The Righteous Mind
by Jonathan Haidt

  • Philosophy
  • Ashto = 8/10
  • Jonesy = 7/10
the righteous mind

What You Will Learn from The Righteous Mind

This week, Jonesy and Ashto explore the concept of human nature and history from the perspective of moral psychology. The Righteous Mind examines why it’s difficult for us to get along and understands why society is so easily divided into hostile groups (each so certain of its righteousness). This book draws on the latest research in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology and evolutionary modelling. But the main message of the book is ancient – it is the realisation that we are all self-righteous hypocrites.

Drawing on his 25 years of research on moral psychology, the author Jonathan Haidt explains that moral judgements shouldn’t arise from reason, but rather from gut feelings. Haidt’s investigation also shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have disparate intuitions about right and wrong, and why each party is right about many of its primary concerns. The Righteous Mind provides the key to understanding the miracle of human cooperation, as well as the disadvantages of our eternal divisions and conflicts.

Intuitions vs Strategic Reasoning

Story 1: Eating dog

Tell us if anyone did anything wrong here: A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body, cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

You might feel an initial flash of disgust, but you would hesitate before saying the family had done anything morally wrong. After all, the dog was dead already. They didn’t hurt it, right? And it was their dog, so they could do what they wanted to the carcass?

Story 2: Eating chicken

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. Before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it. Again, no harm, nobody else knows. And like the dog-eating family, it is an efficient use of resources. But now the disgust is so much stronger and the action seems degrading. Does this make it right or wrong? For you, as for most people, morality is broad. Some actions are wrong even though they don’t hurt anyone. Understanding the simple fact that morality differs around the world or in different societies is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.

How emotions impact reasoning

38% of the 1,620 times that people heard a harmless offensive story, they claimed that somebody was harmed. In the dog story, for example, many people said the family itself would be harmed because they would get sick from dog meat. Were people really condemning the actions because they foresaw these harms? Or was it a reverse process? Were people inventing these harms because they had already condemned the actions?

These people were working quite hard at reasoning, but it was not reasoning in search of truth. It was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions. Moral reasoning is often a servant of moral emotions. It is a post hoc fabrication. Reasons aren’t the first thing that comes to mind, but we go searching for reasons once we experience emotions. The reasons become our way to make the emotions make sense. People made moral judgements quickly and emotionally. Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgements that were already made.

The Rider and The Elephant

Emotions are harder to define because they occur in steps. Emotions are not dumb; emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with cognition is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather or cars with vehicles.

In the Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt recognises two types of cognition:

  • The rider (the reasoning why)
  • The elephant (the automatic processes, including emotion, intuition and all forms of seeing that)

Haidt chooses an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are so much bigger and smarter than horses. Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years. Like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles, they’re very good at what they do. When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning in the last million years, the brain didn’t rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer. Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant.

How the rider thinks

The rider can see further into the future because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads. Therefore, it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present. It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters. Most importantly, the rider acts as a spokesperson for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it’s good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.

How to win an argument

The model offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating. Moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail – you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.

If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants. Dale Carnegie was one of the greatest elephant whispers of all time. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie repeatedly urged readers to avoid direct confrontations. Instead, he advised us to begin in a friendly way: smile, be a good listener and never say ‘you’re wrong’. The persuader’s goal should focus on conveying respect, warmth and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case.

It’s such an obvious point, and yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. If you truly see it the other person’s way (deeply and intuitively), you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across the moral divide.

Conclusion of The Righteous Mind

Firstly, imagine yourself as a small rider on a very large elephant. Thinking in this way might make you more patient than other people. When you catch yourself making up ridiculous post hoc arguments, you shouldn’t be too fast to dismiss other people. Secondly, beware of the people who insist that there is only one true morality for all times, people and places (especially if it’s founded on a single moral foundation). Our minds are a toolbox of psychological systems, which can be used to meet challenges and construct effective moral communities.

The next time you are seated beside someone from another matrix, don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or established a bit of trust. And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some compliments, or with a sincere expression of interest. We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.

Get Your Copy of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt