#10. A Summary of ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt

'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion' by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon; March 13, 2012)

‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon; March 13, 2012)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


1. An Introduction to the Biological Foundations of Morality

2. Moral Intuition

3. Tracking Down The Biological Foundations of Morality

4. The Six Moral Modules

  • a. The Care/Harm Module
  • b. The Fairness/Cheating Module
  • c. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module
  • d. The Authority/Subversion Module
  • e. The Liberty/Oppression Module
  • f. The Sanctity Module

5. Human Groupishness, The Hive Switch & Religion

6. Groupishness and the Question of Group Selection


7. Individualistic Vs. Sociocentric Cultures

8. The Right and the Left in the West

9. Explaining the Rift Between the Right and the Left

  • a. Leftist and Rightist Personality Traits
  • b. Leftist and Rightist Views of Human Nature


10. Two Points for the Left

11. Two Points for the Right

12. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

The old saying goes that we are never to discuss religion or politics in polite company. These topics are singled out of course because they tend to be the two that people are most passionate about, and which therefore have the greatest potential to cause enmity and strife. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the fact that we disagree over politics and religion is not necessarily such a bad thing. For him, though, the current wrangling between political and religious (and non-religious) factions has gotten rather out of hand, as it has recently reached such a pitch in the West (and particularly in America where Haidt resides) as to be threatening the very fabric of our nations.

Now, according to Haidt, at least some of the enmity and strife between people of different political and religious stripes is caused by a failure to understand precisely where these beliefs ultimately come from—as well as a failure to understand how one’s opponents understand their own beliefs. In an effort to remedy this situation, and to bring a degree of civility back into the ongoing debate, Haidt sets out to supply just these understandings in his new book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’.

According to Haidt, understanding political and religious beliefs begins with an understanding of the human moral sense as it was laid down by evolution over the past several million years. For Haidt, the moral sense actually consists of (at least) six moral modules, each of which evolved to answer a specific challenge that our ancestors faced in the environment in which our species evolved. Briefly, the six moral modules are 1. The Care/Harm Module; 2. The Fairness/Cheating Module; 3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module; 4. The Authority/Subversion Module; 5. The Sanctity/Degradation Module; and 6. The Liberty/Oppression Module.

While all of us come prewired with the six moral modules, each of them stands to be either amplified or quieted as well as somewhat modified by a host of internal and external factors. The internal factors include our personality and its development, while the external factors include the environment in which we are raised (including our cultural milieu), and the particular experiences that we have—the latter of which help to shape, among other things, our view of human nature, which itself influences our view of what a good society consists in. It is these internal and external factors—which differ for all of us—that explain the plurality of moral and political views and ideologies across cultures, as well as within the same culture across individuals.

In addition to the six moral modules, Haidt maintains that human beings have also evolved an overlay of group-oriented sentiment or ‘groupishness’ sometime in the past 140,000 years, and as recently as in the past 10,000 years. This ‘groupishness’, Haidt claims, not only explains some of our moral and political sentiments, but also helps explain our attraction to religion, and other group-oriented pursuits, such as our fondness for teams, clubs and other such organizations. While our groupishness is particularly adept at binding us to the organizations of which we are a part, it also sets us against those who are a part of opposing groups, and makes it especially difficult for us to identify with them and to appreciate their point of view. The end result is that people not only have opposing viewpoints when it comes to morality, politics and religion, but they are often even unable to appreciate (or truly understand) the viewpoints of their rivals—hence why politics and religion are such flashpoint topics.

For Haidt, though, once we come to understand where our political and religious views are ultimately coming from, it should be easier for us to appreciate the views of our opponents, which should help us to see that they may in fact have something to offer to the debate. And indeed, when it comes to politics, Haidt maintains that both the left and the right do have something to contribute to the matter, and that the best solution to the political problem requires borrowing insights from both sides.

What follows is a full executive summary of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.


1. An Introduction to the Biological Foundations of Morality

According to Haidt, understanding politics and religion must begin with an understanding of the human moral sense. As a first step in this direction Haidt provides the following definition of moral systems: “moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interests and make cooperative societies possible” (loc. 4752). As you will recognize, this is a functionalist definition of moral systems, in that it focuses in on the role, or function that moral systems play in society. Any society must tackle the issue of how disparate individuals with separate (and often conflicting) goals can live together, and cooperate in such a way as to allow everyone the opportunity to satisfy their needs, and moral values and systems are just the tools that we use in order to achieve this.

