#10. A Summary of ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt

Table of Contents:

'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion' by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon 13/03/2012)

i. Introduction


1. An Introduction to the Biological Foundations of Morality

2. Moral Intuition

3. Tracking Down The Biological Foundations of Morality

4. The Six Moral Modules

  • a. The Care/Harm Module
  • b. The Fairness/Cheating Module
  • c. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module
  • d. The Authority/Subversion Module
  • e. The Liberty/Oppression Module
  • f. The Sanctity Module

5. Human Groupishness, The Hive Switch & Religion

6. Groupishness and the Question of Group Selection


7. Individualistic Vs. Sociocentric Cultures

8. The Right and the Left in the West

9. Explaining the Rift Between the Right and the Left

  • a. Leftist and Rightist Personality Traits
  • b. Leftist and Rightist Views of Human Nature


10. Two Points for the Left

11. Two Points for the Right

12. Conclusion

i. Introduction

The old saying goes that we are never to discuss religion or politics in polite company. These topics are singled out of course because they tend to be the two that people are most passionate about, and which therefore have the greatest potential to cause enmity and strife. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the fact that we disagree over politics and religion is not necessarily such a bad thing. For him, though, the current wrangling between political and religious (and non-religious) factions has gotten rather out of hand, as it has recently reached such a pitch in the West (and particularly in America where Haidt resides) as to be threatening the very fabric of our nations.

Now, according to Haidt, at least some of the enmity and strife between people of different political and religious stripes is caused by a failure to understand precisely where these beliefs ultimately come from—as well as a failure to understand how one’s opponents understand their own beliefs. In an effort to remedy this situation, and to bring a degree of civility back into the ongoing debate, Haidt sets out to supply just these understandings in his new book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’.

According to Haidt, understanding political and religious beliefs begins with an understanding of the human moral sense as it was laid down by evolution over the past several million years. For Haidt, the moral sense actually consists of (at least) six moral modules, each of which evolved to answer a specific challenge that our ancestors faced in the environment in which our species evolved. Briefly, the six moral modules are 1. The Care/Harm Module; 2. The Fairness/Cheating Module; 3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module; 4. The Authority/Subversion Module; 5. The Sanctity/Degradation Module; and 6. The Liberty/Oppression Module.

While all of us come prewired with the six moral modules, each of them stands to be either amplified or quieted as well as somewhat modified by a host of internal and external factors. The internal factors include our personality and its development, while the external factors include the environment in which we are raised (including our cultural milieu), and the particular experiences that we have—the latter of which help to shape, among other things, our view of human nature, which itself influences our view of what a good society consists in. It is these internal and external factors—which differ for all of us—that explain the plurality of moral and political views and ideologies across cultures, as well as within the same culture across individuals.

In addition to the six moral modules, Haidt maintains that human beings have also evolved an overlay of group-oriented sentiment or ‘groupishness’ sometime in the past 140,000 years, and as recently as in the past 10,000 years. This ‘groupishness’, Haidt claims, not only explains some of our moral and political sentiments, but also helps explain our attraction to religion, and other group-oriented pursuits, such as our fondness for teams, clubs and other such organizations. While our groupishness is particularly adept at binding us to the organizations of which we are a part, it also sets us against those who are a part of opposing groups, and makes it especially difficult for us to identify with them and to appreciate their point of view. The end result is that people not only have opposing viewpoints when it comes to morality, politics and religion, but they are often even unable to appreciate (or truly understand) the viewpoints of their rivals—hence why politics and religion are such flashpoint topics.

For Haidt, though, once we come to understand where our political and religious views are ultimately coming from, it should be easier for us to appreciate the views of our opponents, which should help us to see that they may in fact have something to offer to the debate. And indeed, when it comes to politics, Haidt maintains that both the left and the right do have something to contribute to the matter, and that the best solution to the political problem requires borrowing insights from both sides.

What follows is a comprehensive summary of the main arguments in ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt.


1. An Introduction to the Biological Foundations of Morality

According to Haidt, understanding politics and religion must begin with an understanding of the human moral sense. As a first step in this direction Haidt provides the following definition of moral systems: “moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interests and make cooperative societies possible” (loc. 4752). As you will recognize, this is a functionalist definition of moral systems, in that it focuses in on the role, or function that moral systems play in society. Any society must tackle the issue of how disparate individuals with separate (and often conflicting) goals can live together, and cooperate in such a way as to allow everyone the opportunity to satisfy their needs, and moral values and systems are just the tools that we use in order to achieve this.

Now, when it comes to human behaviour (including our moral behaviour), social scientists for much of the twentieth century thought that it is entirely a matter of nurture (that is, learning and enculturation), and that our nature (our genetic heritage) really has nothing to do with it. As Haidt explains it, “the prevailing view among anthropologists had long been that evolution got our species to the point of becoming bipedal, tool-using, large-brained creatures, but once we developed the capacity for culture, biological evolution stopped, or at least became irrelevant. Culture is so powerful that it can cause humans to behave in ways that override whatever ancient instincts we share with other primates” (loc. 2247). In the latter half of the twentieith century, though, and particularly in the past 20 years, this blank-slate view of human nature has largely been discredited, as the body of evidence has continued to build in favour of the idea that our genes do in fact have much to say about our behaviour. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of social scientists now appreciate that both nature and nurture have a role to play in shaping our behaviour.

Haidt (borrowing an analogy supplied by the neuroscientist Gary Marcus) describes the situation thus: “the brain”, out of which behaviour stems, “is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter—be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality—consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words” (loc. 2389). Elsewhere, the author writes that “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience’” (loc. 2392).

Of course, when it comes to any given behavioural phenomenon, the presence and nature of the prewiring cannot simply be taken for granted. Rather, it must be firmly and scientifically established. When it comes to our moral sense, there are several bits of evidence that help demonstrate that it does in fact have a basis in our biology, and that also help us to recreate the precise nature of this biological backing.

2. Moral Intuition

One of the biggest hints that our moral sense does in fact have a biological backing is the fact that our moral judgments are largely a matter of intuition, rather than conscious reasoning. Indeed, Haidt spends the entire first part of his book guiding the reader through the large body of evidence in support of this rather counter-intuitive notion. There, Haidt argues that we are constantly evaluating information as it filters into our brains, and that this evaluation process is driven by ancient psychological mechanisms that function automatically, unconsciously, and in the blink of an eye (loc. 1178). Our moral judgements, like our judgments of virtually all things, are largely guided by these evaluative mechanisms (loc. 932-41).

Here is a ‘Dateline’ segment on how these evaluative mechanisms play into a very controversial issue: racism.

The Implicit Association Test is not only used to measure unconscious perceptions with regards to race, but a whole host of other issues as well. To take the IAT test with regards to any of these issues (including race) visit the following website: http://projectimplicit.org/index.html

The rational stories that we tell ourselves and others about why we find certain things and actions objectionable do not drive our moral judgements. Rather, they are largely post hoc (after-the-fact) fabrications meant to make sense of our intuitions, and to convince others to think like we do: “we do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment” (loc. 918). This was a skill that became particularly important to us when we developed language and started gossiping about one another (loc. 955), which at least partly explains why our capacity to reason evolved in the first place (loc. 947-52).

That moral judgements are largely a matter of unconscious intuition (and not conscious reasoning) is strongly hinted at by the phenomenon known as moral dumbfounding. Moral dumbfounding is when we know that something is wrong, but we can’t quite figure out why we think so. Haidt himself has designed numerous scenarios that tend to render us morally dumbfounded. This one for instance: “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 and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this” (loc. 180); or this one: “a man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it”. Many people find these acts to be morally wrong, but, when pressed, they often have trouble explaining precisely why. In both cases no one has been injured, and, as Haidt points out, they “involve a kind of recycling that is—as some of my research subjects pointed out—an efficient use of natural resources” (loc. 189). Still though, something seems wrong here (even if you would not go so far as to say that these acts are morally wrong, you probably at least found yourself fighting back an initial feeling of disgust). This is moral dumbfounding at work, and it is a strong bit of evidence that our moral judgements do indeed often begin with unconscious intuition (the evidence does not stop here though, and, as mentioned above, Haidt spends the first part of the book reviewing this enormous body of evidence).

Of course, while our moral judgements may reflect an underlying biological prewiring, they necessarily reflect this biological prewiring in a form that has been modified from its original iteration. Indeed, as mentioned above, our genes represent but the first draft of a book that is ultimately refined through learning and experience. Given that this is the case, it is not as easy as we might hope to identify precisely what the first draft of our moral sense (our moral foundation, as it were) looks like. Nevertheless, there are ways to decipher it.

3. Tracking Down The Biological Foundations of Morality

Haidt himself has been a part of a research project that was aimed at cracking the moral code. In this research Haidt teamed up with Craig Joseph of the University of Chicago. The two began by way of collecting lists of virtues from around the world and among all different cultures (loc. 2256). Once they had gathered their extended list, Haidt and Joseph analyzed it to see if any patterns and themes emerged (loc. 2256), which, perhaps not surprisingly, they did. The presence of patterns and themes is significant, of course, because, as Haidt puts it, “when you see that some version of kindness, fairness, and loyalty is valued in most cultures, you start wondering if there might be some low-level pan-human social receptors” (loc. 2259). That is, when you start noticing that there are certain traits that are universally (or nearly universally) considered to be virtues, it tips you off that these virtues may in fact reflect underlying and species-wide biologically based psychological mechanisms of a moral flavour.

Of course, while patterns and themes across cultures may be suggestive of just such psychological mechanisms, one must be careful not to simply assume that they imply them (loc. 124). For this tends to lead to what are called ‘just-so’ stories about the evolutionary pressures that must have led to each mechanism in question (and the adaptive value of each mechanism), which stories are not necessarily warranted or accurate (loc. 2270-73). Rather than falling into this trap, Haidt and Joseph scoured the literature on evolutionary psychology to identify well-established evolutionary theories that could help explain the themes and patterns that they found (2270-73). When this process was complete Haidt and Joseph settled on six mechanisms (which they labeled modules, or foundations) that stood out as excellent candidates for a biological foundation of morality (in fact, the two researchers originally postulated 5 such moral modules, but later findings convinced them to add a sixth). The six moral modules, as mentioned in the introduction are as follows: 1. The Care/Harm Module; 2. The Fairness/Cheating Module; 3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module; 4. The Authority/Subversion Module; 5. The Sanctity/Degradation Module; and 6. The Liberty/Oppression Module. (If you would like to check out the website dedicated to this research effort, click on this link: http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php) I will now proceed to describe each of the moral modules in turn, and explain the theory behind how each came to evolve in our species.

 4. The Six Moral Modules

 a. The Care/Harm Module

The care/harm module (or care module for short) begins with a desire to nurture and raise our children (loc. 2413). While our evolutionary legacy suggests that this module begins with a mother’s care for her offspring, it is believed that in some species (including our own), this mechanism extends to fathers. The adaptive value of developing such a mechanism is clear: given how much time and energy must be invested into raising a viable human child, “evolution favored women and (to a lesser extent) men who had an automatic reaction to signs of need or suffering, such as crying, from children in their midst… The suffering of your own children is the original trigger of one of the key modules of the Care foundation” (loc. 2413).

While the care module may have originally arisen as a way of meeting the adaptive challenge of raising successful offspring, the module itself is flexible enough to be extended to other organisms whose features remind us of our children (including other human children [loc. 2423], as well as certain animals [loc. 2426, 2431]), and even any organism that suffers (loc. 2431). And again, this module is flexible enough that it can extend to a wider or narrower range of creatures in different times and places, and across different individuals. Indeed, as Haidt points out, “we care about violence toward many more classes of victims today than our grandparents did in their time” (loc. 2434). Additionally, liberals tend to place more stock in the care module than conservatives (when it comes to the political realm, at any rate), and to direct their care towards a different set of individuals (loc. 2442-48) (more on this below).

b. The Fairness/Cheating Module

The fairness module consists of an inclination to behave kindly towards strangers (or at least give them the benefit of the doubt), and then respond to them in kind to how they respond to us (loc. 2469). That is, if another person responds to us with kindness and care, we are quite happy to return this kindness and care to them (as motivated by the emotions of gratitude and [if this doesn’t work] guilt [loc. 6211]), thus creating a positive feedback loop that sets us up in a congenial and cooperative relationship with them. But if that other person responds to us with rudeness or with the intent of exploiting us, we are inclined to return this rudeness with rudeness of our own, or to seek revenge for the insult received  (as motivated by the emotions of anger, contempt and disgust [loc. 2474]). This strategy is often referred to as ‘tit for tat’ (loc. 2466) (for reasons that are made clear in the video below).

The fairness module is thought to have evolved to address the adaptive challenge of taking advantage of mutual cooperation, which benefits all parties involved (and requires playing nice with others), without being taken advantage of in the process (which requires that we get angry with, and punish cheaters). As Haidt explains it “for millions of years, our ancestors faced the adaptive challenge of reaping these benefits without getting suckered. Those whose moral emotions compelled them to play ‘tit for tat’ reaped more of these benefits than those who played any other strategy, such as ‘help anyone who needs it’ (which invites exploitation), or ‘take but don’t give’ (which can work just once with each person; pretty soon nobody’s willing to share pie with you)” (loc. 2474).

The following is a video (hosted by Richard Dawkins) that explores the adaptive value of the ‘tit for tat’ strategy, and how it was able to evolve.

The full documentary from which this clip is taken is called ‘Nice Guys Finish First’, and is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BA4dZ6NVNbk

 c. The Loyalty/Betrayal Module

The loyalty module consists in the predisposition to develop affection for those who display loyalty to the groups of which we are a part, and hatred for those who betray these groups: “the love of loyal teammates is matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors, who are usually considered to be far worse than enemies” (loc. 2538).

The loyalty module evolved, it appears, to meet “the adaptive challenge of forming cohesive coalitions” (loc. 2527), which coalitions proved to be beneficial in our evolutionary past when inter-group conflict was a natural part of life. Indeed, there is now ample evidence that “warfare has been a constant feature of human life since long before agriculture and private property” (loc. 2527). And in fact, this legacy of conflict and warfare seems to stretch all of the way back to the time when we split from our closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees, as it has now been shown that “chimpanzees guard their territory, raid the territory of rivals, and, if they can pull it off, kill the males of the neighboring group and take their territory and their females” (loc. 2520).

In support of the idea that the loyalty module evolved as a mechanism that gave people an advantage in inter-group conflict is the fact that the loyalty and betrayal emotions tend to be strongest when we are set into conflict with opposing groups (loc. 2512, 2528). What’s more, it appears that our tribal nature runs very deep indeed, since, when we lack a genuine rival group, “we seek out ways to form groups and teams that can compete just for the fun of competing” (loc. 2530).

d. The Authority/Subversion Module

The authority module is a moral foundation that has been designed to allow us to negotiate social hierarchies, which themselves have played a prominent role in our evolutionary history. Before describing the nature of this module it should be noted that the social hierarchies in much of our evolutionary past have been somewhat different from the social hierarchies of other animals (as well as different from many of the social hierarchies that have cropped up more recently in human history [more on this in the next section]). As Haidt explains it, in its traditional form, “human authority… is not just raw power backed by the threat of force. Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice” (loc. 2583). In other words, the ancient roots of human hierarchies are not strictly about dominance and submission; rather “people who relate to each other in this way have mutual expectations that are more like those of a parent and child than those of a dictator and fearful underlings” (loc. 2592).

What this entails is that the authority figure in this relationship is recognized as legitimate in the eyes of his subordinates, and the legitimacy of his authority is based on the leadership and protection that he provides. Some familiar examples of this relationship include “military hierarchies… ancestor worship ([including] offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms), [and] monotheistic religious moralities” (loc. 2596). Now, certainly, authority figures in this relationship may sometimes exploit those beneath them for their own gain—all the while believing themselves to be perfectly just (loc. 2586)—but the relationship itself really does go beyond this, and is, as Haidt points out, an important part of creating social order (loc. 2586).

With regards to the nature of the authority module, it consists of two separate dispositions aimed at opposite ends of the social hierarchy (loc. 2599). On the one hand, it consists in the predisposition to signal deference to those who are above one, while on the other hand it includes the disposition to display dominance over, but also protection of, those who are below one. Essentially, the complementary dispositions are designed to allow one “to rise in status while cultivating the protection of superiors and the allegiance of subordinates” (loc. 2601). In essence, Haidt explains, “these modules work together to help individuals meet the adaptive challenge of forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies” (loc. 2559).

e. The Liberty/Oppression Module

 While the authority foundation relates to social hierarchies that are recognized to be legitimate by those arranged within them, the liberty foundation has to do with social hierarchies wherein the authority figure has come to be deemed illegitimate by his subordinates. Indeed, as Haidt points out, “we all recognize some kinds of authority as legitimate in some contexts, but are also wary of those who claim to be leaders unless they have first earned our trust. We’re vigilant for signs that they’ve crossed the line into self-aggrandizement and tyranny” (loc. 3081). And since leaders always stand to gain the more exploitative they are allowed to become, there is always the potential there that they will do just that.

Now, before humans developed weapons, and brains smart enough to use them, dominance competitions were won exclusively by brute force. At that time, any inclination to rebel against an overly-exploitative alpha male would have ended in a beating. But once humans developed sophisticated weapons (some 500,000 years ago, it is believed [loc. 3042]), the balance of power shifted, and brawny males became as vulnerable as everyone else: “once early humans had developed spears, anyone could kill a bullying alpha male. And if you add the ability to communicate with language, and note that every human society uses language to gossip about moral violations, then it becomes easy to see how early humans developed the ability to unite in order to shame, ostracize, or kill anyone whose behaviour threatened or simply annoyed the rest of the group” (loc. 3046).

Once this occurred, there would have been selection pressure for individuals to develop a mechanism that would trigger them to rebel against a tyrannical alpha male. As Haidt explains it, “individuals who failed to detect signs of domination and respond to them with righteous and group-unifying anger faced the prospect of reduced access to food, mates and all the other things that make individuals (and their genes) successful in the Darwinian sense” (loc. 3078). As a result, the author maintains, just such a mechanism evolved, and it is none other than the liberty module (loc. 3072). As we would expect, the module itself is triggered by “signs of attempted domination. Anything that suggests the aggressive, controlling behaviour of an alpha male (or female) can trigger this form of righteous anger, which is sometimes called reactance. (That’s the feeling you get when an authority tells you you can’t do something and you feel yourself wanting to do it even more strongly)” (loc.3075).

The end result of this mechanism is that “those who could not respect group norms, or who acted like bullies, were removed from the gene pool by being shunned, expelled, or killed. Genes and cultural practices (such as the collective killing of deviants) coevolved” (loc. 3067). Ultimately, human beings ended up domesticating themselves through this process: “our ancestors began to selectively breed themselves (unintentionally) for the ability to construct shared moral matrices and then live cooperatively within them” (loc. 3069)—an unfolding of events that the anthropologist Christopher Boehm refers to quite literally as ‘self-domestication’ (loc 3068).

As you will recognize, the liberty module is very much in a state of tension with the authority module, but both work together to create a kind of fragile balance in our psyches between equality and hierarchy (loc. 3059, 3081) (a fragile balance that also tends to show up in our politics).

f. The Sanctity Module

The sanctity module consists in the predisposition to identify certain objects, places, principles, acts and people as low, base or profane, and certain other objects, places, principles, acts and people as pure, noble or sacred (loc. 2685).

The entities that we identify either as one or the other are largely informed by the cultures and communities of which we are a part (though they do have a basis in our biology, as we shall see). As the reader will recognize, beliefs and systems of beliefs regarding the sacred and the profane are often codified by organized religions. For instance, many religions “talk about ‘the sanctity of life’ and ‘the sanctity of marriage’… [and] are more likely to view the body as a temple, housing a soul within, rather than as a machine to be optimized, or as a playground to be used for fun” (loc. 2699). However, beliefs regarding the sacred and the profane are not confined to religions. As Haidt points out, these notions are “also used on the spiritual left. You can see the foundation’s original impurity-avoidance function in New Age grocery stores, where you’ll find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of ‘toxins.’ And you’ll find the Sanctity foundation underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement. Many environmentalists revile industrialism, capitalism, and automobiles not just for the physical pollution they create but also for a more symbolic kind of pollution—a degradation of nature, and of humanity’s original nature, before it was corrupted by industrial capitalism” (loc. 2720).

As mentioned above, notions of the sacred and the profane tend to be shared across communities, and indeed Haidt maintains that these notions work to bind communities together: “whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities” (loc. 2685). In fact, it is the very power of these beliefs to act as a social glue that explains why Haidt considers the sacred foundation to be a moral module (anything, you will recall, that specifically allows us to live together cooperatively may be categorized within the moral domain).

With regards to the evolutionary origins of this module, Haidt points to the ancient emotion of disgust. This emotion, Haidt explains, initially evolved to help guard our omnivorous species against potentially harmful food: “individuals who had a properly calibrated sense of disgust were able to consume more calories than their overly disgustable cousins while consuming fewer dangerous microbes than their insufficiently digustable cousins” (loc. 2661). However, once our ancestors left the trees for the plains, and started living in larger and larger groups, foodstuffs were no longer the only threat that might cause them to become ill. Rather, those ancestors of ours “greatly increased their risk of infection from each other and each other’s waste products” (loc. 2664). As a result of this, the disgust emotion evolved to cover the new threats. Indeed, “the psychologist Mark Schaller has shown that disgust is part of what he calls the ‘behavioral immune system’—a set of cognitive modules that are triggered by signs of infection or disease in other people and that make you want to get away from those people” (loc. 2664).

Once the behavioural immune system was in place, it was ripe to be modified by cultural influence to extend to still other threats to the individuals within the group, and the groups itself. A prime example of  such a threat are the members of out-groups. Indeed, as Haidt points out, “plagues, epidemics, and new diseases are usually brought in by foreigners” (loc. 2676); and these same foreigners also tend to bring in new ideas that may upset the fabric of the group, and so they are likely to be identified as a threat on two fronts. Having said this, foreigners also tend to bring in new ideas, goods and technologies that may prove beneficial to the group, so “societies face an analogue of the omnivore’s dilemma, balancing xenophobia and xenophilia” (loc. 2676). And this dilemma often comes to be played out in the political arena (more on this below).

5. Human Groupishness, The Hive Switch & Religion

Each of the six moral modules outlined above represents a biologically evolved aspect of the human psyche that has equipped the members of our species to co-exist and cooperate in a group setting. Each of the modules is thought to be very ancient, having evolved at least 200,000 years ago, and, in most cases, several million years ago. Indeed, several of the modules have been shown to exist in an incipient form in our closest evolutionary ancestors, the chimpanzees (with whom we have not shared a common ancestor for over 5 million years).

According to Haidt, though, there is yet one more layer of biological hardware that we have evolved that has prepared us for group living, and that has made us amenable to this lifestyle. This additional layer may rightly be thought of as a kind of ultrasociality that binds us very stongly to the groups of which we are a part (and sets us against the members of out-groups). Haidt alternately speaks of it as ‘groupishness’, or as consisting in a hive mentality. Now, it is not that humans are dominated by this groupisheness. Rather, it as an aspect of our psyche that is activated by particular circumstances: “[it] doesn’t mean that our ancestors were mindless or unconditional team players; it means they were selective. Under the right conditions, they were able to enter a mind-set of ‘one for all, all for one’ in which they were truly working for the good of the group, and not just for their own advancement within the group. My hypothesis… is that human beings are conditional hive creatures. We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch” (loc. 3910).

Evidence for this ‘groupishness’ of ours consists in the fact that “we love to join teams, clubs, leagues, and fraternities. We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork” (loc. 3338). Some specific examples of practices that we are either led to, or that draw upon, our groupishness include the very widespread practice of  employing symbolic markings to indicate our membership in the groups of which we are a part: “From the tattoos and face piercings used among Amazonian tribes through the male circumcision required of Jews to the tattoos and facial piercings used by punks in the United Kingdom, human beings take extraordinary, costly, and sometimes painful steps to make their bodies advertise their group memberships” (loc. 3708). Another pertinent example here is the practice of moving together in time, or ‘muscular-bonding’, as seen in tribal dancing (or any kind of choreographed group dancing routine) (loc. 3923-29) and military training exercises (loc. 3887).

For an excellent example of ‘muscular-bonding’ from the world of sport, here is a video of New Zealand’s national rugby squad, the‘All Blacks’, performing their famed ‘Haka’.

In the same vein as this impressive routine are the ‘muscular bonding’ routines sometimes performed by fans at a live sporting event (and popular in American colleges). One such example comes from Haidt’s own UVA, where fans of the Cavaliers football team have a tradition where they “literally lock arms and sway as a single mass while singing praises of their community… Next… the students let go of each other’s arms and make aggressive fist-pumping motions in the air, in sync with a nonsensical battle chant” (loc. 4324). While this display no doubt motivates the home football team and intimidates the opposing squad, Haidt denies that this is its only, or even its primary function. Rather, Haidt maintains that its main function is to create a sense of community among the individuals who take part: “it flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are ‘simply a part of the whole.’ It augments the school spirit for which UVA is renowned, which in turn attracts better students and more alumni donations, which in turn improves the experience for the entire community, including professors like me who have no interest in sports” (loc. 4342).

For Haidt, the instance of college football is an excellent analogy for the most important example when it comes to practices that we are either led to, or that draw upon, our natural groupishness, and that is religion (loc. 4336). Indeed, according to Haidt, many scientists misunderstand religion because they fail to recognize that its primary function is as a binding force.  Of these scientists (some of whom fall under the label of the New Atheists), Haidt claims that “they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices” (loc. 4348). And when it comes to binding practices few have been more successful than religions. As the author points out, numerous studies have shown (not surprisingly) that religion is an extremely effective tool in procuring trust and cooperation within a group (loc. 4502-26, 4564-77). And, of course, a large part of this power that religion has comes from a belief in god(s): “you don’t need a social scientist to tell you that people behave less ethically when they think nobody can see them… creating gods who can see everything, and who hate cheaters and oath breakers, turn out to be a good way to reduce cheating and oath breaking” (loc. 4495).

