Home arrow Philo Talking arrow The Righteous Mind, A Review.

PDF Print E-mail

April 27   Peter Bowden:  The Righteous Mind,

A REVIEW: Jonathan Haidt, 2013 . The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage Books New York


A REVIEW: Jonathan Haidt, 2013 . The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage Books New York

The front cover of this book quotes a New York Times Book Review assessment: “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.”  This reviewer has to agree. But with serious reservations on one issue – see the final paragraphs. 

Any reader, who may have been long perplexed by the question of why the politics of the left and the right should exhibit such conflict with each other, will find answers within Haidt’s work. Unfortunately he or she will not find clear cut remedies, but hopefully the greater understanding will lead to more consensual and effective forms of democratic government.  Similarly with religion. He castigates current forms of religious conflict, which along with political conflict, as “the two most important,,, and divisive topics in human life..”

Haidt bases much of his argument on morality   which he claims is primarily innate, “as a set of evolved intuitions”; but also learned.  Much of the opening chapters of his book are spent on documenting the theories behind the evolution of moral precepts, and the many conflicting opinions that have emerged over the years.

An early writer he draws on in developing his moral theories is Plato in The Republic. Plato’s brother, Glaucon, raises the issue of the ring of Gyges, in which a just man is given a ring which makes him invisible. Once in possession of this ring, the man can act with no fear of reprisal. No one can deny, Glaucon claims, that even the most just man would behave badly if he had this ring. He would indulge all of his materialistic, power-hungry, and erotically lustful urges. This tale proves that people are just only because they are afraid of punishment. No one is just because justice is desirable in itself. Haidt agrees with Glaucon: The important thing for an ethical society is that “everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time” (p.86).

Haidt argues that rational analyses of ethical concerns as argued by Plato and Socrates are not the way we reach ethical decisions   He gives several examples of research projects that show that people use evidence to justify their own beliefs.  We are not rational, he concludes.
The rationalist approach was also argued by Lawrence Kohlberg who, based on the work of Jean Piaget, introduced the concept that children passed through six stages of moral development – two stages each in pre-conventional morality, then conventional morality, and finally .post-conventional morality. It is only in this third stage that children, .after puberty, reach a stage of abstract thinking on moral issues .Earlier stages are marked by conventional adherence to differing levels of rules and guidelines.

Approaches we use to make ethical decisions are versions of the nature v’s nurture debate. The first is that morality is wired into us, either by a God, or by evolution as Darwin has argued. Nurture is John Locke’s position.  We are blank slates at birth, and learn by rational thinking, how to behave morally (in an Essay Concerning Human Understanding).

Haidt’s opinion is that moral values are innate. He writes about members of early  tribal groups: “ For millions of years our ancestors’ survival depended on their ability to get small groups to include them and trust them, so if there is any innate drive here it should be…  to get others to think well of us ( p.90)

He later draws on Darwin‘s evolutionary theories in support of this concept.

Haidt is particular dismissive of reasoning and argument as ways to determine the truth, asserting that reasoning has evolved not t to help us find the truth but engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation. He quotes Mercier and Sperber: (2011)  “Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.“ It is a statement that this reviewer finds totally acceptable.

Haidt introduces the concept WEIRD -  Those who are Western educated industrialised rich and democratic-  to argue that over 50% of the research in psychology is undertaken on or by WEIRDs  Kant and Mill and many others on whom Haidt’s research is based are WEIRDs, He made an attempt to become pluralist by undertaking some of his research in India  This period brought to him a greater consciousness of other moral issues -  self-control, resistance to temptation, cultivation of one’s higher, nobler self, and negation of self-desires ( p.114).

The result of this research and research into measuring people’s disgust was the development of the Moral Foundations Theory. There are five foundations to our moral intuitions – (i) Harm/care; (II) Fairness /reciprocity; (iii) In group/loyalty; (iv) Authority /respect .and (v) Purity/sanctity. Liberal or left wing voters will be stronger on the first two, Right wing voters on all five, but are strongest on the last three. A reader can test him/herself on line. www. moral foundations.

Harm/care: Fairness /reciprocity: The tribe that cared for others in the community, did not harm them, even cared for them in times of individual adversity ,  would work together more effectively in the competition for land and resource s than those in which there was a large percentage of free loaders; -people who looked after their own interests first .It is not difficult to accept that treating others fairly is another version of the harm /care foundation and would give a competitive advantage to  the group that practiced it.

Group/loyalty; Authority /respect and Purity/sanctity. These are the moral foundations that form a stronger base for conservative morality. From the earliest of times, a tribe would reject those members who were free riders. The hunter who deserted his place in the hunting ring to pursue an easy prey; The soldier who ran during the battle with an enemy tribe. Loyalty to the group was a higher virtue. Today, we especially those of a conservative bent, tend to reject those who are thought to be free loaders on the social welfare system

As Haidt points out these issues are still part of the on-going argument against group selection. At issue is whether we evolved as members of a group, or as individuals The tribesman who runs away from a war with a neighbouring tribe will live to have more children that the one who sacrifices his life for the tribe. Haidt’s answer again draws on Darwin. He who acts selfishly and in his own interests will be shunned by the tribe –even ostracised. He will not produce more children than those who are more committed to the tribe. The argument for individual selection versus group selection,  still on-going has possibly greater support for individual selection. The answer as Haidt argues, is multi-level selection.  Evolution at the level of the tribe and the individual. Richard Dawkins argued for individual selection  ( The Selfish Gene) .

