Book Review: The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt



There is a lot to be said about this book; too much for a single review, but let me just start by saying it’s been a long while since I read something this interesting. It may not be up there with Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Judith Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption but it’s not far off. So yes, it really is a big deal, and as another reviewer pointed out, the ideas presented in it are nothing short of a revolution in moral psychology.

The Old Guard

Back in the 1900s, the dominant idea on morality was that it was a product of logical reasoning, a school of thought, represented by psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. According to Haidt, this theory became dominant because it accorded well with the values of the secular liberals who, now as then, were equally dominant at the Universities. We learn about right and wrong , they claimed, through rational thought. And if we are allowed to do so without the meddling of religion, tradition or other illegitimate authorities, we become modern and rational citizens, eager to build a shiny new tomorrow.

And by predefining morals as based on concepts like justice and harm rather than authority or tradition the Kohlberg and the other rationalists – without realizing it, according to Haidt – created the results that suited the zeitgeist. Caring and demanding justice for the oppressed now seemed to be scientifically proven as the morally right thing to be doing. This way of thinking prevailed up until the 1990s when behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology was beginning to undermine the progressive hijack of science.

Haidt’s Revolution

As a student in the 1980s, Haidt had doubts regarding the contemporary view on morality in psychology. He says he remembers quarrelling with his sister as a kid and how the feeling of being right was instant and emotional.  The logical reasoning came afterwards, when he tried to explain why he was right, but he kept his skepticism to himself. When studying cultural psychology taught by anthropologists, he found that among some people, you could kill a complete stranger for no good reason and the deed would increase your status. And in some cultures it was immoral to eat certain foods.

It seemed that moral psychologists only had one piece of the puzzle. This revelation and following research, including a visit to India, eventually resulted in Haidt presenting his six moral foundations – Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation.  According to his theory, all these foundations are to some extent used by most people in forming moral judgments, although they vary by things like culture and ideology and individually as well.

Two Tribes: the WEIRD and the Old-Fashioned

In researching the foundations, he found that two patterns emerged. Westerners, liberals, adults, educated, upper class people had a tendency to rely mainly on Care/harm and to a lesser degree on Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.  Non-westerners, conservatives, children, uneducated, lower class people on the other hand relied more evenly on all foundations. The first category of people is similar to what anthropologists refer to as WEIRD – Western, Educated, Rich, Democratic. He found this pattern by confronting people  with so-called harmless taboo stories like these,

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

WEIRD people, relying heavily on Care/harm, were the least likely to say that these behaviors were wrong. They were often disturbed by the actions described, but argued that as long as no one was harmed it was their choice. Although later Haidt hints at the fact that even WEIRD people probably make moral judgments on other foundations even though they may not be keen to admit it. As an example he mentions the piece of art known as Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in urine, and wonders if a “Piss Martin Luther King” would be equally acceptable to the WEIRD. For some reason they are unwilling to admit that they rely on other foundations. Holding something sacred, relying on the Sanctity foundation, may feel awkward to a modern and rational person.

Visceral, Not Cerebral

And like his quarrels with his sister, he found that moral judgments in general are immediate and emotional, rather than cerebral and deliberate. To prove this he made some clever studies in which he gave participants tasks involving making moral judgments. He then introduced time limits and distractions – factors that lower the quality on cognitive tasks. The quality remained intact – people tend to know what’s right and wrong instantly. Haidt concluded that moral judgments are more like intuitions or gut feelings than rational thought, which only comes after the fact when people justify their judgments.

So Where Do Morals Come From?

But if we can’t reason our way to what’s right and wrong, then how do we do it? Part of it is in our DNA – moral foundations correlate with personality traits (you might actually think of them as personality traits) that are known to have a high heritability. The other part is social; people usually conform to the morals in their culture, and they usually change their mind on moral issues as a result of social influence rather than by private contemplation. This is for instance seen in the fact known to advertisers – repeated exposure makes for a positive judgment. And friendliness tends to be a better way of persuading people than reasoning. It all point to morals as something we acquire to fit in and get along. This is also found in politics where people often vote with their groups and against their self-interest.

