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

Jonathan Haidt, Vintage, 2013

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. —Mark Twain

Why bother talking with people at the other end of the political or theological spectrum? We already know what they think. They’re wrong. They won’t listen to reason. They view the world askew. They march mindlessly in lockstep behind partisan ideologues and extremists.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, challenges us to think about our thinking on political and moral questions, to seek to understand how and why others see things differently.

Haidt asks us to think of a human being as a rider on an elephant. We like to think that the rider, the rational mind, is in command. The rider surveys the environment, assesses threats and opportunities, uses reason to choose a response, then commands the elephant to act. And the elephant obeys the rider.

If only.

More often, the elephant—a massive creature comprising instinct, social conditioning, habit, peer pressure, emotions, prejudices, and gut feelings—reacts reflexively, without rational thought, and lurches into action, with the feckless rider hanging on. Then the rider makes up reasons and excuses to justify the elephant’s action.

Human tongues have taste bud receptors for salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Haidt says our minds have six moral receptors to perceive dual concepts: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. These yin-yang pairs contradict and complement each other. The elephant’s gut reactions to information from these receptors determine how we view politics, community, religion, hierarchy, tradition, liberty, equality, and justice.

Haidt says liberals and conservatives define these moral concepts differently. Liberals focus on some concepts; conservatives focus on others: Fairness means everybody gets to keep what they earn/Fairness means the wealthy must share with the poor. Protect school children by arming teachers/Protect school children by banning certain firearms. Same-sex marriage is an abomination/Same-sex marriage is a blessing.  

Haidt seeks to get people at all points of the liberal-conservative continuum to engage in dialogue with open minds, with civility, and with compassion.

To learn about Haidt’s work and about programs to encourage civil community dialogue on politics and religion, look here:
     •  “…a unique non-debate on America's biggest problems, which are hurtling toward us through space and time at an alarming rate of speed.”

Dale Roberts is a retired teacher, vocational counsellor, and musician from Asheville, NC.