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

July 24, 2013



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,


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