Darwin joined in with Glaucon in arguing that “the development of the social virtues” depends heavily on “The praise and blame of our fellow-men”

Darwin even quoted the golden rule in support  To do good unto others- as ye would they should do unto you- is the foundation stone of morality (Darwin 1874, Chapter V)

Haidt then traces the evolutionary origins of each of the moral foundations.  Haidt gives strong support to group evolution as noted. . Multi-level selection he terms it – occurring at both the the group and individual level.  He also points out that genetic evolution is a much quicker process than is nurturing – or cultural evolution -   noting the huge changes in our moral guidelines over the last half century, in contrast to the slow changes of the many preceding centuries  – homosexuality, the death penalty, freedom for  women; and  the extensive social support systems now available . Haidt gave it the term gene-culture co-evolution, and provided several examples over human history.

To trace the impact of evolutionary processes requires going back millions of years  to early tribal groups. We can best draw on Darwin; 

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other (Darwin 1874, Chapter V)

This evolutionary process has bought with it a dual person, Homo Duplex , a term originally proposed by Emil Durkheim (1887) .People live at two levels of consciousness -   a lower or “profane” level in which individuals pursue their own goals  and a higher or “sacred” level at which they are  “.. part of a whole” (Kluver Frazier, Haidt, 2013).  This duality is seen in our political beliefs as well as our religious beliefs. The concept makes eminent sense, and explains much of the divisions we see between “good people” as Haidt describes them.

At this stage it is desirable to define the moral foundations , and explain how they relate to our differing ; and at times opposing political and religious  beliefs . I will delineate six ,rather than five, for these are what is shown on the current moral foundations website .It is necessary to point out that these beliefs and behaviours come down to us from our distant past, and have resurfaced in our current personalities and beliefs:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolutionary history underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturing in the more successful tribe.It is essentially left leaning

2) Fairness/cheating: From the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. Haidt & his colleagues reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, emphasizing proportionality, which is endorsed by all sides, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. Essentially conservative.

4) Authority/subversion: from our long primate history of hierarchical social interaction. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions. It is essentially a conservative trait.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies many religious differences - eating and washing behaviours especially.

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. It appears to be a universally accepted trait.

From these traits have come our political and religious beliefs, surfacing and becoming dominant whenever that set of genes, and/or our cultural learnings reaches to the surface.

The doubts over Haidt

Jonathon Haidt draws indirectly , a relationship between religiosity and right wing voting The questions that he has not answered, however, is the relationship between wealth and voting.  In Australia, there is little doubt that wealthier electorates vote conservative  In the UK, big majorities in all parts of Britain share the Conservative view that welfare benefits generally should be reduced; but southerners (79% of whom think this) outpace northerners (71%) who do not vote Tory (Yougov, 2013) . In the US , conflicting opinions exist about how income affects voting patterns: The belief that liberals (left wing voters) are rich elitists while Republicans are mostly low and middle-income folk, for example, has been put forward  The alternate  belief is  that Republicans are rich, fat, oil barons screwing over the little guy while poor people vote Democrat..Gelman et al. (2007) reached this conclusion:
For decades, the Democrats have been viewed as the party of the poor, with the
Republicans representing the rich. Recent presidential elections, however, have
shown a reverse pattern, with Democrats performing well in the richer blue states
in the northeast and coasts, and Republicans dominating in the red states in the
middle of the country and the south. Through multilevel modeling of individual level
survey data and county- and state-level demographic and electoral data, we
reconcile these patterns. Furthermore, we find that income matters more in red America than in blue America. In poor states, rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states (such as Connecticut), income has a very low correlation with vote preference.

In the US, it would seem, there is little or no correlation between the rich electorates and voting Republican. This may be the reason why Haidt ignored this issue

In Australia, however, the contrast is obvious .Rich electorates vote right wing, poorer electorates vote left. The imbroglio with the 2014 budget of the conservative government, widely condemned as unfair, clearly showed that conservative electorates were advantaged at the expense of the poorer left voting electorates The University of Canberra's National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling found that fifteen of the 16 hardest hit electorates are Labor Party seats in Melbourne and Sydney where wages are, on average, low and the loss of family payments has hit comparatively hard (Aston et al, 2014)

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling calculates that the poorest 20 per cent of households, which earn 8 per cent of all household income, would shoulder 16 per cent of the budget cuts. The richest 20 per cent, which earn 40 per cent of all household income, would shoulder just 10 per cent of the cuts. (Whiteford.2014)
The conclusion to draw from this, admittedly single example, is that morality, at least in right wing political circles, has special self-serving overtones to it


Mercier, H and D Sperber 2011 “ Why do humans reason ? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory Behavioural and Brain Sciences 34 , 57-74

Darwin Charles  1874, The Descent of Man, Chapter v, On the development of the intellectual and moral faculties during primeval and civilised times,.  Available on line http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/

Kluver, Jesse, Frazier Rebecca, &  Haidt Jonathan,  (2013) Behavioral ethics for Homo economicus, Homo heuristicus, and Homo duplex Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 123 (2014) 150–158

Andrew Gelman, Boris Shor, Joseph Bafumi and David Park,
Rich State, Poor State, Red State,Blue State: What’s the Matter
with Connecticut?* Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2007, 2: 345–367

Whiteford. Peter (2014) The budget, fairness and class warfare 5 AUGUST   Inside Story http://insidestory.org.au/
Heather Aston, Lisa Cox, Tom Allard (2014) Blue-ribbon Liberal seats escape budget pain Sydney Morning Herald October 10, 2014

You Gov (2013)  https://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/10/21/why-northerners-dont-vote-tory/


< Prev   Next >