6. Groupishness and the Question of Group Selection

Now, most scientists have no trouble believing that this groupishness of ours evolved. However, many scientists believe that it evolved at the level of individual selection. That is, “we have groupish minds today because groupish individuals long ago outcompeted less groupish individuals within the same group” (loc. 3346). And Haidt agrees that this may partially explain our hivish behaviour. For him, though, our groupishness goes beyond individual selection, in that, on his account, it also evolved at the group level. That is, according to Haidt, “we have groupish mechanisms because groups that succeeded in coalescing and cooperating outcompeted groups that couldn’t get it together” (loc. 3348)—a process that ultimately selected for individuals who truly had a commitment to the group, and not just the appearance of this (loc. 3348). In Haidt’s own words, “individuals compete with individuals, and that competition rewards selfishness—which includes some forms of strategic cooperation… But at the same time, groups compete with groups and that competition favors groups composed of true team players—those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving the group” (loc. 3360).

Now, as it turns out, the theory of group selection has garnered somewhat of a controversy in the social sciences over the years. Darwin actually proposed the theory himself way back when he first introduced the theory of natural selection (loc. 3416-21), and the theory was invoked on numerous occasions over the next hundred years (loc. 3421). However, the manner in which it was invoked was often sloppy and poorly thought out, which sometimes led to rather fantastical claims about “animals acting for the good of the species, or even of the ecosystem” (loc. 3427). In 1966, though, the biologist George Williams published a book called ‘Adaptation and Natural Selection’ wherein he pointed out just how fantastical many of these claims were, and argued that the vast majority of the traits in question could be accounted for much better by simply invoking individual selection (loc. 3433-40). Williams’ book was so persuasive that, from this point forward, the theory of group of selection was very much thrown into disrepute. Nevertheless, several social scientists (including Williams himself) pointed out that group selection would be possible, if just the right conditions prevailed. In fact, it was held to be highly likely that group selection had indeed taken place in certain special cases, such as in the ultrasocial species of ants, termites, wasps, bees, and a handful of other species (loc. 3544).

Now, as Haidt points out, precisely the conditions that prevailed among the ultrasocial species and that allowed group selection to take place among them also held sway in the evolutionary history of our own species. Specifically, these conditions included 1. The need to defend a shared home-base (loc. 3561); 2. The need to “feed offspring over an extended period” (loc. 3570); and 3. The presence of inter-group conflict (loc. 3570). Given that these conditions did in fact prevail in our evolutionary history, Haidt concludes that group selection could well have taken place in our species. What’s more, given how thoroughly ingrained groupishness seems to be in our species (loc. 3849) (plus a host of other factors discussed in chapters 9 and 10), Haidt concludes that group selection did in fact take place (loc. 3356-59).

Now, it may not seem terribly important whether our groupishness evolved as a matter of individual selection or group selection. For Haidt, though, it makes all the difference in the world; for, as we have seen above, it would imply that our psychology contains a dimension that is truly group-oriented in its nature. That is, it would imply that not all human behaviour can ultimately be reduced to self-interest, but that some of this behaviour is truly directed at the good of the groups of which we are a part. If this is true, then, as Haidt points out, “it has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives” (loc. 3918). It is to one aspect of the first of these implications—that pertaining to how we should organize our societies—that we will turn to in the final part of the article. First, though, we must explore how our moral foundations come to be modified by both internal and external factors.


Having explored the biological foundations of our moral sense and our attraction to religion, we are now in a position to see how these foundations are modified by both internal and external factors to produce different moral, political and religious views across cultures, and within the same culture across individuals. We will begin with differences across cultures.

7. Individualistic Vs. Sociocentric Cultures

One of the single biggest differences across societies has to do with how they answer the question regarding how to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of individuals and groups. As Haidt explains, “there seems to be just two primary ways of answering this question. Most societies have chosen the sociocentric answer, placing the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals. In contrast, the individualistic answer places individuals at the center and makes society a servant of the individual” (loc. 393). The latter option, Haidt continues, began to catch on during the enlightenment, when the idea of the autonomy and all-importance of the individual began to take hold. Subsequent to this, in the West at least, “the individualistic answer largely vanquished the sociocentric approach in the twentieth century as individual rights expanded rapidly, consumer culture spread, and the Western world reacted with horror to the evils perpetrated by the ultrasociocentric fascist and communist empires” (loc. 396).

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the sociocentric approach has mostly continued to hold sway (loc. 380). The result is that we have been left with two very different types of societies, which societies have very different ideas regarding the self and the groups of which they are a part. Indeed, when comparing Westerners, who tend to be much more individualistic, with East Asians, who tend to be much more sociocentric, it has been found that they have contrasting ideas of the self: “for example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the words ‘I am…,’ 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)” (loc. 1822). And, in fact, the differences between the members of the two types of societies extends even to the realm of visual perception. Indeed, Westerners tend to see the elements in a picture as independent entities, while East Asians tend to see the relationships between the parts (loc. 1829)—a difference that allows the two to excel at different types of visual tasks (depending on which approach works better in the different cases) (loc. 1829).

As we might expect, one of the main ways that individualistic and sociocentric cultures are at odds is in how their members view morality. The most straightforward way to understand this difference is to think of it in terms of the six moral modules. Because individualistic societies place the emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, they tend to amplify the moral modules that focus in on individual rights, which include the care module, the fairness module, and the freedom module (loc. 438, 1833-36, 1839-43). By contrast, sociocentric societies place the emphasis on the importance of the group, and, as such, tend to place added weight on the moral modules that focus in on group cohesion, which includes the loyalty module, the authority module, and the sanctity module (loc. 413, 1836-39, 1843-46). (Both types of societies, it should be noted, care to some degree about all six of the moral modules, it is just that they differ on which modules they place the most emphasis on).

8. The Right and the Left in the West

Now, it was just mentioned that the West tends to be more individualistic, and, as a result, places more emphasis on the moral modules that emphasize the autonomy of the individual—over and above those that focus in on the importance of the group. While this may be true generally, and relative to the rest of the world, there are nonetheless wide discrepancies among Westerners with regards to this issue. Indeed, even within the West there is a great divide here, and the main division is that between the left wing and the right wing.

