The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt – Pantheon Books (2012)

Every time I turn around, I’m battling someone about something — on social media and in-person — about Israel/Palestine, climate change, the upcoming 2016 elections.

Yes, my political views tend to lean solidly towards the Left (maybe Far Left) …. OK, maybe so far Left that they fall off the end of the political spectrum. But surely I can stand apart from my personal political proclivities and engage with others from a rational perspective.



I don’t like to think about these encounters as a “battle.” After all, I’m better than that!  I’m a “peace” activist. I’m an educated, open-minded, fair-hearted person who prides herself in being a good listener and trying to understand the other side.

I try not to jump to conclusions, not to respond in a threatening or confrontational manner, or ~~~most importantly~~~ not to be judgmental. I’m not interested in “winning” the argument (as so many of my fellow activists seem to be when they’re engaging with the “other”). I simply want the other side to understand me and my position, as I try to understand them.

Nevertheless, I must admit, something’s not working. I leave these battles frustrated and scratching my head: “What’s wrong with the world?”

Thanks to Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” I think I’ve gained some insights into what’s wrong … and it begins with me.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia. His book is an academic journey through the mind and why we respond to others the way we do. It’s not the sort of book I would have picked up myself, but a friend recommended it after hearing about my battles. Now, I’m recommending it to everyone, no matter where you may fall on the political spectrum.

The first take-away message:

Talk to the elephant first

Humans form their opinions from intuition first, and strategic reasoning second. That’s not what I wanted to hear.

I pride myself on my rational, logical, thoughtful analysis, but Haidt provides very good arguments to support his contention that our intuitions guide us, followed by strategic reasoning to support our intutions.  He uses the example of an elephant and a rider.

Our intuitions are the elephant, and our strategic reasoning is the rider on top of the elephant. “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own.” Talk to the elephant first. Elephants rule, but sometimes elephants are open to reason.

Apparently, the Republicans understand this better than Democrats and that’s why the messaging on the Right is so much more effective than the messaging on the Left, according to Haidt. Republicans know how to speak to the elephant — to people’s intuition.

Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even the existence, of other moral matrices.

The author unpacks Moral Foundations Theory with lots of research, but a good summary is available at  In a nutshell, we can’t understand morality, politics or religion (and thus we can’t make convincing arguments) until we have a good picture of human groupishness and its origins. Morality both binds us and blinds us.

Researchers have identified 5 moral foundations which I think are universal across cultures.  We all identify with some or all of these foundations. Check these out and see which resonate with you. They are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

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. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” 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. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.

Haidt says that people on the Left rely on #1 and #2 (care/harm and fairness/cheating) while those on the Right engage with all five moral matrices.

To sum up, when we’re talking about hot button topics like abortion, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, or climate change (for example), we’re typically talking to the rider on the elephant and trying to reason with him using all of the unassailable facts at our disposal.  Then we walk away frustrated because he just doesn’t “get it.”  He’s an imbecile.

We should begin by listening to his elephant, learning which moral matrices (see #1 through #5 above) form his views on the subject and speak to his intuitive, automatic thought processes. Jonathan Haidt says: “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own.”

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

Now that I’m aware of the 5 moral matrices, and the elephant and the rider, I see the unproductive interactions of the righteous mind.

An example might help. I see pro-Palestinian activists on social media try to hammer pro-Israeli activists with facts about the atrocities that occur daily in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces or the Jewish settlers. They have facts galore to draw upon. I engage in this hammering as well.

We’re attempting to convince our opponent’s rider, not his elephant. And we’re focused only on the first moral matrix (care/harm) and maybe the second (fairness/cheating) when our opponent may be engaging with all five moral matrices.

I think that partially explains why AIPAC successfully convinces members of Congress to heed Israel’s wishes. It’s not just that money and votes flow to candidates, as pro-Palestinian activists believe. Those AIPAC lobbyists know how to speak to the Congressman’s elephant and respond to all five moral matrices. They frame the Israel/Palestine issue as a matter of Israel’s security (moral matrix #1), and the unbreakable US-Israel partnership (moral matrix #3), and the Palestinians’ resistance (moral matrix #4), and suicide bombers (moral matrix #5), and even memories of the Holocaust (moral matrix #2). Conservative members of Congress who are predisposed to a worldview based on all five moral matrices will have a difficult time turning AIPAC down.

Haidt acknowledges his liberal worldview and says his research on the Moral Foundations Theory has helped him understand the wisdom of some of the other moral matrices. Haidt believes:

Liberal Wisdom –

  • Governments can and should restrain corporate super organisms.
  • Some problems really can be solved by regulation.

Libertarian Wisdom –

  • Markets are miraculous.

Social Conservative Wisdom –

  • You can’t help the bees by destroying the hives*

(*Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion but in their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital. They are helping a subset of the bees while destroying the hive.)

This brief summary of Haidt’s book can’t do it justice, but I must say it opened up a whole new way of looking at (and appreciating) the other side. I agree with the author – Liberals (myself included) do have difficulty seeing moral capital, the fundamental blind spot of the Left. “If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble.”

Liberals and conservatives are the yin & yang, and both are needed for a healthy state of political life.

Check out this short clip where the author is speaking with Stephen Colbert about his book.


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