Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind

Everyone agrees that human psychology consists of reasoning and moral intuition, otherwise known as head and heart. The point of contention is which part is more important and more dominant. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato argues that reason could always be the master and in control of the human body. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business disagrees with this view. In his work, he tries to analyze the origin of morality, the conflict between the head and the heart, why people gather themselves in groups and what implications his findings have on topics like religion or politics.

Haidts main hypothesis is that the human mind is to 90% an elephant and to 10% a rider trying to control the elephant. While the elephant can be seen as intuition, the rider is the strategic reasoning. Reasoning matters, particular when interacting with other people, but most of our social and political judgments are made in seconds by our intuition. Various experiments done by psychologists had shown that people, when confronted with moral decisions, immediately came up with an answer. Reasoning only served as self-affirmation after the intuitive mind already made a decision. Further experiments had shown that regarding moral and political matters, humans tend to answer according to the views of the groups they are in. In this instance, reasoning is used to show support and commitment for the team or the group people see themselves in.

Morality is too complex to reduce it to only one existing form. It varies throughout societies, times and places. The book identifies six main moral foundations that are used to construct moral communities. Those moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. The care/harm foundation evolved over time because of the need to protect vulnerable children. It helps making us sensitive to signs of suffering and need and to refuse cruelty. The fairness/cheating foundation evolved because mechanisms were needed to reward cooperative behavior while punishing cheating. It helps us identifying good and bad partners for cooperation. The loyalty/betrayal foundation evolved because of forming and maintaining coalitions. It helps identifying if another person is a good team player (or not). The authority/subversion foundation evolved because a certain social hierarchy was necessary to obtain order within groups. This foundation is making us sensitive to signs of rank or status. The sanctity/degradation foundation evolved as a kind of behavioral immune system. It makes us wary of threats and also helps us connecting to collective objectives, which are necessary to bind groups together. And lastly, the liberty/oppression foundation evolved to identify signs of oppressing domination. It helps in banding people together to resist and overcome bullies and tyrants.

So there are different foundations of morality. It is still an open question, what morality actually is. Jonathan Haidt gives a functionalist definition of moral systems:

“Moral Systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanism that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible” (314).

Therefore, the author dismisses the idea of humans seen as homo economicus, only focusing on their self-interest. Rather than that, he sees humans as homo duplex, not only acting in selfish, but also groupish. Humans that were able to organize themselves in groups gained evolutionary advantages over those who didn’t. Building groups not only helped in defeating individual organisms and loner, it also helped producing more resources within a group and making all members of the group better off. But this binding to a group, especially when combined with an excessive binding to persons, books or principles, can also make people blind. Devotees can no longer think clearly about things and are becoming zealots. There are numerous examples from religion and politics in the history of mankind. Those institutions can help binding people together and gaining cooperative advantages, but they can also lead to bigotry. Morality binds and blinds.

The author sees a growing blindness in the political system of the U.S. The country seems to be polarized and plagued to the point of dysfunction. A growing number of people consider themselves as conservatives or liberals while a declining number of people are moderate. Congressmen spend more money and time trying to dig up dirt on opponents than working together in a productive way. No wonder, Americans feel that they are on a sinking ship, while the crew is too busy fighting with each other. To overcome this gridlock, Haidt suggests that both sides approach one another and acknowledge their respective strengths. Liberals are experts in the moral foundation of care, they are good in sensing inequality and oppression. Conservatives are better in preserving those institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community. Both sides are necessary to sustain a healthy state of political life.

The Righteous Mind is a well written book full of new and innovative views on established issues like morality, intuition, religion and politics. The author delivers a lot of scientific studies to support his arguments, mainly from the fields of psychology and sociology. It is a plus point that the author is able to shortly sum up his findings at the end of every chapter. While reading the book I came up with two points that need to be clarified in further research/books. First, what exactly is intuition and how is it created? Is it good to follow your intuition or does it oftentimes lead to wrong assessments (like the scientist Daniel Kahneman suggests)? Second, the book made clear why in the process of human evolution group building was advantageous. But is this still the case in modern society? Is the focus on groups maybe more of an obstacle than a benefit in future human development? Still, a lot of question regarding those topics need to be answered.

Haidt, Jonathan (2013): The Righteous Mind. Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Penguin Books, London.


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