As Haidt sees it, a main part of the rift lies in the fact that the two factions disagree on the nature and foundation of society; as a result of this, he maintains, they disagree on what they believe a well-functioning society should look like. Haidt quotes the sociologist Christian Smith to help characterize the view from the left, which runs as follows: “Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism… But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving” (loc. 4867-94).

To help characterize the view from the right, Haidt once again quotes Christian Smith. The view from the right runs thusly (note: though Smith refers to America throughout, replacing this word with ‘society’ more or less captures the conservative view throughout the Western world) : “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way… Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals… Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle… and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles… Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism… Then Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it” (loc. 5008-16).

When we compare these two narratives in terms of the six moral modules, we find that the view from the left is completely lacking in (if not outright hostile towards) the foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, while the view from the right does embody a respect for these (as well as a frustration with left for failing to display such a respect). Some examples in each of the modules include: “Loyalty (soldiers and the flag), Authority (subversion of the family and of traditions), and Sanctity (replacing God with the celebration of promiscuity)” (loc. 5027).

In addition, while both narratives pay heed to the modules of care, fairness and liberty, they do so to different degrees and in different ways. For instance, when it comes to the module of care, the left leans heavily upon it, and their care is directed primarily at the victims of exploitation. For the right, the module of care is much less important at the political level (the right is much more likely to say that care should be centered in the family, and the local organizations of which one is a part), though the right does believe that it is very important to show care towards the victims of crime (loc. 5024). When it comes to fairness, the right interprets it as being able to keep that, and only that, which you work for (and not having it redistributed to those who haven’t worked for it), while the left interprets fairness as counteracting the advantages that naturally accrue to certain individuals (such as the wealthy), by way of redistributing wealth to the less fortunate. When it comes to liberty, the left interprets it as freedom from all forms of hierarchical oppression (which sometimes requires governmental meddling), while the right views it primarily as freedom from governmental meddling. (These findings have all been corroborated by the results of surveys administered by Haidt and his colleagues. To check out this research, or to find out your own score on each of the moral modules, go to http://www.yourmorals.org/index.php and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire).

 9. Explaining the Rift Between the Right and the Left

As you can tell, the two narratives are, as Haidt puts it, “as opposed as could be” (loc. 5027). So how can we account for the difference? It is widely believed that the rift between right and left is one of class and wealth, and that both wings simply vote according to their self-interest; that is, the wealthy vote conservative to minimize the amount that the government taxes them and redistributes to the poor, and the poor vote liberal to maximize this redistribution. While there may be some truth to this in some cases, research has shown that wealth is actually a very poor predictor of voting patterns (loc. 4864). In America, for instance, “the rich go both ways (industrialists mostly right, tech billionaires mostly left) and so do the poor (rural poor mostly right, urban poor mostly left)” (loc. 4864).

So, if self-interest can’t explain our political views, where do we turn to next? If we had to choose between biology and environment here, we’d probably think it a no-brainer: environment all the way. As it turns out though, political beliefs are highly heritable, and our nature plays much more of a role than our nurture: “genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less” (loc. 4882). This discovery was initially made in the 1980’s when social scientists launched the first twin studies: studies wherein researchers compare fraternal and identical twins who are either raised together in the same environment, or apart (having been adopted into separate homes) (loc. 4867). Twin studies have completely rocked the scientific world. For not only has it been found that political views are highly heritable, it has also been discovered that “genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities. We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your degree of religiosity, and [as mentioned above] your political orientation” (loc. 4879). But how is this possibly the case? “How”, as Haidt poses the question, “can there be a genetic basis for attitudes about nuclear power, progressive taxation, and foreign aid when these issues only emerged in the last century or two?” (loc. 4882).

 a. Leftist and Rightist Personality Traits

Before answering this question, let us take a look at precisely what it is about our genetics that is influencing our political views. As it turns out, the difference between the left and the right seems to come down to two genetic factors, and these genetic factors have to do with two personality traits in particular. Specifically, the personality traits of 1. How sensitive we are to danger and threats, and 2. How open we are to new experience (loc. 4903). Indeed, it has been found that “conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise” (loc. 4895). On the other hand, “sensation-seeking and openness to experience… are among the best-established correlates of liberalism” (loc. 4895). And again, both of these personality traits (like all personality traits) are highly heritable.

So, how can we make sense of all of this? Well, it helps to remember that people on the right are called ‘conservatives’ for a reason; that is, they are more reluctant to change, and prefer instead to “preserve and conserve” (loc. 4859). This fits in well with their personality traits of being more sensitive to danger and threats (which change can always trigger), and less open to sensation-seeking and new experiences.  On the other hand, people on the left all called ‘progressives’ for a reason; that is, they are more open to change, and often wish to hasten it. This fits in well with their being less sensitive to danger and threats, and more open to new experiences.

Here is Jonathan Haidt in a TED talk on the issue of personality traits across the political spectrum (as well as other issues discussed in the book):

b. Leftist and Rightist Views of Human Nature

This certainly goes some way to explaining the difference between the right and the left. However, Haidt maintains that there is yet one more factor that comes into play here. And this has to do with competing views of human nature. Specifically, most right wingers tend to be somewhat more pessimistic about human nature than most left wingers. As Haidt explains it, “conservatives generally… believe that people need external constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions… Without them, they believe, people will begin to cheat and behave selfishly. Without them, social capital will rapidly decay” (loc. 5129). On the other hand, liberals are more optimistic here. They tend to believe that “people are inherently good, and that they flourish when constraints and divisions are removed” (loc. 5126).

These contrasting views of human nature may themselves be heavily influenced by the personality traits mentioned above. Indeed, it stands to reason that those who are naturally less open to new experiences and more sensitive to danger and threats would be more suspicious of people in general, and therefore have a correspondingly more pessimistic view of human nature. By the same token, it stands to reason that those who are naturally more open to new experiences and less sensitive to danger and threats would be less suspicious of people in general, and therefore have a correspondingly more optimistic view of human nature.

However we come to our views of human nature, the disagreement between the right and the left here does seem to go a long way towards explaining why conservatives tend to place more of an emphasis on the moral modules that focus in on the importance of group cohesion such as loyalty, authority and sanctity, while liberals tend to eschew these modules in favor of the modules that focus in on the individual, such as care, fairness and liberty. Indeed, it is precisely the group cohesion that loyalty, authority and sanctity provide that conservatives (with their more pessimistic view of human nature) believe we need, and that liberals (with their more optimistic view of human nature) believe we don’t need (loc. 5126-33).

