The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion wouldn’t be everyone’s choice of holiday reading, but it somehow felt appropriate as I sat in the Las Vegas sunshine in presidential election year.

Whenever politics was discussed, even among friends, views were clearly polarized between liberal and conservative. Not to mention those left/right hybrids, the libertarians.

But while friends can choose to disagree and yet remain friends in a circle of diverse political opinion, more and more people are being drawn into communities of like-minded people who see the flaws in other people’s arguments, but not their own.

The author, Jonathan Haidt, is an American psychologist and a leader in the developing discipline of cultural psychology that attempts to explain how and why we think and act as we do.

He is also a self-confessed Democrat and atheist and his book has its origins in John Kerry’s presidential campaign of 2004. Haidt recognised that Kerry was somehow failing to appeal to a broader electorate.

It is a question that has long baffled the liberal left – why is it that some working-class people are prepared to ignore self-interest and cast their votes for the party of big business that supports tax cuts for millionaires?

Are they stupid or have they been brainwashed? That would be the easy answer, but Haidt argues that it is because the right hits more of the emotional and moral buttons that the left can only dream of.

Don’t get me wrong, Haidt hasn’t written a partisan tirade – it can make uncomfortable reading whether you lean left or right – but what he tries to unravel are our innate emotional and moral proclivities that make us think and act as we do as individuals and in groups.

Others have put forward the idea that we think on two separate levels*. There is the instantaneous reaction to events, or our gut instinct, followed by our slower, rational selves that tries explain why we think what we do.

Haidt’s analogy is of an elephant and its rider. The former is large, lumbering and hard to knock off course while the latter is the brains of the outfit.

Except the rider isn’t in charge, the elephant is. The rational man on top serves the elephant by giving reason to what it does and where it goes and is little more than its press secretary.

All of which no doubt sounds flaky and off the wall, but then I am trying to synthesise this into a few paragraphs!

At the heart of Haidt’s thinking is that morality is hard-wired in us all through evolution. That does not mean that we are born knowing right from wrong, rather that we are inclined to certain behaviours and that certain aspects of morality can become more or less important to us depending on experience.

And as the sub-title of his book suggests, Haidt believes that there are good people on either side of the political divide with solutions to offer and that automatically discounting or mocking the attitudes of others is ultimately counter-productive for society at large.

Towards the end of the book, he tells of the time when a politician elected to congress would move their family to Washington. Their wives, husbands and children would move in the same social circles as their opponents and while they may not necessarily agree on the big issues, there would be a mutual regard and they would learn from each other.

Today, those politicians leave their families at home. They fly to Washington on Monday and home again on Thursday and fraternisation with ‘the enemy’ is actively discouraged.

Politics has become tribal trench warfare and presidential candidates now put as much effort into discrediting their opponents as in promoting their own policies.

It has turned the political divide into a chasm and supporters either polarise to the extreme or are turned off by the democratic process. Both are equally dangerous.

I suspect that I haven’t really done this book justice, but it deserves an audience wider than the Washington and Westminster villages and debate beyond the pages of Guardian Society.

It is enthusiastically written and the ideas are easily absorbed and it is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in politics or looking for a better understanding of themselves and others.

* Dan Gardner’s Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear springs to mind.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • Leon T. Pudding 17th May 2012

    Sounds like a very heavy read. Perhaps I should start respecting David Cameron and his Toryboy disciples… after all, we’re all in it together aren’t we?
    “Good people on either side of the political divide with solutions to offer” – would Haidt include Adolf Hitler? Franco? Margaret Thatcher? Isn’t it really all about where your heart lies not your head?

  • Mr Parrot 17th May 2012

    It isn’t heavy going at all, quite entertaining in fact. He does have some interesting things to say about the likes of Hitler, Franco and other dictators.

    But is it heart or head? That is exactly his point, that our heart comes up with the decision and then our attempts to rationalise it.

    I left my copy of the book with my host in Las Vegas who was about two-thirds the way through it when we left, but was questioning Haidt’s ideas because the author is openly a Democrat. However, it is a book that challenges your thinking whether you’re from the right or left.