Haidt claims that morals originated with shared intentionality. We developed this ability to hold a common idea and act on it. One man holds down the branch and the others pick the fruit. Chimps can’t do things like that. This common understanding was the seed, it meant that there was a right way of doing things and that letting go of the branch before the others had picked any fruit was a crappy thing to do. So as our ability for shared intentionality evolved so did our ability to cooperate. Which made the righteous person a team player.

Our Hivish/Clannish Nature

How far did the moral/cooperation trend take us? Haidt points out that colonial insects have outcompeted nearly all solitaries and that humans by excellence in cooperation have achieved a similar dominance. He speculates that group selection can have created individuals who can set their self-interest aside, at least under certain circumstance, and like colonial insects view the hive as the main priority. War would be one such circumstance, but Haidt also mentions rituals, like dances, marching and such ceremonies as a way to connect to our hivish nature.

Exactly how hivish we are remains to be seen. Colonial insects are clones so their evolutionary self-interest coincides with their group. Clearly Haidt could have benefitted from Human Biodiversity, especially the findings of hbd chick* that show how the most closely related also are the most hivish/clannish. Since humanity has lived in small isolated groups inbreeding must have created a selection for kin altruism. Since this way of living ended fairly recently, we could still have this hivish /clannish/tribal nature, even without any type of group selection.

Religion – It’s Not What You Believe, It’s Who You Believe It With

WEIRD people have a tendency to be skeptical of religion. They look at the various beliefs in supernatural agents and conclude that it’s an unhealthy thing, similar to a disease of the brain. The general idea behind this view is that if you believe in crazy things, you will eventually do crazy things and cause harm to others. But according to Haidt, religion is not about the beliefs per se, but about creating group cohesion with the foundation of Sanctity. And it can do so effectively even between people who are unrelated.

As an example, he mentions the research on communes in America done by anthropologist Robert Sosis. Communes are intentional communities built either on secular or religious ideas. Sosis looked 200 communes in America and found that after 20 years that only 6 percent of secular communes where still alive while 39 percent of the religious communes were still active. He also found that an important key to survival was sacrifice – the more people gave up for the commune the longer it lived. But this only held for religious communes. It seems, Haidt argues, that Sanctity, is needed for a sacrifice to make sense. Only if you hold something sacred will you truly make a sacrifice, otherwise it’s just a transaction. And if you hold something sacred and share it with a group of like-minded people you are more likely to stick together than if you are a secular who is always wondering if the commune is a good deal for you or not.

In line with these findings, Haidt mentions other research in economics that point to the cohesive power of religion. One example from German researchers is in the form of a game in which a so-called truster is given an amount of money in each round that he may share in part or fully with another participant, called the trustee. Any money transferred is then tripled by the experimenter and the trustee can then choose to return any or all of the money back to the truster. It turns out that when the truster is informed (truthfully) that the trustee is religious, he will transfer more of his money to him than if he is nonreligious. And, equally important, the religious trustee will in fact give back more money than a nonreligious trustee would.

This game is played out in real life too, for instance among Orthodox Jewish diamond merchants, a trade in which trust can lower the transaction costs. And it probably happens all over the world as people of the same faith do business on a hand shake rather than with lots of costly paper work.

As seen in this experiment religious cohesion even reaches out to outgroups. Haidt quotes political scientist Robert Putnam whose findings suggest that religious people make good citizens,

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.

Putnam’s findings indicate that while religious people are more generous to their own, they are as generous as nonreligious towards outgroups. An atheist may argue that the religious vote for lower taxes and that evens the score, but time spent in community life is not something you can get back that way.

