The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

May 10, 2012

Why can't we all just get along? According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the reason is that human nature is intrinsically "groupish" and judgemental. Haidt weaves together updated versions of experiments described in earlier articles to produce a smooth autobiographical narrative aimed at demonstrating how he has come to conclude that we are "designed" for groupish - a Nietzschean might have said "herdish" - righteousness.

The Righteous Mind's first of three parts offers experimental evidence in support of the claim (which Haidt associates with David Hume) that moral persuasion is not so much a matter of reasoning as it is of sentiment, intuition and emotion. In the second, he argues against the view that morality is exhausted by considerations of harm and fairness on the grounds that many people also care about liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (the last three notions being primarily associated with conservative thinking). It is unclear, however, why we should think of these as additional "moral foundations", rather than elaborations of the first two (or whichever ones prove to be the most basic upon further analysis). In the third and final part, Haidt appeals to research in evolutionary psychology that suggests that what distinguishes us from other species is our ability to cooperate with a conscious aim of fulfilling common goals. He concludes that "morality binds and blinds"; that is to say it endows us with collective identity at the cost of disposing us to feel righteous indignation towards those who do not share our sentiments. We thus divide into combative religious and political gangs with little interest in genuine conversation.

Haidt neatly combines nativist, empiricist and rationalist viewpoints to demonstrate that differences in our belief systems are caused by diverse environmental factors that trigger our innate disposition to be moralistic; the content of our beliefs is neither innate nor rational but part of our emotional development. As such, there is much that opposed religious and political groups can learn from each other, each being sensitive to different values that all humans are innately capable of caring about. Although Haidt does not do this, the theory can presumably be extended to other rifts, such as those between analytic and continental philosophy, fans of different sports teams and the working-class men who populate Magnus Mills' novels. Haidt assumes that people on all sides of such Manichaean divides are basically good. In this he appears to follow Plato's Socrates, who notoriously proposed that we always act in the guise of some perceived - or misperceived - good. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it when questioned about abandoning the French Communist party, he was tired of the opposition being demonised as "evil" when they were basically just decent people with misplaced values. This view leaves space for moral monstrosity, but refuses to so characterise half of the world's population.

The book's general argument is both convincing and inspiring, although Haidt at times flirts with the less plausible view that we are self-deceived in thinking that we ever act in the light of reasons that favour one course of action over another. This makes the error of supposing that the sentiments that motivate us to see something as a reason for acting are the only "real reasons" behind our actions, an outlook that limits any attempt to understand the complex relation between our actions and the diverse factors underlying them. Be that as it may, Haidt undoubtedly succeeds in his aim to "drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness" that regrettably characterises much contemporary political and religious debate. A recommended read.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

By Jonathan Haidt. Allen Lane, 448pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781846141812. Published 29 March 2012

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