The Righteous Mind (Book Review)

The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt.

The now-famous Dunning-Kruger Effect was first documented in a paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, of Cornell University, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, entitled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The main point was that people who are unskilled tend to lack the ability to assess their own abilities. They then overestimate their competence.

Haidt could have subtitled his book “Morally Stunted and Unaware of It: How Deficiencies in Moral Development Lead to Liberal Rage.” But that wouldn’t reel in liberals; the real title should. And make no mistake: this book is written to liberals, an earnest plea for liberals to broaden their moral horizon.

Haidt himself is a liberal, and an atheist New York Jew academic to boot. With all that against him, his book also is the personal journey of his broadening moral horizon. His own moral sense and its growth is woven into the story of his research.

The book is three main sections:

  1. Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.
  2. There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness.
  3. Morality Binds and Blinds.


Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second

Haidt takes you through his (and others’) research and theories on how we make moral decisions. His ultimate conclusion is in the picture of an elephant with a rider. The elephant is our moral intuition, the rider is our reason. The big point is that the elephant goes as it goes, and the rider goes along:

“…the rider’s function is to serve the elephant. Reasoning matters, particularly because reasons do sometimes influence other people [emphasis added], but most of the action in moral psychology is in the intuitions.”

This is not an unsurprising view–the word “rationalize” is basically the function of reason–we intuit moral decisions and then justify them with reason. It’s why you never can just lay out the pros and cons of a position and your interlocutor changes his mind on the spot. It takes a lot to turn the elephant. It’s why if you want to influence the morality of a people, you don’t do it with reason, and you do it from a young age. Plato called education “moral training”, because you need to shape the intuitions from the start. Whoever really did write William Bennett’s “Book of Virtues”, the use of stories in shaping morality is age old.

Haidt says about reason:

“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.”

“From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. … most of the most bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. … This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful and so ineradicable.”

Other interesting discussion is about how we really are concerned about what others think of us (psychopaths don’t), how reasoning can take us to any conclusion we want to reach, and how we are often groupish rather than selfish.


There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness.

It should be clear where this is headed, it’s about more morality than liberals have. He starts out talking WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Such people are a small subset of the world’s population and cannot be used to generalize about human nature, but the principle of WEIRDness is: “The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.” In a nutshell, more individualistic than groupish; ultimately, sociopathic.

“Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).”

Haidt’s broadening moral horizon began when he spent three months in India doing research, hoping to get a closer look at the “ethic of divinity.” He saw and understood moral dimensions that he had never had in his own world;

“The moral domain is unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures, where it is largely limited to the ethic of autonomy (i.e., moral concerns about individuals harming, oppressing, or cheating other individuals). It is broader–including the ethics of community and divinity–in most other societies, and within religious and conservative moral matrices within WEIRD societies.”

He proceeds to describe his Moral Foundations Theory, which is the meat of the book. Basically, morality is like our taste buds: there are six dimensions:

  • Care / Harm
  • Fairness / Cheating
  • Loyalty / Betrayal
  • Authority / Subversion
  • Sanctity / Degradation
  • Liberty / Oppression

He has a whole chapter titled, “The Conservative Advantage”. What is that advantage? That, as one becomes more conservative, he is more balanced across the six dimensions. As one is more liberal, he is less balanced (see the accompanying figure).


The liberal is dominated by Care and Fairness; the conservative is not dominated by any one or two dimensions. Later Haidt introduces Liberty / Oppression; liberals do work on that dimension, and libertarians are monomaniacal about it to the exclusion of all other dimensions.

So, liberals work on three of the six dimensions of the moral domain. Conservatives work easily on all six dimensions. (Libertarians are on one dimension, as we’d expect of autistes.) In other words, liberals are morally stunted or deficient. We might even consider them as children morally.  They are not just blind to three axes, they consider those three axes (Authority, Loyalty, Sanctity) to be evil.  This is a significant–possibly uncrossable–divide with conservatives, and most of the rest of the non-WEIRD world.  Liberals overestimate their morality, while clearly being too narrow in their moral dimensions.  It’s a case of Dunning-Kruger effect.  They then rage against evil conservatives.  How can one deal with such people?


Morality Binds and Blinds.

In this section Haidt explores the groupishness of morality. He observes the effects of religion and the religious group on people–religion has a significant effect on people, giving them a connection to something bigger than themselves and creating group cohesion (improving survival and reproduction). Secular groups, even when they try, just don’t have the same lasting effect on people. For those reasons, Haidt takes a positive view of religion in general; he also devotes a section taking down the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris).

“Religion is therefore well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”

“Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix [read: America] you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie–Durkheim’s word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order.”


Haidt finishes with some discussion about how liberals and conservatives can disagree more constructively. It’s clear there is more onus on the liberals because they don’t partake of all the moral foundations.

“As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.”

Moral capital “is the reason I believe that liberalism–which has done so much to bring freedom and equal opportunity–is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, an reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.”

Of course, conservatives get their share of blame, as they ought.

Haidt, however, misses a key moral dimension (but shows it, if you can catch it). As he traveled his journey, it’s clear that he has something–a moral something, humility–that many do not have. What happens when someone who is deficient or incompetent comes face to face with his shortcomings? Rare is the man who, like Haidt (whose deficiency clearly was not intellectual), faces them, learns, changes and comes away a better man. The real question is: can his liberal readers do likewise?