The Culture War

 The liberal/WEIRD/atheist dismissal of religion is according to Haidt a part of the ongoing culture war between people using different moral foundations. I think he fails to explain why this war has escalated in recent years, especially in America, but there is no doubt that this trend is real and not just a media dramatization. In 1976, 27 percent of all Americans lived in landslide counties which Democrats or Republicans won by 20 percent or more – today 48 percent live in landslide counties,

Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant (62 percent of these counties went for McCain).

Haidt goes on to discuss how the two tribes, often simply referred to as liberals and conservatives, simply don’t speak the same language, but that they both need to understand the seriousness of the situation. They need to understand the morality of their opponents in order to to have a meaningful discussion. And they can probably learn something from each other.

He also points out that there is a trade-off between these cultures. A small isolated and homogeneous society (like Nebraska) is probably not going to be as exciting as a diverse and urban place like California. This is probably true although it doesn’t explain the growing animosity between states like these. If differences in moral foundations are the cause of the conflict it should have been as fierce 30 years ago as it is today.

At any rate, Haidt’s theory offers an interesting new perspective on human nature. Hopefully, the moral foundation can become a language or a tool with which these two tribes can learn to “disagree more constructively”. Here are some points that I think any liberal or conservative should consider after having read this book,


You need to understand that the institutions you hold dear need reform in order to maintain their inherent values. A deeply religious gay couple will honor the institution of marriage better than a drunk straight couple who got married in Vegas for fun. And when you say, “I love you, but you’re going to hell” only the last part of the sentence rings true. You need to understand that without regulation, large international corporations will suck your country dry and then casually move on – strong government and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Also, since you watch a TV show like Modern Family, you clearly like some of what liberal “Hollyweird” has to offer.


You need to understand that religion is a force of cohesion in a country that is already very splintered in many ways. You need to understand that while Piss Christ should be protected by free speech, it is not good citizenship to offend people just to get a little attention. You need to understand that diversity is the opposite of cohesion – it comes with a price. Maybe you think it’s worth it, fair enough, but don’t pretend like it’s for free. And don’t try to squeeze tax money from conservatives to “spread the wealth”. They will only get more reluctant to pay taxes. Remember that conservatives are generous; if helping out is your first priority, you will find a way to work with them.

So be nice. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Michell Malkin. Notice the way she says “shush” to her opponent and gets wild-eyed four minutes in. Although she is good looking, it’s not a pretty sight,

24 Responses to Book Review: The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt

  1. NeuroProf says:

    I very much enjoyed Haidt’s book. Well-researched, coherent, and useful. I am also a fan of Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” which has some similar points to make, such as that our reasoning is often employed not to define our intuitions, but to justify them.

  2. Staffan says:

    Not sure what you mean by irrational. Personality traits are pretty heritable and so are many specific attitudes, like abortion. But the other part is probably the need to be on a team. No doubt, the trait of conformism has a profound effect on attitudes and even on other basic traits.

    The result is a mix of beliefs and attitudes that are somewhat arbitrary but make you eligible for membership in a club of your choice. Belonging comes first, making sense second.

  3. “…If political beliefs arose from personality traits, then they must be irrational…”

    Not entirely. I think there are other choices. If hair-trigger violence is a personality trait, even a heritable one, and calm deliberation is another, that does not mean that they are merely arbitrary differences morally. CS Lewis had a fair bit to say on this (I think in Miracles).

    I like Haidt very much, and his use of the Piss-Christ example is close enough to a criticism of mine years ago (contending that liberals did also rely on Sanctity/Degradation, which Haidt had originally denied) that I take partial credit for it. I’m betting it came to him indirectly, however. As another example, note also that environmentalism relies heavily on that axis of morality.

    As for Staffan’s lessons for conservatives to draw, I don’t find any conservatives who deny the need for all regulation, or who trust corporations implicitly. Seems a straw man. As to the gay marriage “reform,” there are enough points I might make in response that I have to conclude that Staffan has not entirely understood what the opposition to that idea is actually saying. There are many poor defenders of the idea that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, but that does not mean they are a majority, nor that there are no better arguments.