Now, when it comes to human behaviour (including our moral behaviour), social scientists for much of the twentieth century thought that it is entirely a matter of nurture (that is, learning and enculturation), and that our nature (our genetic heritage) really has nothing to do with it. As Haidt explains it, “the prevailing view among anthropologists had long been that evolution got our species to the point of becoming bipedal, tool-using, large-brained creatures, but once we developed the capacity for culture, biological evolution stopped, or at least became irrelevant. Culture is so powerful that it can cause humans to behave in ways that override whatever ancient instincts we share with other primates” (loc. 2247). In the latter half of the twentieith century, though, and particularly in the past 20 years, this blank-slate view of human nature has largely been discredited, as the body of evidence has continued to build in favour of the idea that our genes do in fact have much to say about our behaviour. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of social scientists now appreciate that both nature and nurture have a role to play in shaping our behaviour.

Haidt (borrowing an analogy supplied by the neuroscientist Gary Marcus) describes the situation thus: “the brain”, out of which behaviour stems, “is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter—be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality—consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words” (loc. 2389). Elsewhere, the author writes that “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience’” (loc. 2392).

Of course, when it comes to any given behavioural phenomenon, the presence and nature of the prewiring cannot simply be taken for granted. Rather, it must be firmly and scientifically established. When it comes to our moral sense, there are several bits of evidence that help demonstrate that it does in fact have a basis in our biology, and that also help us to recreate the precise nature of this biological backing.

2. Moral Intuition

One of the biggest hints that our moral sense does in fact have a biological backing is the fact that our moral judgments are largely a matter of intuition, rather than conscious reasoning. Indeed, Haidt spends the entire first part of his book guiding the reader through the large body of evidence in support of this rather counter-intuitive notion. There, Haidt argues that we are constantly evaluating information as it filters into our brains, and that this evaluation process is driven by ancient psychological mechanisms that function automatically, unconsciously, and in the blink of an eye (loc. 1178). Our moral judgements, like our judgments of virtually all things, are largely guided by these evaluative mechanisms (loc. 932-41).

Here is a ‘Dateline’ segment on how these evaluative mechanisms play into a very controversial issue: racism.

The Implicit Association Test is not only used to measure unconscious perceptions with regards to race, but a whole host of other issues as well. To take the IAT test with regards to any of these issues (including race) visit the following website: http://projectimplicit.org/index.html

The rational stories that we tell ourselves and others about why we find certain things and actions objectionable do not drive our moral judgements. Rather, they are largely post hoc (after-the-fact) fabrications meant to make sense of our intuitions, and to convince others to think like we do: “we do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment” (loc. 918). This was a skill that became particularly important to us when we developed language and started gossiping about one another (loc. 955), which at least partly explains why our capacity to reason evolved in the first place (loc. 947-52).

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

11 thoughts on “#10. A Summary of ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt

  1. While I greatly admire Haidt’s efforts to tackle the political divide, I strongly disagree with his conclusion that the Left is lacking in the moral modules of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In fact, it seems inconsistent of him to say, on the one hand, that loyalty and authority come from our view of our relationship to groups, and on the other hand, to argue that the opposition of Left and Right is based on the dynamics of in-group vs. out-group. If we accept that the Left sees itself as a group opposed to the Right, then of course it follows that it exhibits values such as loyalty, authority and sanctity within its group. A good example of loyalty in this regard is found in labor unions (“solidarity forever”), and in all kinds of political protests. A good example of authority is political correctness. And as noted in your summary, the Left often views the environment, or aspects of it, as sacred.

    I think there’s a simpler way to understand the Left and Right that better accounts for their views. The evolution of our species has been characterized by the appearance of progressively larger and more complex groups, beginning with families, then tribes, states and now an emerging world or planetary community. The Left, as one would expect for a group often referred to as progressive, identifies with the most recently-evolved social organizations, the nation and now the world community. The Right, often characterizes as more respecting of tradition, Right identifies more closely with the smaller, less complex and much older social organizations that we originated from, the family and local community.

