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. The author is Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. 

I got interested in this book after reading some comments on another book called “The power of regret”, in which the author said that “The Righteous Mind” is one of those books that change people’s ways of thinking and this is what got me into reading the present book.

The origin of morals is something that fascinates me because despite being such a common aspect of human psychology, it appears that people with different morals have different views of the world. 

Another aspect that fascinates me is the fact that moral reasoning is completely different from, say, logical reasoning. For example, while Artificial Intelligence is able to produce detailed and complex programming codes to solve mathematical problems, a machine is unable to solve classical moral dilemmas, like that of Abraham when God asks him to kill his own son. Should Abraham prove his faith by killing his own son or should he disobey God and spare his son’s life? This moral problem has puzzled academics and clergy for centuries.  

Prior to encountering this book, I held the belief that moral theory had reached a considerable level of development. Immanuel Kant, undoubtedly, stands as one of the most renowned scholars to study the origin of morality, putting forth a universal theory based on what is currently recognized as the ‘categorical imperative.’ This notion operates within the human psyche and transcends cultural boundaries, aiding us in our decision-making processes. Nevertheless, I’ve come to discover that evolutionary social psychology presents a contemporary and more comprehensive understanding of humanity’s ability to discern between right and wrong.

In Haidt’s book, the emergence of moral reasoning is explained through the analogy of the elephant and the rider. In this comparison, the elephant symbolizes our primal instincts which although powerful, are basically stupid and incapable of logical thinking. Contrasting this, the rider’s task is not to exert full control over the elephant, but just steer it in such a way to cause the least possible damage.  Our reasoning serves as a safeguard against our innate impulses: sex drive, anger, hunger, and more.

The chapter addressing political alignment delves into the rationale and mechanisms behind individuals’ choices to identify as either liberal or conservative (termed Democrat and Republican in the US). It explores the intriguing phenomenon of how people from the same nation, language, and culture can diverge so significantly in their political affiliations. To elucidate this phenomenon, the author outlines several fundamental pillars of morality, namely care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

The experimental evidence shows that  liberals and conservatives differ quite robustly in their responses to these  foundations of morality. For instance, while liberals are more concerned with care and fairness, the conservatives  pay more attention to  loyalty and authority. This is why often the liberals propose universal care and income, while the conservatives develop policies to protect veterans and border security.

Furthermore, the notion of fairness carries nuanced interpretations for liberals and conservatives. For liberals, fairness is synonymous with equality, asserting that all individuals should be treated equally and afforded the same opportunities irrespective of their circumstances. In contrast, conservatives view fairness through the lens of proportionality, contending that individuals should be rewarded based on the effort they invest.

Shared intentionality marks a pivotal juncture in human evolution, catalyzing the emergence of teamwork long before the era of agriculture, the wheel’s invention, and even language’s inception. Sharing a mental idea with someone carries a fundamental component of trust which is an ingredient of our moral codes. Only when sharing a mental picture of intentions, then the early humans started group-based foraging and hunting. Approximately 600 thousand years ago, this transformation unfolded, substantiated by archaeological findings of hunting implements and hearth-based cooking, tangible signs of collaborative communal dynamics. This spirit of collaboration not only facilitated labor division among early humans but also fostered the cultivation of collective standards to evaluate individual conduct. This amalgamation of principles, virtues, norms, practices, identities, and institutions, denoted as moral capital, equips societies with the tools to temper and suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

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