  4. Gottlieb says:

    ”Rational” people described here only seem cold. Killing a dog after his death, even another dog with hunger would, only a beast.
    There are certain things that absolutely nothing can explain. Not because a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the middle of the Amazon killing a stranger due banal is accepted and advantageous that I, a supposed Western democratic and rational’ll do the same.
    Have a name for it and is called psychopathy, sorry that some societies, even primitive, are already on the wrong path of evolution.

    • Staffan says:

      A lot of what tribes do, especially when they are inbred, can probably best be described as a kind of collective psychopathy. There is often zero empathy with outsiders. Although they rely on the Care foundation within their groups. Haidt downplays the intergroup hostility which I think is one of his weaker points.

      • Gottlieb says:

        Yeah, I think too complicated to determine only two antagonistic groups when in fact almost always have a variety within the continuity between one extreme and another. I think the central role of culture, dominant in a community beyond sexual selection also tends to suppress this diversity.
        Despite my moralist here I have to admit to you that I am a part, too weird group. Perhaps my exaggerated love for animals is a way of thinking weird, but it can easily be mistaken as an old fashioned.
        Altruism intergroup combined with extreme hostility against outsiders may explain the behavior of many people around the world.
        Do you believe that the solution to world problems, such as corruption and violence could be the deconstruction of this pattern of mating?
        But then I try to understand how this logic can be embedded among the Amish, a population known to be respectful towards outsiders and African Americans, a population known exogamous.
        In the case of the Amish, we also evaluate the behavior of the sheep who have strayed from the flock and went to live with the English. How will your behavior?

  5. Staffan says:

    “Do you believe that the solution to world problems, such as corruption and violence could be the deconstruction of this pattern of mating?”

    I’m not sure. Outbreeding will perhaps make people smarter, but the groupishness will remain so they will either stay in their ethnic group or team up with like-minded people and behave as they always have.

    The Amish are relatively new so they may be different from classical tribal people, like many Muslims for instance.

    • Gottlieb says:

      This is what is happening to the tribe of the political left is not it?
      I did not understand the part of the Amish, the fact that they are a new tribe, but in what sense? You have some work to the Amish iq??

      • Staffan says:

        The left are probably one the least tribal groups, the fact that they nonetheless display tribal behavior is a sign of just how fundamental this trait is in humans.

        I don’t know the Amish IQ. I just mean that they are not like traditional tribes that have been isolated for long and who have competed with other tribes. For that reason they lack hostility.

        Black people are a heterogenous group. I get the impression that a lot of them are very tribal but others aren’t. There doesn’t seem to be much research on it but the reactions from the OJ Simpson and Treyvon Martin trials indicate a pretty strong group loyalty.

  6. Gottlieb says:

    But it seems that tribalism ideology of the political left is the most characteristic feature of this group. Yes, probably with the pseudo abolition of race, ethnicity and religion, they adopted the strategy of ideology as group cohesion.
    It would be interesting to do a study on them. I have a theory, I do not know if other people have thought about it, but there are two kinds of intelligence, the technique, the conventional IQ tests accurately measure and intellectual, which is probably a form of intelligence with strong thinking skills divergent, ashkenazi Jews are very good at it. In this case, I think the Amish people may have selected the technical aptitude as opposed to intellectual intelligence resulting in this population with little cultural (verbal) skill but good general capacity. Or the Amish, due to the intense mating endogamous, eliminated much of the diversity of cognitive styles, a kind of extreme ‘asiatization’ of the skills.
    Do you believe that the Amish had to compete with other groups, they would be hostile as Ashkenazi Jews or Arabs?
    About blacks, I see it too, but I think we should consider their own genetic diversity. It seems natural that there is this variation of types.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, I think liberals, progressives or whatever you choose to call them are intelligent but that many Jews are more intellectually curious. That’s why I always feel bad about pointing out that a lot of them are tricky (probably due to clannishness) when the other half (in my experience) are so much more intellectually stimulating than the typical White liberal.

      I don’t know that much about the Amish but if they had been in competition with others they’d be more hostile, at least if that competition was partly violent and for a long enough time period that it would be selected for.

      • Gottlieb says:

        Yes, but in my opinion, the idea that liberals are smarter than conservatives serves only for medium, ie, the average liberal tends to be more intelligent than the average conservative. But liberals believe in dogmas and many of them, so earnest, that is not a smart thing to do.
        But the truly intelligent people, independent the configuration of your iq, tend to be a mix of conservative and liberal, that in a world where multiculturalism has failed and the common white people are oppressed by their elites, move towards being more inclined to the right to the left.
        It’s smart to take the good from each side.

  7. Staffan says:

    It’s true that we live under a liberal paradigm which was created by the triumph of Enlightenment. But today being liberal is just being status quo. It can get frustrating when people who are stuck in false ideas of human nature from the 1600s indulge in fantasies of being somehow cutting edge. But it’s not lack of intelligence. Maybe a lack of judgment, character, balls or a combination of all three.

    • Gottlieb says:

      But intelligence is not only doing well iq tests, just the character, rationality among other attributes are, in my opinion, composers of intellectually smart.
      I think rationally, if these people do not want to see reality, even when their families, their children are in danger, they definitely can not be called smart, perhaps only technically smart. I believe there are two basic types of intelligence, technique, measured by psychometric tests and intellectual. This explains the geek who is cognitively applied but less creative and more passive and the rootless intellectual and radical. Intellectualism is an over expression of verbal cognition in the same way that quantum physics is to nonverbal intelligence.

  8. Gottlieb says:

    Staffan, taking advantage of their hospitality in allowing me to comment here on your blog, I would like to ask you a few questions, related to iq tests.
    Before, a personal question, you work professionally with psychology?
    What are the practical differences between the online IQ tests compared to tests administered professionally? Well, I’ve realized over 20 iq tests online and I became obsessed with one subject in the last two years.
    Can one amateur as I can estimate my own performance IQ and derivatives? You could suggest iq tests free online that approximates a real psychometric test administered by a professional?

    Thank you for your attention and forgive me for brusqueness with which I introduced temporarily, this off-topic subject.

  9. Staffan says:

    I make it a policy not to reveal too much personal information to anyone on the web.

    As for IQ tests measuring a narrow aspect of intelligence, well it all depends on what you’re looking for and how you define things. A composer has musical talent but why call that intelligence? We are only muddling things by redefining all sorts of abilities as intelligences, like Howard Gardner did.

    I’m not aware of any valid tests online but if you’ve done a scholastical aptitude test you should have some idea of your intelligence since they are pretty much the same thing.

    “Thank you for your attention and forgive me for brusqueness with which I introduced temporarily, this off-topic subject.”

    No problem.

    • Gottlieb says:

      Sorry for the personal question.
      Yes, I’ll be honest with you. I consider myself pretty smart, I think is a bit exaggerated ego Bruce Charlton recently commented on his blog about people with high psychoticism, I have.
      As I told you already realized more than 20 tests on the split line in my email into categories and the results do not seem consistent with my self-perception, as well as my perception comparative in relation to other people.
      I have a much crystallized that IQ tests are excellent for measuring what we call intelligence technique, in other words, a person’s ability to solve everyday problems, as do calculations, write text. But I feel deeply that the tests fail to measure creativity.
      This is probably a trait that I also present, so well established, I found that my memory is episodic and when I have to build an idea usually think completely outside the box. IQ tests are the exact opposite of divergent thinking because the press” logical” or common sense while often requires creativity, lack of logic, since it is something that is not communed like common sense, the most people.
      The average of my tests has varied between 110-120 but I would like to understand the ability of the people that are average and not only numbers?
      I suck at math and I consider myself very good at vocabulary and general knowledge
      Forgive me for the hassle, I promise that I will not further disrupt the intellectual progress of your blog.
      Thanks for the tip, but I’ve done several tests SAT, also the internet. Surely he could not go well because I am not yet fluent in your language. But thanks again.
      I had doubts about the reliability of the tests online when I came across the results of the users who had the majority of the population was so clever do not you think so? lol

