Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this fascinating study psychological scientist and researcher Jonathon Haidt explores how humans use morality to bond groups and evolve into more advanced levels of civilisation. It will change the way you look at your own moralising tendencies!

This is an exceptional book, very much in the manner of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. While The Righteous Mind purports to explain ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’, the book really explores the psychology of groups and our individual moral make-up. Jonathon Haidt has taught psychology for 16 years, and his immersion in the psychological sciences comes through on every page. It’s clear from the text that he has thought long and hard about the mind and its formation of moral attitudes.

Haidt's main contention is that our personal moral codes are more an intuitive response to phenomena we experience in the world rather than a rationally worked out scheme. We instinctively react to news and events, then create post hoc 'rational' explanations for our gut reactions. Haidt explains this in a series of tests he did on people. He would describe to subjects repellent situations where no one was actually hurt or embarrassed or compromised in any way. For example, he describes a woman using an old American flag as a cleaning rag. When interviewees were challenged as to why they felt this was wrong, they struggled to articulate a reason. Yet instinctively they knew it was wrong.

Haidt goes on to explain most of our moral consciousness as evolutionary, not a prior mental reasoning. Our instinctive adoption of moral codes is based on six foundations that Haidt has identified. He lists these moral foundations with their opposites. The first is: care / harm. Hence we feel an instinctive repugnance when we see people being threatened with harm and we identify a value in providing care.

The other five ‘moral foundations’ are:

fairness / cheating.
liberty / oppression.
loyalty / betrayal.
authority / subversion.
sanctity / degradation.

Why do the politically progressive misunderstand the politically conservative? Haidt argues that progressives are responsive only to care / harm, fairness / cheating and liberty / oppression moral foundations, while conservatives are equally responsive to all six moral foundations. He posits this as the major antagonism between the two groups and claims conservatives are likely to be more successful due to their wider moral base.

A final very interesting point that Haidt makes is that the evolutionary reason why moral feelings came into being is that it helped us to bond groups. If groups can bond and work in unison, using such cohesive measures as the six moral foundations, then they could become stronger and beat other groups. Haidt even goes on to say that this evolutionary process allowed large business corporations to come into being.

How these findings are to resolve political antipathies doesn’t seem that clear in the text. Haidt asks his readers to be a bit more empathetic and broad minded when dealing with political opposites. The main thrust of the book, however, is how our morality is not so much constructed in the brain, but is more of an evolutionary survival mechanism.

I found this book enormously satisfying as an answer to why we behave the way we do.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathon Haidt. Published by  Penguin. ISBN: 9780141039169  $22.99