The Righteous Mind

Some months ago I read the book entitled The Righteous Mind written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  The book received a considerable amount of favorable press. Haight is a self-identified liberal/progressive.  He hated Ronald Reagan and was thrilled with the emergence of Barack Obama on the American political scene.  He could not understand the conservative mind-set, so he wrote an essay on why people vote Republican.  That study evolved into a deeper study of the conservative vs liberal split, and from that emerged The Righteous Mind.

Haight and his team conducted survey after survey of conservatives and liberals in the attempt to understand their differing concepts of political morality.  One finding seemed to surprise Haight.  Unlike his previous impression that conservatives were mostly selfish, narrow-minded people, he discovered they were just as sincere as liberals in wanting what is best for society.

What separates our two major political groups?   Haight argues that liberals are chiefly driven by a political morality based on compassion (care for others) and a desire to fight against oppression. They are concerned to a somewhat lesser degree with fairness (everyone doing their fair share). Conservatives also have compassion, hate oppression, and are very concerned with fairness; but they balance these concerns with perhaps equal feelings for loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Many on the left are endlessly baffled as to why working-class voters seem to go against their own interests by supporting conservative politicians, those hated promoters of big business and tax cuts for the rich. They presume such voters are either stupid or are being tricked.  They tend to regard conservative politicians and businessmen themselves as being evil men who are driven solely by self-interest. But Haight says the liberals are wrong.  He believes that conservatives may be just as compassionate as liberals, but conservatives also embrace patriotism (authority) and religion (sanctity), traditional institutions and hierarchies that liberals tend to see as obstacles in their fight for liberty and equality.

Haight says the most of our moral judgements are instinctive.  We tend to react to different moral dilemmas intuitively.  Some of us tend to lean left, others lean right.  Then, we use reason and argument to justify our feelings. These gut feelings make it hard to connect across the political gulf that divides liberals from conservatives, with liberals finding bridge building especially difficult.

Haight’s studies also show that we in the West put a far greater emphasis on individualism, whereas group consciousness is stronger in other parts of the world.  Western progressives seeking a secular, rational society are out of step with the vast majority of people on the planet. Haight apparently thinks that we should exercise more group behavior, or what he refers to as our bee like or hive nature, and work harder at establishing trust and commonality with each other.

The Righteous Mind is thought provoking and well worth reading.  Haight’s attempt to explain the conservative and liberal mind sets is noteworthy, and I hope it will contribute in some small way to better understanding and greater cooperation between our political parties.

I found it interesting that Haight described the emergence of social morality as largely dependent on a Darwinian evolutionary process.  With this naturalistic explanation, Haight’s liberal, atheistic bona fides were on full display. In his view, group social mores and personal codes of proper conduct that conferred some advantage were more likely to survive, and that explains both the commonality and diversity of moral systems throughout the world. Woe be it to any serious scientist to interject any suggestion of divine intervention or revelation in the development and propagation of mankind’s highest moral codes.  Of course, I and my fellow Christians look at it differently.  We believe in divine revelation and are convinced that God is our true source for knowledge of right and wrong






One thought on “The Righteous Mind

  1. Great job! This is a gold mine of ideas to process in the quest to bridge humanity together in order that we can get to the point where we can have discussions with opposing viewpoints, but still work solutions needed to move forward in our existence together.
    One point I will address is based on this quote, “Haight apparently thinks that we should exercise more group behavior, or what he refers to as our bee like or hive nature, and work harder at establishing trust and commonality with each other.”
    I am not so individualistic to think, “I have worked for mine and I don’t want to share it with anyone.” But I am not so group-minded that what is produced is pooled together and ALL are entitled, whether they have worked or not.” There are exceptions in God’s economy in which God expects the church to minister aid.

    Rather than the “beehive” comparison, I like to use the analogy of Christ and his body, the Church. Of course, that means submission to the Head, Jesus Christ. Knowing that will not happen, one of the mottoes (the “e” is optional) I live by is, “God says, ‘Love ’em anyway. I’ll sort ’em out later.'”


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