  • VegasAnt 18th May 2012

    The subject of “Moral Psychology” has seldom excited me. Haidt’s tome begins with an interesting and imaginative description of the state of the subject to date, proceeds with some profound insights, but ultimately falls flat. .

    But first, as Mr. Parrot and I enthusiastically concur, come the good bits. The first part is entitled “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”. The survey of the field to date is comprehensive and comprehensible. On second reading, one may get a hint of where he intends to lead you, but it is as yet just a twinkle in Haidt’s eye. Amongst the many allegories he illustrates is the “Elephant and Rider” model, and this is the most interesting. The Elephant is your gut instinct, the automatic process, the animal side. The Rider is the intellect, the controlling process, the “human” side. One might think that the Rider gets to call the shots. But no – the rider evolved to serve the Elephant, and does so in various non-obvious ways.

    One aspect of my professional life is the mystery as to why my ingrate clients seem incapable of appreciating the blindingly obvious or listening to what they are paying good money to hear me say. ‘Rationality’ gets short shrift – it’s the Elephant that calls the shots, and that Elephant lumbers along according to intuition and preconceived notions gained through a lifetime of experience in whatever industry I’m consulting for. The Rider – serving the Elephant – is called on simply to justify the actions the Elephant it taking. If you ask someone to believe something that to them is counter-intuitive, the Rider seizes upon some justification for the course the Elephant is on – something common to both explanations of a phenomena, say – and gives the Elephant an alibi. The Rider validates the Elephants direction, should anyone ask, and that’s enough for the pair to trundle happily on their merry way. Never have I realized how valuable and somewhat unique my scientific training has been.

    Unfortunately, the latter parts of the book slip into what one must conclude was the original purpose – to elevate the author from mere academia to the paid ranks of political consultant. The contortions are gruesome. The author, accepting without question the liberal/conservative divide, rants about the inability of the Democratic party to appeal to those aspects of human nature which the Republicans touch effortlessly (hire me and I’ll fix that). The illustrations pit a monolithic left (we’re all in it together, and I’ll not be partisan) against a divided Right. The book is lavishly festooned with references to the author’s joint academic publications, where more often than not he has contrived to be first – publications forever to be referred to as ” Haidt et al.” Every page cries “Hire Me!”

    One doesn’t need an injection of psychobabble to answer the question which Haidt poses in this extended CV. Why DO the lower orders not vote Democratic, for it is obviously in their best interests to do so? Quite simply, it is because these despised “lower orders” can recognize a charlatan when they see one. For all the promises and crocodile tears, they know that somehow the promised benefits end up with their sponsors and lobbyists. Fix that, and perhaps Haidt might have a chance of doing something profound.

    One might think I have a dog in this fight, and quite literally I do. John Kerry – the candidate for president that Haidt worked for, unpaid – once kicked my friends’ dog off a sidewalk whilst walking between photo-ops. Unfortunately, there was no camera present to record what would have been a career ending move. Our Elephants side with the dog, and – whether we’re left or right – the Rider’s preference is irrelevant.

  • Francisca 24th May 2012

    Interesting, Mr Parrot. But sure there are more camps than just left and right? I feel at home in neither.

  • Mr Parrot 24th May 2012

    VegasAnt: I sense more than a touch of cynicism in your assessment of Haidt’s motives. He is quite open about his politics and has worked for the Democrats before he ever got round to publishing his ideas. Would the Democrats hire him again? I suspect not given the direction his arguments take you.

    “Why DO the lower orders not vote Democratic, for it is obviously in their best interests to do so? Quite simply, it is because these despised “lower orders” can recognize a charlatan when they see one.”

    This confuses two issues – why don’t they vote Democrat in general and Obama in particular. Haidt is talking about the former, so unless you’re saying that ALL Democrat candidates are charlatans (and I don’t think you are) then the comment doesn’t stand up.

    As you’re a self-professed libertarian, I’d be interested in your thoughts on Haidt’s conclusion that you are on the left in terms of morality and on the right on economics.

    And as regards the elephant and the rider, I do recommend at the least the first part of Risk: the Science and Politics of Fear as mentioned above.

  • Mr Parrot 24th May 2012

    Francisca: I suppose we are all at different points of the political spectrum. Haidt’s argument is that different aspects of morality and ethics will appeal to us to a greater or lesser degree depending on where we stand. I should have provided a link to his YourMorals website which I’ve rectified here!