When it comes to the factor of differing views of human nature, Haidt does not take it beyond the role that it plays in leaning the right wing towards the more group-oriented moral modules, and the left wing towards the more individual-oriented modules. However, other theorists have used it to explain even the differing interpretations of care, fairness and liberty that the two parties have. For instance, it has been invoked to explain the difference in approach to criminals and justice: the right tends to be more skeptical of people’s ability to change, and therefore favors harsher punishments for criminals; while the left is more optimistic here and favors rehabilitation. Likewise, when it comes to foreign policy, the left is more optimistic that enemy nations can be reasoned with, and therefore favors diplomacy; while the right is less optimistic and favors a strong military, and the use of force in dicey situations. Additionally, on the economic front, when it comes to taxation and social programs, the right tends to think that social programs will be used as a crutch, and abused by those who don’t really need them; while the left tends to think that people will only fall back on them as a last resort, and that the abuse of these programs will be limited. Finally, with regards to the regulation of business, the left is hopeful that government officials will be able to develop reasonable regulations, and apply them judiciously; while the right is fearful that these regulations will have unintended consequences, and, what’s more, that government officials will abuse this power and use it as an instrument of corruption.

In any event, we can well see how the factors of personality differences, and contrasting views of human nature do much to explain the differences in opinions had by the right and the left. So, which side is correct?


According to Haidt, both sides have something to offer. Of course, neither side wants to admit that this is true of the other side, and, for Haidt, this has a lot to do with our groupish nature. Indeed, on Haidt’s account, while our groupishness helps us to adhere to our own side, it also makes us particularly hostile towards opposing sides—to the point where we cannot even consider things from their point of view. In Haidts words, our groupish nature both binds and blinds: it binds us to our own group, and blinds us to the virtue of the other side. Having said this, Haidt is hopeful that understanding this, and also understanding where the other side is coming from (which he has attempted to reveal) will help us get past our blindness and consider things afresh. With that said, let us now turn to Haidt’s analysis of the political debate.

On the question of policy, Haidt focuses in on two areas where he believes the left has the upper hand, as well as two areas where he believes the right comes out on top. I will follow the order that Haidt uses and begin with the left.

10. Two Points for the Left

The first left-leaning policy matter that Haidt believes wins the day is that governments can and should restrain corporations (loc. 5223). For Haidt, there is nothing wrong with corporations per se, and indeed he believes that much good can come of them, and that there is no reason why they should not exist (loc. 5241). However, the fact of the matter is that corporations, in the pursuit of maximizing profit, stand to benefit when they can pass costs on to third parties in the form of what are called ‘externalities’ (for example, in the form of threats to the environment and/or health), and therefore, they will always be tempted to do so. Given that this is the case, and given that governments are “the only force left on earth that can stand up to the largest corporations” (loc. 5232), Haidt maintains that governments must needs “stand up for the public interest against corporations and their tendency to distort markets and impose externalities on  others, particularly on those least able to stand up for themselves in court (such as the poor, or immigrants, or farm animals)” (loc. 5250).

The second policy matter that Haidt awards to the left is really just an extension of the first, as it consists in the point that government regulations can, in fact, have very beneficial effects. Haidt uses the example of the American government’s banning of lead in gasoline over a twenty-year period beginning in the late 1970’s. Lead has very detrimental effects on our health (loc. 5256), and evidence had been increasingly coming in that lead from gasoline was managing to find its way into our “lungs, bloodstreams and brains and was retarding the neural development of millions of children” (loc. 5256). The chemical industry—in a classic example of corporations’ willingness to pass on externalities to third parties in the name of maximizing profit—fought (successfully) against the banning of lead in gasoline for decades. However, the government was eventually able to ram this legislation through, and the health benefits that have accrued since have been enormous (loc. 5266-75).

Now, Haidt admits that the right may be correct in thinking that regulations sometimes have unintended consequences that we need to worry about (loc. 5280). However, as the lead-in-gasoline case reveals, it is also true that regulations can have beneficial consequences. Given that this is the case, Haidt concludes that we should not hesitate to use them in particular cases.

11. Two Points for the Right

Having discussed how the left has it right when it comes to government regulation, Haidt next turns his attention to two points of policy where the right carries the day. The first point here has to do with how conservatives are correct in their respect and admiration of free-markets (up to a point, of course). As Haidt explains, governments will never be able to direct markets in a way that is anywhere near as effective and efficient as one that is guided by the invisible hand at play in a free market (loc. 5343-57). Take a can of food from the grocery store for instance, “think about all the work that went into it—the farmers, truckers, and supermarket employees, the miners and metalworkers who made the can—and think how miraculous it is that you can buy this can for under a dollar. At every step of the way, competition among suppliers rewarded those whose innovations shaved a penny off the cost of getting that can to you” (loc. 5337). The more you interfere with this system, the more you sacrifice its efficiency (loc. 5343-57): “when libertarians talk about the miracle of ‘spontaneous order’ that emerges when people are allowed to make their own choices (and take on the costs and benefits of those choices), the rest of us should listen” (loc. 5367). Now, liberals may often have very good intentions when they wish to interfere in the operations of free markets. However, given how effective and efficient these markets are, these good intentions often end up having very harmful consequences (loc. 5367). Of course, as we have seen, Haidt does favor government regulations in certain cases, his point is only that we should always look to minimize these restriction as much as possible (loc. 5373).

The second point in favor of the right wing, according to Haidt, is their concern with the moral modules of loyalty, authority and sanctity, as is reflected in their support for institutions and practices that promote group cohesion, such as the family, patriotism and religion (loc. 5011-14, 5380). According to Haidt, our selfish sentiments will always pose a problem for group living, and this is especially the case in large communities, where the members do not have regular contact with one another, and do not know one another: “moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense” (loc. 5160). And the consequences of this moral entropy can be catastrophic. As Haidt points out, “there is not a big margin for error; many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit” (loc. 5163). In order to avoid this situation, Haidt argues that efforts simply must be made to prop up the moral capital within a community. And this means supporting the kinds of group-oriented institutions and practices that conservatives support (loc. 5162-73).

Now, of course, supporting our in-groups often means excluding out-groups (loc. 5407), and this is precisely what liberals hate. As Haidt points out, “John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song ‘Imagine.’ Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would ‘be as one’ (loc. 5401). For Haidt though, these divisions, as odious as they might be in theory, are necessary in practice, and it is naive to think otherwise: “we need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude non-members. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital” (loc. 5410), which ultimately has a detrimental effect on society.