    When we view the Left and Right in this manner, we can see that it simply is not true, as Haidt claims, that “conservatives tend to place more of an emphasis on the moral modules that focus in on the importance of group cohesion such as loyalty, authority and sanctity, while liberals tend to eschew these modules in favor of the modules that focus in on the individual, such as care, fairness and liberty.” In fact, liberals and conservatives both respect all of these moral modules. The differences between them result from these moral values being applied to differing levels of groups or social organizations.

    For example, both believe in care, but since the Right identifies more closely with the family and local community, it is more interested in care at this level. Examples would be laws protecting private property, and a strong stand against crimes committed against individuals (as opposed to, say, corporate crimes). In contrast, the Left, identifying with larger communities, is concerned with what we generally call social welfare. One could say that the Left views the nation, and increasingly the entire world, as one family, and is thus concerned with laws and regulations that promote care for everyone in general. These laws and regulations promote group cohesion every bit as much as the laws conservatives favor at the family and social level. It’s just that the group is much larger and more complex, and because it is evolutionarily newer, is not yet as cohesive.

    The Right’s concept of fairness is centered on keeping the fruits of one’s labor, because, being family and local community-oriented, it does not fully appreciate that individuals do not operate in a vacuum, but are only able to accumulate wealth because of extensive interactions with many other people beyond the community (as illustrated in the example of a canned good at the supermarket). Likewise, the Left favors a more equal distribution of wealth, because, identifying with the larger community, it is more aware of the factors other than individual talent and effort that result in wealth inequalities. One could say that just as a conservative would strive to treat all his or her children equally, despite differences in their talent and efforts, liberals have the same attitude towards everyone in the nation, which they regard as a family.

    Likewise, the Right views liberty in terms of less governmental regulation, because it does not identify strongly with national or transnational communities, and therefore regards any regulation at these levels as being imposed from outside or beyond itself. The Right has much less of a problem with regulation at the family level (strict rules applied to children) or local community level (strong police force), because it identifies strongly with social organizations at this level, and therefore sees itself as participating in the rules, rather than simply having them imposed on itself. Conversely, the Left, identifying more strongly with the national community, does not view governmental regulation as outside of itself, but as a process that it is intimately a part of.

    As you note in your summary, Haidt believes that, “conservatives generally… believe that people need external constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions… Without them, they believe, people will begin to cheat and behave selfishly. Without them, social capital will rapidly decay” (loc. 5129). On the other hand, liberals are more optimistic here. They tend to believe that “people are inherently good, and that they flourish when constraints and divisions are removed”

    But an alternative way to view this is to say that conservatives, because they identify mostly strongly with the family and local community, view necessary constraints as external to themselves, coming from beyond. Liberals believe just as much in these constraints (e.g., political correctness), but because they identify more strongly with the larger communities from which these restraints derive, they do not see them as external to themselves. In this sense, people are “inherently good”, because they are the source of the very regulations that improve their own lives. Likewise, liberals are more sanguine about change, since they view these regulations as coming from within themselves.

    This view of Left vs. Right, I think, is preferable to the strict vs. nurturing parent model that George Lakoff has proposed. The problem with Lakoff’s model, like the problem with Haidt’s view that liberals lack certain moral modules, is that it is inconsistent with the facts. Liberals are capable of being just as strict as conservatives—again, political correctness is an excellent example—and conservatives are just as capable of being nurturing as liberals—when they promote laws that protect and privatize families.

    • Haidt’s claims come from the outcomes of his experiments. Perhaps the experiments were designed poorly and are actually measuring something else.

  2. A further comment. As I noted in passing in my previous post, the larger, more complex and more recently evolved social organizations are less cohesive than smaller ones like families and local communities. This is because they are still emerging and have not had nearly as much time to establish themselves. I think this is the reason that Haidt and others see liberals as less “groupish”. It isn’t that liberals are any less committed to groups than conservatives. It’s that the groups they are committed to are not as clear, distinct and cohesive as those conservatives identify with most strongly.

