‘The Righteous Mind’ Seeks To Explain What Divides Us

I have spent much of this year researching poverty while continuing to read politics, especially with regards to why, as a nation we have proven incompetent in solving poverty. Some of these books are academic in nature so I do not review them.

But, I took a break from that subject to ‘get some fresh air’ and one of the books I recently read, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion by Jonathan Haidt is about moral reasoning.

It is a very applicable in the current era.

The book is divided into three sections with a central metaphors for each:

  • The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.
  • The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors
  • We are 90 percent Chimp and 10 Percent Bee

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

In this section, Haidt lays the foundation of his argument relying on various academic studies and theories of ‘where morality comes from.’ But he also deals with the concept of disgust and disrespect — giving some very — at least for me — off-putting examples. By doing this, though, he drives home his point, which is:

“People some times have gut feelings — particularly about disgust and disrespect — that can drive their reasoning. Moral reasoning is sometimes a post hoc fabrication.”

He also explains why he comes to reject a common theory that “morality is self-constructed by children on the basis of their experience with harm.”

What I found most interesting in this section is he offers real examples of study participants trying to justify their moral reasoning. In these cases, the participant was intentionally given situations designed to trigger a disgust or disrespect response.

It is in this section, that he drives home the reality that ‘intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.’

The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors

So, the first section lays the groundwork. It is filled with plenty of theory balanced by real-life comments by individuals forced into moral dumbfounding (where they ‘know’ something is wrong, but cannot ‘justify’ their position). In the second section he explains the five foundations of moral reasoning — that everyone uses. This is also where he begins to explain the divide between conservatives and liberals because of these foundations. They are:

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

Conservatives and liberals give different ‘weight’ to each of the five foundations. Once you realize this, you can easily see on social media, what ‘triggers’ a person. For example, as a liberal, I put less weight on the authority/subversion foundation which can create an issue on social media when I, for example, post something that ‘demeans’ a person in authority. Conservatives often find this disrespectful. Conversely, when conservatives show a lack of concern, for example, of the children’s fate in the Border Crisis, it can trigger a liberal because of their foundation of care/harm.

We are 90 percent Chimp and 10 Percent Bee

In the final section Haidt ties all his theories together using the chimp and bee as metaphors. The chimp, which studies have shown, does not work cooperatively is paired with the (worker) bee, who abandons all sense of individuality for the good of the hive. It is in this section where he also tackles more of the religious aspect of the book. In one study, he explains, that many of the religious ‘do good’ not so much because of their religious beliefs, but because of their bonding with fellow members — similar to the way combat soldiers don’t fight for the country as much as they fight for each other — due to the bond that has developed.

It is the first book on moral reasoning I have read, and I found it quite intriguing. Now, when I discuss things on social media, I am more interested in why a person reasons the way they do — as opposed to their ‘final decision.’ For me, the book has made it easier to discuss, and/or dismiss, a viewpoint — and to decide who to engage in longer conversations with — and who to move on from because they are engaging in the fallacy of deciding first, justifying later.

Rating 5 out of 5.

Even though this is a ‘deep book’ with lots of theory, studies and quotes from philosophers, it is written in a ‘down-to-earth’ manner. I will warn you — as does the author — some of the passages designed to trigger disgust/disrespect will trigger it. If you are truly interested, though, in why we are so severely divided, this book does offer insight.

I was first introduced to the author’s work when I read The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Truth which is another excellent read.

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One thought on “‘The Righteous Mind’ Seeks To Explain What Divides Us

  1. This sounds fascinating and obviously very relevant. Great review.

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