This is evident, Haidt argues, from the fact that the reforms that progressives sometimes introduce end up backfiring on account of their undermining this moral capital: “for example, the urge to help inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960’s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families. The urge to empower students by giving them the right to sue their teachers and schools in the 1970’s has eroded authority and moral capital in schools, creating disorderly environments that harm the poor above all. The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980’s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity. Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less” (loc. 5443)”. Given that this is the case, Haidt concludes that the right is justified in their efforts to preserve and build moral capital by fostering the “values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and thechnologies that increase it” (loc. 5164).

Of course, Haidt does not mean to suggest that building moral capital should be done at all costs, nor that it is necessarily always a good thing. Indeed, the author is fully aware that it in-group cohesion can lead to unfair treatment of certain classes of people both within a community and without, and that, because of this, efforts should be made to ensure that this is minimized (loc. 5175). Be that as it may, we cannot simply throw out the baby with the bathwater, for, in the final analysis, “if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble” (loc. 5170).

12. Conclusion

So there you have it. Whether or not you agree with Haidt’s political analysis, hopefully you have been left with a better appreciation of where our moral, political and religious sentiments are ultimately coming from, as well as a better understand of the views of your opponents. If we all developed these understandings perhaps we would be in a better position as a society to carry on our political and religious debates in a more civil and productive manner.

*Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you have enjoyed this summary of ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt, or just have a thought, please free to leave a comment below. Also, if you feel others may benefit from this article, please feel free to click on the g+1 symbol below, or share it on one of the umpteen social networking sites hidden beneath the ‘share’ button.



The Book Reporter

4 thoughts on “#10. A Summary of ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt

  1. While I greatly admire Haidt’s efforts to tackle the political divide, I strongly disagree with his conclusion that the Left is lacking in the moral modules of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In fact, it seems inconsistent of him to say, on the one hand, that loyalty and authority come from our view of our relationship to groups, and on the other hand, to argue that the opposition of Left and Right is based on the dynamics of in-group vs. out-group. If we accept that the Left sees itself as a group opposed to the Right, then of course it follows that it exhibits values such as loyalty, authority and sanctity within its group. A good example of loyalty in this regard is found in labor unions (“solidarity forever”), and in all kinds of political protests. A good example of authority is political correctness. And as noted in your summary, the Left often views the environment, or aspects of it, as sacred.

    I think there’s a simpler way to understand the Left and Right that better accounts for their views. The evolution of our species has been characterized by the appearance of progressively larger and more complex groups, beginning with families, then tribes, states and now an emerging world or planetary community. The Left, as one would expect for a group often referred to as progressive, identifies with the most recently-evolved social organizations, the nation and now the world community. The Right, often characterizes as more respecting of tradition, Right identifies more closely with the smaller, less complex and much older social organizations that we originated from, the family and local community.

    When we view the Left and Right in this manner, we can see that it simply is not true, as Haidt claims, that “conservatives tend to place more of an emphasis on the moral modules that focus in on the importance of group cohesion such as loyalty, authority and sanctity, while liberals tend to eschew these modules in favor of the modules that focus in on the individual, such as care, fairness and liberty.” In fact, liberals and conservatives both respect all of these moral modules. The differences between them result from these moral values being applied to differing levels of groups or social organizations.

    For example, both believe in care, but since the Right identifies more closely with the family and local community, it is more interested in care at this level. Examples would be laws protecting private property, and a strong stand against crimes committed against individuals (as opposed to, say, corporate crimes). In contrast, the Left, identifying with larger communities, is concerned with what we generally call social welfare. One could say that the Left views the nation, and increasingly the entire world, as one family, and is thus concerned with laws and regulations that promote care for everyone in general. These laws and regulations promote group cohesion every bit as much as the laws conservatives favor at the family and social level. It’s just that the group is much larger and more complex, and because it is evolutionarily newer, is not yet as cohesive.

    The Right’s concept of fairness is centered on keeping the fruits of one’s labor, because, being family and local community-oriented, it does not fully appreciate that individuals do not operate in a vacuum, but are only able to accumulate wealth because of extensive interactions with many other people beyond the community (as illustrated in the example of a canned good at the supermarket). Likewise, the Left favors a more equal distribution of wealth, because, identifying with the larger community, it is more aware of the factors other than individual talent and effort that result in wealth inequalities. One could say that just as a conservative would strive to treat all his or her children equally, despite differences in their talent and efforts, liberals have the same attitude towards everyone in the nation, which they regard as a family.

    Likewise, the Right views liberty in terms of less governmental regulation, because it does not identify strongly with national or transnational communities, and therefore regards any regulation at these levels as being imposed from outside or beyond itself. The Right has much less of a problem with regulation at the family level (strict rules applied to children) or local community level (strong police force), because it identifies strongly with social organizations at this level, and therefore sees itself as participating in the rules, rather than simply having them imposed on itself. Conversely, the Left, identifying more strongly with the national community, does not view governmental regulation as outside of itself, but as a process that it is intimately a part of.

    As you note in your summary, Haidt believes that, “conservatives generally… believe that people need external constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions… Without them, they believe, people will begin to cheat and behave selfishly. Without them, social capital will rapidly decay” (loc. 5129). On the other hand, liberals are more optimistic here. They tend to believe that “people are inherently good, and that they flourish when constraints and divisions are removed”

    But an alternative way to view this is to say that conservatives, because they identify mostly strongly with the family and local community, view necessary constraints as external to themselves, coming from beyond. Liberals believe just as much in these constraints (e.g., political correctness), but because they identify more strongly with the larger communities from which these restraints derive, they do not see them as external to themselves. In this sense, people are “inherently good”, because they are the source of the very regulations that improve their own lives. Likewise, liberals are more sanguine about change, since they view these regulations as coming from within themselves.

    This view of Left vs. Right, I think, is preferable to the strict vs. nurturing parent model that George Lakoff has proposed. The problem with Lakoff’s model, like the problem with Haidt’s view that liberals lack certain moral modules, is that it is inconsistent with the facts. Liberals are capable of being just as strict as conservatives—again, political correctness is an excellent example—and conservatives are just as capable of being nurturing as liberals—when they promote laws that protect and privatize families.

    • Haidt’s claims come from the outcomes of his experiments. Perhaps the experiments were designed poorly and are actually measuring something else.

  2. A further comment. As I noted in passing in my previous post, the larger, more complex and more recently evolved social organizations are less cohesive than smaller ones like families and local communities. This is because they are still emerging and have not had nearly as much time to establish themselves. I think this is the reason that Haidt and others see liberals as less “groupish”. It isn’t that liberals are any less committed to groups than conservatives. It’s that the groups they are committed to are not as clear, distinct and cohesive as those conservatives identify with most strongly.

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