Why good people disagree on important issues

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Allen Lane, London, 2012

Reviewed by David Purdy

This impressive, stimulating and eloquent book holds many lessons for Western democracies, where over the past decade, and especially since the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum, politics has become increasingly polarised and fractious. The author, a social psychologist who is now a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, offers a grand tour of human nature and history from the perspective of moral psychology, drawing on genetics and neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, moral philosophy and political science. With this prospectus, it comes as no surprise to learn that his intellectual heroes are Charles Darwin, David Hume and Emile Durkheim.

The original title for the book was The Moral Mind, but Haidt eventually rejected this in favour of The Righteous Mind because, he explains, our moral judgements, though not mere expressions of emotion, devoid of cognitive content, are nonetheless emotionally charged. The word “righteous”, familiar from the authorised version of the Bible, has an archaic ring nowadays, but we still use it to describe anger arising from an outraged sense of decency, justice or fair play. Similarly, a self-righteous person is someone who, convinced that he or she is right, inveighs against the contrasting beliefs and actions of others. This kind of judgmental, moralistic stance comes naturally to political partisans, with potentially baneful consequences, for if it is not kept in check by due respect for democratic norms, a firm commitment to the rules of the game and a settled consensus about the primary goals of public policy, it can poison the whole body politic.

Haidt’s argument unfolds in three parts, each dependent on the one before and each expounding a core principle of moral psychology. Part One takes issue with rationalist accounts of morality, adducing a wealth of experimental and other evidence to support the proposition that “Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” From Plato onwards, Western philosophers have worshipped reason and distrusted the passions. Haidt calls this view the “rationalist delusion” because it is completely at odds with reality. He pays tribute, however, to David Hume, whose philosophical masterpiece A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-9) adopts an empirical approach to the study of knowledge and morals, and concludes that “reason is the slave of the passions”, a view considered sacrilegious at the time.

We humans are social animals and crave the good opinion of others. This explains the social character of our moral judgements. We respond intuitively to our experience of the world, are quick to make judgments and poor at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm them. We find reasons to support our judgments after the event, typically with a view to winning friends and influencing people. We may, of course, subsequently change our minds, though we tend to stand by our moral judgments, and when we do change our minds, it is rarely the result of private reflection and more often reflects the influence of others. In moral and political matters, we are “groupish” rather than selfish, deploying our reasoning skills to support our “team” and to demonstrate our commitment to it.

Part Two seeks to show that “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness”. On the basis of extensive surveys of public opinion both in the US and other countries, Haidt demonstrates that moral concerns are not the prerogative of liberals (or the progressive left, as we would say in Europe). Conservatives too have moral ideals. To be sure, they care less about reducing human suffering and promoting social justice, the values cherished by liberals, but they also care more about other values that liberals scarcely acknowledge and, indeed, find baffling: notably, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Libertarians form a third distinctive body of moral opinion. Passionate champions of the free market, in recent decades they have tended to team up with the political right, while maintaining a liberal stance on social issues. For them liberty is a paramount value that trumps the concerns of both “bleeding heart” liberals and “hidebound” conservatives.

In Part Three, Haidt explains how “Morality binds and blinds.” Humans, he quips, are “90% chimp and 10% bee”. We are mostly selfish, but we are also capable, in the right conditions, of transcending self-interest and forming cohesive, co-operative groups governed by shared norms, institutions and gods. Out of these “intangible”, socially created resources, we build moral communities, just as bees build hives out of wax and wood fibres. Moral communities are more productive, prosperous and successful than those in which bonds of solidarity have withered or failed to develop. They also meet the psychic needs of their members – for spiritual salvation, social recognition, a sense of belonging – and this, in turn, helps to foster altruism, at any rate within the confines of the group. Examples abound, from religious orders, craft guilds and business corporations to city-states, citizen-armies and modern nations. Indeed, our “groupish” propensity has been the chief driving force of human civilisation. It does not, however, extend to the entire human species. We have not been designed – by evolution, that is, not by an “intelligent designer” – to love everyone unconditionally. “Parochial love – love within groups – amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate and the suppression of free riders, may be the most that we can accomplish” (p 245).

With its rich account of human nature and its stress on the importance of moral systems for human flourishing, The Righteous Mind illuminates and inspires in equal measure. “We humans,” Haidt writes, “have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle round those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about. And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too” (p 273). But morality also “binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say” (p 313).


Review published February 2019

About the reviewer: David Purdy is a social economist and former Head (now retired) of the Department of Applied Social Science at the University of Manchester. Politically active since the 1960s, he is a member of the Scottish Labour Party and of Democratic Left Scotland. He co-edited and contributed to Feelbad Britain (Lawrence and Wishart, 2009) and is currently working on a book provisionally entitled Economic Crises and The Politics of Work: 1929-2029.