The Righteous Mind



When I attended the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference in May, I met a new friend. He was reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. He recommended it highly so I immediately ordered it. It is one of the most insightful books that I have ever read. I will highlight some of the key issues, but would recommend you read the entire book. It helps to explain many things that are happening today with religion and politics.

Haidt creates the image of a rider on an elephant that is a perfect metaphor for his thesis. He defines the rider as “our conscious reasoning-the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware.” He reveals the elephant as “the other 99 percent of mental processes-the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” Wow! And I thought I was in charge. Nope, it’s the elephant.

He then traces various philosophers and thinkers over time and how they have tried to posit that rational reasoning is what guides us as humans. Needless to say, Haidt disagrees with most of them.

The premise of his book concerns moral knowledge and how we learn about it and why some cultures and groups have a distinctly different set of morals than others do. One of the most fascinating aspects of this study is his outlining of six moral foundations. At first, you might think that the first one-care/harm-could solve it all. “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” But at least in Western Civilization, we have developed five others. They are fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation; and liberty/oppression. Morality binds us together but also blinds us.

He then goes on to describe two types of societies. The first puts the needs of groups and institutions as priorities and the other puts individuals at the center. Without much thought, you can probably guess that the US is of the individualistic type. Studies conducted showed that the US upper class saw taboo stories to be social conventions, but the lower class saw them as moral violations. Subjects in the study said some of the taboo stories were wrong even though they harmed nobody, thus revealing other moral foundations such as those mentioned above. This will also play into what political groups people are a part of. Stay tuned.

He also learned through his work that people use these moral foundations to convince others of what is right. Thus, if you want to change people’s minds, you have to talk to their elephant. Feelings and emotions have been around a lot longer than thinking. Moral judgment is mostly done by the elephant. People care mostly about the groups they are in. Haidt says that even our politics are “groupish.”

The most interesting aspect of the difference between the political parties in the US according to Haidt is that Democrats tend to focus on one moral foundation-care/harm. While the Republican Party focuses on most of the others as well. Think back to the 2016 campaign and the slogans that were used. Let’s look at a couple of examples. First, the moral foundation of fairness/cheating. While Democrats focus on helping people and even animals, Republications focus on the cheating aspect of welfare and that it is taking money from hard working individuals. The focus on patriotism, the flag, and other symbols of authority is much more vocal on the part of Republicans. Isn’t it interesting how most of Trump’s supporters stick with him through thick and thin? Yup, that’s loyalty. And think of the focus of religion on what is clean and what is not clean. This is the sanctity/degradation foundation. Focusing on “sacred” things helps bind people together and we know that religion has done a darn good job at that. They see a hierarchy of morals with the supreme deity at the top. Remember Ronald Reagan’s focus on “family values?” Families according to Haidt, don’t exist with just one moral foundation. He must have read Haidt’s book. And he was very successful. In terms of the last moral foundation outlined by Haidt, liberty/oppression, both sides tend to use this for rational for their stances.

In terms of religion, Haidt’s example is that pastors in conservative denominations like Baptist tend to use loyalty, authority and sanctity while more liberal denominations like Unitarian focus on the care/harm foundation. Look at how fast religion has spread and what a hold it has on the US today. Religion was one of the first group creators that used all moral foundations to bind people together. Haidt explains that many of these rely on influencing the elephant by reinforcing values, norms, and practices. This is one of the reasons that people don’t question their religion. It is part of who they are and they can’t really see that or tease it apart.

Another aspect that Haidt discusses of how groups maintain social order is based on the premise of Greek philosopher Glaucon-you have to make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all that time so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences. In lab experiments, if people felt they were not being monitored, they often cheated. People care about belonging to the group they identify with and don’t want to get kicked out. But sometimes we adhere so closely to our group, that we shut out everything that disagrees with what the group touts, especially in politics.

This is but a cursory examination of some of the points that Haidt makes. This is a book that I am sure I will re-read to understand it more fully.

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

November 25, 2017








About the Author Karen Garst

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