  • lasvegasant 27th May 2012

    Mr. Parrot: Not sure where Obama comes in; something I wrote? But you’re right; my cynicism does rise to the surface quickly when someone ignores the obvious in favour of their own self-serving theory. For the Democratic party – just like the Republican party – is organized for its own benefit. Many of the working classes – far from being either stupid or credulous as the DP would have them – have in fact worked this out for themselves. They are naturally suspicious of the parade of millionaires that are offered as champions of their interests. It is these folks that are the charlatans of which I speak. Not all candidates are, obviously, but with 7 out of 10 of the wealthiest congressmen being Democrat, it’s a good guess that many are.

    I think that most of my friends are on the left for morality and the right for economics. None are libertarian, self-professed or not. Which brings me to another criticism of Haidt – his blind acceptance that people simply fall on some left/right axis. Perhaps Francisca has twigged this in her earlier post. Life is more complicated than that, but to accept that would blow up his theory. I don’t know Haidt’s position on this, but the left has long tried to dismiss libertarians as simply “Republicans who don’t believe in God”. I suspect Haidt would be obliged to concur.

  • Mr Parrot 27th May 2012

    Perhaps my fault to assume you were talking about Obama when you said that the despised “lower orders” can recognize a charlatan when they see one.” I took that to mean you were thinking of a particular politician, rather than politicians in general.

    It’s true that people are suspicious of the parade of millionaires and corporate backers, but the point is they still vote. But if ‘all politicians are bastards’ how do they conclude which is the lesser of two evils to vote for? Isn’t that where the elephant comes in? He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard!

    Incidentally, I don’t think that Haidt says or implies that the working classes (or anyone else for that matter) is either stupid or credulous. Rather he is attempting to explain, not pass judgment.

    More to the point, he’s trying to explain on a macro level. (It’s probably more sociology than psychology, but Haidt would hate to admit it!) As he says early on in his book, we have our own view of the world because we’re WEIRD and we shouldn’t assume that enforcing democracy around the globe is necessarily a ‘good thing’.

    By the same token, neither should we reach conclusions based on the people we know because they are unlikely to be a representative sample. We might think they are different to us, but there is more that unites us than divides us..

    And that’s Haidt’s point – that we have more in common than we think and that for left to deride supporters of the right and vice versa is ultimately wastefully divisive. You and Francisca are right, that it is more complicated than just left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, Labour and Tory. It’s just that this is where the division is most marked.

  • lasvegasant 27th May 2012

    Haidt’s refers to the question that has preoccupied Democrats: Why do rural and working class Americans generally vote Republican when it is the Democratic Party what wants to redistribute money more evenly? Not as stark as my paraphrase (I’d lent the book on. I now have it back), but essentially an equivalent, if less emotive, statement.

    Ignoring the condescending nature of the question, Haidt proceeds to answer it, first by describing the traditional answer — they were duped — and then by expounding his “Moral Foundation Theory” which, curiously, has to be modified to provide the explanation (page 185). That doesn’t strike you as in any way self serving? Or that the question cries out for a simpler exegesis than is possible with a malleable assembly of psychobabble? Haidt is trying to explain alright; he’s trying to explain why he should be hired as a political consultant.

    I challenge your assertion that the Democrat/Republican or Labour/Tory axis is where the division is most marked. There’s long been scant difference in practical application of these so-called philosophies in the USA. The last 30 years has seen politics in the UK degenerate into banalities too. I really miss Scargill vs. Thatcher; now that was a true political dichotomy. That’s not to say that these institutional political parties are not busily trying to get various sections of the electorate to identify with them. And given the growing abstention rate on both sides of the pond, it’s clear that this “axis of platitudes” is losing its appeal. You said yourself that the choice now is between the “lesser of two evils”.

    What is needed is a realignment. What Haidt projects is his desire to cement the status quo through fine tuning the appeal of the Democrats to the more gullible sections of the electorate. No doubt there are Haidt clones in the Republican party doing exactly the same thing.

    Haidt and his ilk — far from bringing people together — are the facilitators of our current political malaise. The result can only be more alienation.


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