is it equality for all, or equality for those in my “tribe?”  

First, let me say, this these matrices are really helpful.  I think they help us to see that people look at the world and situation through different lenses.  I’ve had a saying for some time – I may not agree with you, but I start with the assumption that you came to your conclusion for what you see are good reasons.  

Haidt doesn’t just drop us off here.  Rather, he examines how people of different ideological persuasions view these matrices.  Those that are more liberal tend to value the care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression matrices as the most important.  The other three carry very little importance for them.  

Social conservatives on the other hand value all six of the matrices equally.  This makes for an interesting moral dilemma of weighing events through a wide range of matrices.  And its why social conservatives come to different conclusions than liberals.  

Haidt also throws those that have a more libertarian bent into the mix.  These folks almost exclusively value liberty/oppression over all the other matrices.  It’s not even close.   

I think Haidt adding libertarian into this is important.  Liberals and social conservatives actually share something in common – their moral framework starts with some kind of communal outlook.  Liberals tend to value equality for all, while social conservatives tend to value equality for those in their “tribe.”  Regardless of who, there is still a concern for a greater good. 

Libertarians on the other hand start with a moral framework that is individualistic in nature, which is why it makes sense that the sole moral matrix that they value the most is liberty/oppression.  

In addition, each of these outlooks offers some strengths and has weaknesses.  

The rest of the book goes on to discuss why we are groupish and how we can disagree more constructively. 

For me, this book is a welcome addition to my library.  I am grateful for Haidt’s work if for no other reason than offering the six moral matrices.  We can actually listen to hear which matrix people are speaking from when we talk with them based on the words they are using.  Instead of arguing on topics, we can actually spend time attempting to understand where each of us is coming from, what we value, what we fear, and more.  In short, the matrices help us see the humanity of the other person.  As I’ve said many times before, if we are going to have better and more meaningful conversations, then we have to start by seeing the humanity in others and ourselves more often.  For me, division over issues stems from approaching topics in a dehumanized manner – keeping a topic in the abstract with facts, figures, stats, and data.  It’s really easy to move into us/them territory when we do that.  But it becomes much harder when we see the humanity of a topic.  That’s because human beings are messy – We’re made up of a complex system of ideas, experiences, beliefs, and more.  When we see the humanity of others it helps us to see our own humanity, with its limitations, brokenness, and hope.  I highly recommend this book.  

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *