Jonathan Haidt's 'The Righteous Mind'

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (Pantheon) is a book addressed to our national discontent. A study in moral psychology, it aims to explain why Americans are so polarized over politics and religion. Haidt’s explanation?: “the righteous mind,” not only the human capacity to make moral judgements, but even more the tendency to be judgmental or “moralistic.” “Righteousness,” he argues, is essential to human society. Our overstated moral intuitions bind us in groups and divide us from others. They make us “groupish,” he writes.

In the end, Haidt hopes to persuade conservatives and liberals to understand one another a little better and get along. Wisdom, he writes, “requires us all to take the logs out of our own eyes and then escape from our ceaseless, petty and divisive moralism.” Liberals and conservatives are “the yin and yang” of a healthy society; they should learn from one another.

Haidt’s insights go a long way toward elucidating the more vocal and unyielding attitudes we hear in everyday life. They invite us to think about moralistic behavior, a phenomenon we tend to overlook. They especially illuminate morally flat societies, like the U.S. today, where a demotic culture fosters moral relativism. Are we not the country where “Jersey Shore” is a pop sensation and “Survivor” allows middle-aged adults to play out the nightmare of “Lord of the Flies”? Ours is not a culture that values qualitative differences in moral judgements. It is no wonder that our political and even religious discourse mimics, in a shallow and distorted ways, the genuine article.

What is missing in The Righteous Mind is a sense of moral development, of growth and conversion in moral attitudes, of differences in moral perceptions that are differences in worth. After all, Mr. Haidt admits himself to a transformation in the course of his research from a liberal to a centrist persuasion. Mutual understanding and social harmony are more important to him now than when he was a straightforward liberal, valuing unhampered individual liberty. What accounts for the change?

In Haidt-land people can and do change their moral views–under the weight of gossip or the intense pressure of outspoken neighbors. But moral convictions also change for better reasons and out of experiences of better and finer quality. For example, the “silent scream” turned abortionist Bernard Natanson into a leading pro-life activist. People’s  attitudes toward wars like Vietnam evolve. It took a life time, but Robert McNamara eventually confessed he had been mistaken about Vietnam. More to the point, during the Cold War Henry Kissinger and George Schultz were practitioners of deterrence; now they argue for abolition of nuclear weapons.

We are not inevitably doomed by untutored moral intuitions and our passionate feelings of righteousness in the ways Haidt suggests. In the case of nuclear abolition, the Cold Warriors’ moral conversion took a rational form. Facts accumulated, contexts changed, principles evolved. Reasonable people changed their minds. Contrary to Haidt, reason is not always the slave of passion supplying convenient rationalizations for what we already want to do. It sometimes subdues and re-directs it. People do reason their ways to new moral positions, develop new moral outlooks and find their moral feelings changed. 

Even more, attentive, honest moral reasoning can sometimes open up a wider range of moral “intuitions” than Haidt’s theory allows. Moral conversion can result from profound shifts in consciousness. It can arise in a series of awakenings as it did for William Wilberforce confronting the slave trade, or as an inescapable call as it did to Martin Luther King during the Montgomery bus boycott. It can be forced on one with an unavoidable decision, as for Franz Jaegerstatter, who refused to serve in Hitler’s wars, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who joined the plot to assassinate der Fuhrer.

Another route to altered moral awareness consists of patterns of moral development. Thinkers from Plato in the Symposium to Erik Erikson in Gandhi’s Truth have traced paths of ascent in moral awareness and responsibility. Their idealized plot-lines may over-systematize what in life may be more random personal narratives of growth. But such trajectories reflect the fact that we humans can and do grow in moral awareness and the exercise of moral responsibility. The absence of moral awakenings and moral development as part of his theory deprives the landscape of the Righteous Mind of depth and richness. While he is correct about the strength of conservative values, inattention to the variety and depth of moral experience leads to underestimation of the sources of moral change and of the liberal role in society.

One of the strengths of The Righteous Mind is Haidt’s attention to the values to which conservatives are especially attached: loyalty, authority and sanctity. “Republicans,” he writes, “understand moral psychology. Democrats do not.” Their advantage, he argues, is that conservatives can appeal to the whole range of moral intuitions described by his Moral Foundations Theory, including care and fairness, the only two values that liberals attend to. Of course, what motivates them more strongly are loyalty, authority and sanctity. What’s awry in Haidt’s theory is that his thin empiricism rests on what the phenomenologist Nicholas Hartmann called “strong values,” values that push us to defend our homes and countries, values that fill us with revulsion at cannibalism and incest. But he neglects “higher values” like generosity, service of others, nonviolence and love of enemies.

Haidt can explain why lepers were regarded as “unclean,” but not why Saint Francis would declare kissing a leper “perfect joy” or why Mother Teresa rescued the dying from the streets of Calcutta. He can explain wartime jingoism but not pacifism; anti-migrant violence but not the sanctuary movement. He understands human fear, but not aspiration. His notion of sanctity is a case in point.

Sanctity, for Haidt, is synonymous with taboo. It is about the avoidance of pollution, repugnance at unnatural acts (abortion, suicide, euthanasia, genetic manipulation). It corresponds to one aspect of Rudolf Otto’s experience of the Holy, the mysterium tremendum, the sacred as a pervasive and perduring sense of fear, but not the other, the mysterium fascinans, a center of intimate and all-embracing love. Haidt’s empiricism is too thin. Yes, fear, loyalty and deference to authority are strong passions, but they are not often our best passions. Loyalty can inspire occasional acts of heroism, but not a lifetime of service.

Moral Foundation Theory has no room in it for Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and “peak experiences,” ideas about positive and expansive  experiences that in the 60s and 70s united humanistic psychology with traditional philosophical and spiritual traditions of moral growth. There’s no room either for Erikson’s homo religiosus (Gandhi) as a person whose object of care became all humanity. He misses the religious experience of “peace” which Alfred North Whitehead called the crowning experience of civilization.

Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory accounts for our demons and the lesser angels of our nature, but not the better ones. It accounts for a narrow range of religious experience, those parts of it most evident in the culture wars, but not the transformative experiences of mystics, spiritual masters and religious founders like Benedict, Ignatius, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Dorothy Day whose foundations altered history.             

The Righteous Mindilluminates the sources of our cultural discontent, but it lacks the resources to heal it. The empirical and theoretical foundations are too feeble for that. The way out of this cultural low depends on rediscovering our moral highs.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.


5 years 3 months ago
I was surprised by this review.  I have not read the book yet, but there are two thrusts of Haidt's work that seem to be missing, both of which are in those of his readings I assign when I teach his work in my psychology courses. 

First, Haidt does speak to the better angels.  One of his lines of research is on ''elevation,'' the emotion people feel when they see others do morally good things.  Here is a link to his website with some description of his work on this topic:  He clearly does not limit his thoughts about sanctity to taboo, though I suppose it possible that he would not discuss this in his book (though I would find that surprising). 

Second, Haidt clearly states in several places in his writings that moral reasoning does matter. (Consider his 2010 chapter from Handbook of Social Psychology as an example.)  Thus others of his writings certainly do not point to inevitable doom arising from moral intuition.  Much of what underpins Haidt's work is drawn from a very well-developed line of research indicating that people think in two different modes, one effortful, the other intuitive.  This work has been done with many different methods in many different labs.  (See for instance, the recent book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.)  Thus I am not sure that ''thin'' describes accurately the research base underlying Haidt's work.  Understanding that distinction between modes of thought has struck me as crucial not only for examining cultural discontent, but also for my own work with Ignatian discernment.  How often am I on autopilot, rather than mindfully present to my graced life?  What are the implications of that for my daily actions?

I love America magazine and value its work.  But I am disappointed by this review.  Perhaps Haidt's book reflects a change in thought from other work by him, but that would seem uncharacteristic.  Thanks for your consideration.
5 years 3 months ago

You're welcome, and thanks for the kind words!  I hadn't seen the NYT review.  That review does suggest that Haidt both (a) talks about some of the role of moral reasoning; and (b) suggests ways of moving us past simple moral intuition.  I didn't see anything in that review, either, about elevation.  Perhaps Haidt did not include it in the current book, which seems to cover a lot of ground.  If so, too bad.  There's too little psychology research on positive emotions, and awfully little on those we see when we witness acts of moral virtue.  His chapter on elevation in his book The Happiness Hypothesis gives a readable overview for the nonpsychologist.

I'll raise two other hypotheses about what would make a review difficult.  First, it sounds like (from the NYT) review, Haidt proposed particular policy recommendations.  Psychology can do relatively well speaking about the behavior of individuals in given contexts.  Translating this to policy can be a challenge.  For instance, would there be unintended consequences of open primaries?

Second, academic psychology strikes me as having a language of its own.  If you immerse yourself in it, you develop a fluency that you might forget.  In that case, psychologists can someimtes miss ambiguities in the language they use.  Or (the other side of the coin), those who don't know the language might simply miss subtleties, even if the psychologist tries to explain them.  Thus it is possible that Haidt sometimes did not express himself clearly, or that Fr. Christiansen sometimes missed nuances.  Hard to say. Perhaps neither.

As I mentioned, I have not read this book, so I don't know whether I should recommend it.  But I find Haidt's work in general some of the most interesting of recent social psychology.  And I find awareness of the (at least sometimes) power of moral intuition important on a personal level.  It's a huge call to humility, and that helps me to remember that God's ways are not my ways....
J Cosgrove
5 years 3 months ago
Has Haidt committed the unpardonable sin and that is why he is being marginalized here.  Haidt suggests that one must listen to the other side.  Something I have not seen on this site except for one or maybe two authors.  About Haidt's book from the NY Times article

''Politics isn’t just about ­manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.''

''This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.''

''Conservatism thrives because it fits how people think, and that’s what validates it. Workers who vote Republican aren’t fools. In Haidt’s words, they’re “voting for their moral interests.”''

''The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds.''

There are other comments by the NY Times reviewer that will be hard to swallow by authors here and Times' readers.  But he does take on Republicans and conservatives too.
J Cosgrove
5 years 3 months ago
''There's too little psychology research on positive emotions''

I took a graduate level course in social psychology from one of the top people in the field.  On the lecture covering emotion, she described emotion as a large, sudden and unexpected change in feeling as emotion.  I understood the sudden and unexpected part as causing some very emotional events in our lives such as fear or often receiving great news you were not expecting.  But I described a situation where someone is expecting a very pleasant event, like meeting your girl friend who you haven't seen for a couple months (e.g. coming home from a military deployment) and having a tremendous emotional experience when finally seeing her and then holding her. 

I asked if that was an emotional experience and this world class professor looked me straight in the eye and said no.  Right there I knew that the understanding of emotional events was limited in psychology.
5 years 3 months ago

You're welcome again!  Happiness Hypothesis covers very little ground in politics.  Haidt tries to draw together views from religious traditions with some current ideas in psychology to see what the two have to say about happiness.  I find the book a bit uneven, but he's taking on an awfully difficult task, so how could it be otherwise.  And it's often really terrific. 

The idea that emotions provide preparation to act and that we often then use logic to confirm our feelings does seem spot on.  One of the cool things about humans is that we can try to do something else, poking at our beliefs to try to disconfirm them.  Important stuff given that we do not see exactly with God's eyes.  


Not sure that I see Haidt being marginalized.  The review here clearly says some favorable things about the book.  What questions I have about the review likely come from having a different academic background.

That was a fun (if sad) story about your social psychology experience.  Thanks!  We do, indeed, have a limited understanding of emotion, but then, the world is large, so we have limited understandings of many things!  FWIW, I teach a grad social psychology class, though we only spend a couple days explicitly on emotion.  I would have agreed with you that what you describe is an emotion.  The difference could, in part, be due to timing.  There are bits and pieces of positive emotion research going way back, but there's been an explosion in such work in roughly the last decade.  I think we know a fair amount more now than we did 20-30 years ago.  For instance, I'm writing a chapter for a book on positive emotions.  Hard to imagine that book existing a decade ago!
Amy Ho-Ohn
5 years 3 months ago
I am thinking Haidt protests too much. The vast majority of conservatives are not conservative because they believe in loyalty, authority or sanctity: they are conservative because they have money, power and status and don't want to lose them. The vast majority of liberals are not liberal because they care about caring or fairness: they are liberal because they want the conservatives' money, power and status.

Haidt is trying to answer the question, "Why do working-class white people vote conservative when liberals are offering them such big handouts?" This is a question liberals keep asking themselves. The answer is not some airy-fairy theoretical nonsense about loyalty, authority or sanctity. The answer is that among the people they know (e.g., a small town in a Great Plains state), white working-class conservatives are relatively prosperous. They fear losing relative position if everybody gets big handouts.

Haidt is also trying to answer the question, "Why do upper-middle class professionals vote liberal when conservatives are offering to let them keep more of their income?" This is another question liberals like to ask themselves. The answer they like is, "Because they're so generous and altruistic and dedicated to the common good and fairness." BS. The real answer is that among the people they know (e.g., a university district in a large coastal city) they are not all that prosperous. They are annoyed that people with less elite educational credentials have more money. That strikes them as very "unfair."

Old King Solomon was right: there is nothing new under the sun. The haves want to keep what they have and the have-nots want to get what the haves have. The only thing new is that in a complex society it's harder to estimate how much you really have by looking at how much your acquaintnances have.

Michael Barberi
5 years 3 months ago
One of the most insightful of books I read recently is "Moral Imagination and Management Decision Making" by Patricia Werhane. A friend of mine is taking a fellowship at Woodstock and writing about the role of the moral imagination as an important element for acting morally. Werbane does an outstanding job in demonstrating her thesis by using concrete business cases, inclusive of but not limited to: the Ford Pinto and Bronco II decisions; the decision involving the O Ring disaster on the Challenger Space Shuttle; Merck's decision to go ahead with producing a drug that would not be profitable but remedy illness in certain poor countries, etc.

Each of these decisions involved the moral imagination defined as: disengaging oneself from their role moralitiy, role responsibilities, cultural and social situations, etc, and striving to determine the potential consequences of their decision, and alternative solutions that may solve the problem at hand.  We all try to do this and we all cannot fully disengage from our real life roles in time and space. Werhane makes a significant contribution in helping us understand how we can live morally good lives and make morally right decisions.

Below are the major take-aways from her book that is a more comprehensive treatment of this subject under discussion:
1. The process of making morally good decisions starts with the particular, a particular series of events embedded in a culturally, socially and sometimes institutionally defined context within traditions, laws, customs, narratives, language and practices that define and help to determine the event.
2. Sometimes people or institutions do not recognize a moral problem in a given set of circumstances. The Nestle Corporation did not recognize a problem in the marketing of its infant formula in developing African countries. Ford managers did not perceive an issue with Pinto explosions. The issue in these cases was that neither Nestle or Ford disengaged themselves from the situation, from the possible moral problems using moral imagination, and to test and evaluate the potential consequences of their actions and possible solutions. 
3. A certain set of beliefs or a narrative can become so dominant that we begin to believe that narrative without verifying its truth or challenging the mental models that create the narrative. When one narrative becomes widely accepted it can affect one's judgment or an institutional judgement and the ways one deals with other facts even to the extent of excluding them from consideration. For example, many bishops and cardinals in the sexual abuse scandal committed unconscionable acts of commission and omission including cover-up and assigning the same priest who habitually exploited children to other parishes. Even after the WHO condemned Nestle for its marketing activities in Africa, Nestle failed to change their procedures for some years, claiming innocence of any wrongdoing. These two cases demonstrate that moral considerations were set aside in place of other considerations considered of higher value. Little moral imagination was displayed in these cases.
4. All reality is socially constructed. All experience is interpreted or constituted by a conceptual scheme and an overlapping set of incomplete mental models through which we selectively frame, order, organize and interpret the data of experience. In the Church's case, they also interpret revelation and speculate about God's will and in turn formulate moral norms. Our mental models are socially learned, culturally inculcated, educationally reinforced and experientially altered. These mental models are incomplete and volatile, that is, they can be relearned and changed. In some cases, these mental models bracket out other points of view or other scheme. 
5. In developing morally, adults learn to move from the particular, from specific instances of moral conflicts, to more general situations, seeking guidelines applicable to those and similar relationships. Human beings are not exhaustive defined by our roles but each of us can get a distance from and evaluate our roles and role responsibilities Tools for evaluation included precepts of common morality, guidelines about how to behave such as: equal respect for persons, avoidance of harm, respect for rights and fairness, honoring contracts, etc. The difficulty is that when one begins from the general, starting with moral theory or theories, and then applies these theories or generalities to particular cases, sometimes there is a disconnect between theory and practice. When there is a disconnect and contradiction, it is impossible to verify universal absolute moral principles except those that are common to most peoples (such as murdering the innocent).
5. If one mental model is individually incommensurable, then one if left with the problem of solipsism. One can understand two different scheme or world views, and yet not agree with one or the other. However, a mental model has to come from 'somewhere'. My question is "what is the truth" when most of the members of an institution (like the church) disagrees with a specific norm? 
6. When we find contradictory narratives functioning side by side on a particular moral issue, this is the time for moral imagination to resolve the dilemma and contradiction. The church's narrative about contraception and its consequences is a case in point. Yet, the church has not attempted to resolve the conflict about a young married woman with 3 children whose life is threatened by another pregnancy. She cannot use the pill or be sterilized to safe-guard her life..she must use "risky PC" or practice celibacy. In a opposite twist, the example of breast implants, where no scientific evidence was found to link implants to any disease, contradicted the belief among many women that implants cause cancer and other aliments simply based on the erroneous 60 Minute telecast about facts. Even after 60 Minutes rescinded the telecast and apologized, women continued to believed the story.
7. The most intriguing idea was the works of Michael Walzer "Spheres of Justice" and "Thick and Thin" especially the concept or moral minimums. Walzer does not spell out the content of these minimums. However, Werbane suggests that moral minimums are best understood as negative standards, universally agreed upon "bottom lines" beyond which it is morally questionable to act. These moral minimums are subject to historical change. A moral minimum is a candidate for a universal principle, but never elected for all eternity. There lies the challenge…to expand on this and make it a plausible and relevant guide to moral decision-making even though it will be in tension with the moral absolutes and world view of the magisterium.

J Cosgrove
5 years 3 months ago
Dr. Ahrens,

I guess I was reacting to the words ''authority'' and ''loyalty'' and the last three paragraphs.  

The social psych course I took was at City Univeristy where a very famous experiment took place and the course I mentioned also had lectures on the ''authoritarian personality'' and the professor attempted to link open mindedness with liberals and close mindedness with conservatives and their authoritarian ways.  Needless to say, I was the only conservative in the course and expressed my disagreement though I did not have any facts or studies to back me up at the time. (Also just what is a conservative never came up but one attribute of all conservatives provided by the professor was close mindedness.  Ironic given what I am about to say.)

Recently I became aquainted with what Schumpeter was trying to do 100 years ago.  He was faced with the irrationality of the progressives/socialists to logical arguments about economics and these socialist elites based their beliefs on emotions.  They refused to budge when presented with logic.  So he tried what is best called irony.  By telling them that socialism was the desired economic model but like St. Augustine's initial flirtation with Christianity, not just yet.  First the society had to go through a period of capitalism before socialism could take hold so he argued like he was in agreement with them.  Of course he didn't believe it because he was a proponent of the effect of the entrepeneur on society.  Sort of like the 1/10 of 1% are the real movers in this world.  I am not sure it had any effect but this is what Schumpeter recognized he was dealing with.  Also Schumpeter was also parroting Marx who said nothing about how communism would arise except it would only come after capitalism was very successful.  Of course, Marx's ideas were nonsense too and irrational but he had a incredible effect on the elites as do all utopian proponents.

So even back then the issue was the closed mindedness of the liberal elites.  In 1901, an Italian political theorist named Pareto, wrote in a book titled, ''The Rise and Fall of Elites'' about the intransigence of socialists.  Pareto said that elites were inevitable and that they were irrational and not logical about social action.  It was almost impossible to convince socialists of the fallacy of their doctrine because it was like a substitute religion and no arguments against it were accepted.  Pareto thought socialism was inevitable because of this attitude.

So here we are 100 years later witnessing the same phenomena that was written about a century ago.  This phenomena is not limited to liberals or progressives because in a business school course on decision making I was exposed to, the collection of information for decisions is often not made to pick the best decision but to justify the decision that has already been made.  So essentially in a lot of cases it is ''now that we have decided what to do, let's look at how we can justify it.''

Lot's of interesting hypotheses for various social science disciplines, including psychology.  But will they investigate themselves honestly?

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