    • Sisyphean says:

      If an ability is related to the brain, which any complex behavior must be, why can’t it be considered a form of intelligence? I think people are just talking past each other on this issue. The main difference I see between musical or artistic aptitude and math aptitude is that we have an array of good objective tests for the math but tests for the arts are more subjective. People in the IQ community talk a lot about g and how traits correlate to each other and I understand how one who is likely to score highly on a verbal section of a test is also likely to score highly on the math section, but does this also correlate to the ability to realistically reproduce something you see with a pencil? Does it correlate to the urge to create something from nothing, to sculpt, to paint, to draw to write a poem just for fun, just because? Do we know? Do we think this is unimportant? When people define what traits are important parts of being human they talk about rationality, the ability to think, to plan, to design a new engine or system but they don’t stop there, they also talk about art, music, dancing, theater.

      Does dancing ability have any correlation to math test scores? What about sports? I had a top 1% GRE score but a zero batting average for an entire season of high school baseball despite being in pretty good physical shape. My experiences lead me to think that the cognitive weight my brain is built to have caused it to skimp on the physical control circuitry. On the other hand, I’m the only person I know with a high GRE who has an interest in the arts that doesn’t have to do with collecting pieces or memorizing facts (I.e. I make art, I don’t just consume it.)

      • Staffan says:

        We can call it intelligence but bundling every conceivable ability under the intelligence umbrella doesn’t clarify anything. By the same logic we can call all abilities athletic because there is always some muscle involved. My guess is that people who insist on this want to increase the status of other abilities, but all they really do is confirm the status of intelligence thus maintaining the hierarchy they’re trying to fight.

      • Gottlieb says:

        I think we have to think of intelligence as we see among animals. I have an absolute idea that any excess, plus or minus is always bad. If nature is a system and every system must be in balance to be encoded as a system, then an extremely intelligent-iq or even an extremely creative person present many problems to make your gift, is balance.
        In nature, intelligence correlates with group strategy, macromically speaking, instinct, pure survival ability, to adapt to a reality abruptly presented. Be smart, naturally speaking, would be the ability to pass their genes but mostly, the ability to survive.
        For example, let’s take the example of France postmodernist. The future of this once, great nation now seems to be established. If the liberal elite French remain feeding foreign forces designed to undermine your lifestyle, then in the future, very soon, this country will turn into a Lebanon-80s, broken into civil wars of low to medium intensity.
        Individuals who survive this catastrophe, tend to have ”traces” of adaptation to the new reality as investigating psychological traits able to camouflage some identity prone to hostility intra group, creativity to produce artifacts for immobilizing highly dangerous situations but at the same time can be easily being projected on a larger scale etc. Anyway, it will be necessary to present the high instinct to smell danger and have the necessary level of intelligence to seek ways to counteract.
        In this sense I think the long-term episodic memory, appears as a dash perfectly reasonable. Episodic rather than because you memorize a large set of information, perhaps even saves you half the idealized optimum, but that does not retain the superfluous, only memories usable.
        Long-term memory is related with various capabilities, but mainly for retaining information and this is critical. The human being who wants to survive will have to emulate the elephants.

  10. Andrew says:

    That was a great review Staffan. I need to finish the book now.

    I have been amusing myself with Udacity’s new course, “Introduction to Psychology”. The 3 instructors demonstrate the personality test and they all score unusually close together. I can imagine what Haidt would say.

  11. […] Book Review: The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by J… – from staffan. also James Q. Wilson and the Defense of Moral Judgment. […]

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