    • Ola: This is simply the most brilliant response to Haidt I’ve ever seen. it fits exactly what I thought when I read his work, but expressed so much better than I could have.

      You might be interested in Ken Wilber’s take on conservatives and liberals. I disagree with much if not most of what Wilber says, but his developmental view of liberals and conservatives fits yours very well.

      I’d love to hear more about your ideas – do you have any essays on the net? If you wish to, you can write me at donsalmon7@gmail.com

  3. Ola Petiver,

    It seems that you have developed a “group size” theory that you believe negates Haidt’s theory. It is interesting, but do you have reams of data, tests, trials, etc. that support your position?

    Haidt calls himself and his co-researchers liberal, and doesn’t seem too happy to have come to these conclusions, but is constrained by the evidence collected.

    This “Cliff notes” review is, on the whole, excellent. But, forced to guess, I’d say the reviewer is a liberal trying to be fair to Haidt’s work. It’s been a while since I read Haidt’s book, but my recollection is that liberals consistently scored high on care/fair modules and very low on the other modules, while conservatives had balanced scores across all the modules.

    This liberal imbalance is the root cause of our political disagreements.

    • This recollection of Haidt’s findings is more or less right. It’s true that Haidt thinks liberals under-appreciate loyalty, sanctity and authority–and that a full appreciation of these aspects would lead to better political results (as mentioned in the article). However, Haidt doesn’t think that the problem lies only with liberals. Specifically, where Haidt disagrees with some conservatives is in their tendency to overly-distrust government regulations (as is also mentioned in the article).

      As to the root of our political problems, I think Haidt would say this: Heritable differences cause us to lean one way or the other politically, but these leanings are not always justified when it comes to good political results (as outlined above). Additionally, our groupish nature (shared equally by the left and right) causes us to mistrust and resent the other side, which makes it all the more difficult for us to move from our initial (mistaken) prejudices. Only by understanding and consciously counteracting these aspects of our nature will we be able to bridge the political gulf between us, and get better political results. A tough ask, to be sure, and probably not at all feasible on a massive scale, but there you go.

      As to my political leanings, I’ll say this: I think there is a human nature, and that some aspects of this human nature pull towards self-interest, some pull towards fairness, and some pull towards love of others and what is over and above the self. None of these can be cut-off or curbed entirely, but each of them can be channeled in ways that are more or less conducive to good political results. And institutions can be designed in such a way that they do influence these aspects of ourselves (though it’s not always easy to know just what tweaks will lead to what results–and a perfect result is inherently impossible). I generally vote to the right.


  4. Though a very ambitious attempt to understand the two fundamental ways of looking at politics and religion, there is one wild card not addressed sufficiently in the argument: the existence of evil. If one believes that some kind of objective evil exists, a very different conclusion will be reached about most, if not all, of the issues raised in the book.

  5. I like follow your thinking petiver and think I might agree, but am not ready to toss out baby and bathwater just yet.

    I chose The Righteous Mind for reading and discussion by my book group — half-dozen English ladies of a certain age… I think I’m the only lefty among them. I asked them to take the values assessment(s) on Haidt’s website and found that they (and myself) scored very highly on the harm AND loyalty scales.

    And, importantly, Haidt doesn’t ever make a black-white distinction between liberals and conservatives. It’s more relative tendencies that come out of looking at large numbers of responses. Liberals don’t score zero on the other flavors … just more consistently have higher scores on the harm scale relative to their scores on the other values. Conservatives don’t score zero on the harm scale — just tend to have this value more on a par with the others.

    So where I end up is wondering if there might be something to be gained by doing a “petiver-modification” on Haidt’s surveys to see if the subjects /groups/levels which one cares about or feels loyalty towards would in fact reveal even more dramatic distinctions between liberals and conservatives than the surveys he used to get the data for the book.

  6. Fascinating comments on a fascinating and I believe massively ground breaking book. I non longer have a copy as I have given more away and I have a question.
    Can anyone list the specific (alleged) evolutionary traits associated with each of the six morals in the palate?

    1. The Care/Harm Module; 2. The Fairness/Cheating Module; 3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module; 4. The Authority/Subversion Module; 5. The Sanctity/Degradation Module; and 6. The Liberty/Oppression Module.

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