Zack O'Neill

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. He specializes in the psychology of morality and moral emotions. The Righteous Mind is his second book; his first is called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Referencing such figures as Buddha, Jesus Christ, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, and Nietzsche, that book aims to make the wisdom of selected figures accessible to a modern audience. The Righteous Mind, his second book, is about the foundations of morality in people, particularly as they relate to political identities. My interest in it can be traced to trying to understand our country’s political divide; in this vein, I also read books like American Nations by Colin Woodard (which argues America is actually about a dozen different nations that historically have been at odds with each other), White Trash by Nancy Isenberg (a Louisiana State University history professor’s examination of the historical presence of poor whites in America and the British Isles), Strangers in their Own Land by Emile Hochschild (a years-long study of a Southern Louisiana society by a Berkeley sociologist), The Unwinding by George Packard (a National Book Award winning long-form journalism examination of American decline), Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance (a book on poor whites in Appalachia and the Midwest), What’s the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank (which helps distinguish conservatism in different regions), and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (another National Book Award winner in nonfiction, a memoir framed as a letter to the author’s son about the realities of growing up black in America). Haidt’s book is an attempt to understand morality in human beings – where it comes from, what is innate, what is learned, how contingent things are on environment, how much of it is specific to a person. Studies from groups in the Sudan, the Philippines, New Guinea, and many others abound early in the book, and we get a sense of how comprehensive and longitudinal Haidt’s text is going to be.

In addition to the many studies, visual aids appear everywhere (one chart compares what Americans and Indians find acceptable and unacceptable morally, and the points of agreement and contrast). Consistently, American, and/or Western, attitudes, are compared with other societies around the world. Structurally, the book feels organized and navigable, textbooky; it includes summations at the end of each chapter, titled sections, numbered charts, and an index – it is meant to be usable, and understandable.

Haidt claims people don’t reason in search of truth as much as they reason “in support of their emotional reactions” (29). He claims “People have gut feelings – particularly disgust and disrespect – that can drive their reasoning. Moral reasoning is sometimes a post hoc fabrication” (30). He begins by looking at children. Children in his estimation have the ability to recognize that social rules are arbitrary and context-dependent (one study, for instance, shows most children believe it’s okay for different schools to have different rules) but when asked about actions that hurt other people, nearly all children say it is wrong, even if one has permission from an authority figure to hurt someone. Haidt writes “Children recognize that rules that prevent harm are moral rules….rules related to ‘justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other’” (11). He references a study where infants looked at a “helper” and “hurter” doll, which either helped or hindered a third doll’s attempt to get up a hill. Infants ages six and ten month old were exposed to this action, and afterward, both the helper and hurter doll were placed in front of them; the infants overwhelmingly chose the helper doll to grab onto, chew, etc. Haidt believes children even in infancy understand that “morality is about treating individuals well” (12).

After this section on children Haidt discusses some aspects of morality many human societies share. He discusses how the familiar is good to us, how “The brain tags familiar things as good things [which is] called…the ‘mere exposure effect,’ and it is a basic principle of advertising” (65). He discusses the gustatory cortex, which “processes information from the nose and tongue” and he claims “in humans, this ancient food-processing center has taken on new duties, and it now guides our taste in people” (70). He also invokes a major theme of the book: our proclivity for groupishness, balanced against our selfish instincts. Haidt claims it is in our nature to be both selfish and groupish (100); how we square this is both a driver of and reflection of our own individual morality.

The second section of the book centers on the “pillars of morality.” Haidt compares what he calls empathizers and systematizers; he calls empathizing “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion”; meanwhile, systematizing is “the drive to analyse (sic) the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system” (136). He claims things such as psychopathy, sociopathy, and certain types of high-functioning autism (like Asperger’s) are driven by low empathizing combined with high systematizing. He also defines what he calls the five pillars of morality; these are: 1. Caring for the vulnerable (born of an evolutionary need to protect children), 2. Ensuring fairness (borne of a need for cooperation and reciprocal altruism), 3. Loyalty (borne of a need to evaluate members of a group individually), 4. Authority (borne of a need for group organization), 5. The Sacred (borne of a need to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behaviors) (178-179). A study of 130,000 subjects showed that when you go from left to right politically, you see a decline in the values of caring for the vulnerable and fairness, and an incline in the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Those who identified as liberal cared far more about protecting the vulnerable and fairness than the other three values, while conservatives valued all five more or less equally (186-187). At the end of the book, Haidt adds a sixth category, called “Freedom from Oppression.” He references a series of surveys he and others conducted at the website yourmorals.org, which polled thousands of people who identify as liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. The surveys showed that liberals cared far more about protecting the vulnerable than any other category, with freedom from oppression a clear second, fairness a clear third, and loyalty, authority, and sanctity all very minor. Libertarians, on the other hand, valued freedom from oppression far more than any category, with fairness a way distant second, and all four other categories very minor. As for conservatives, the polls found that all six are valued relatively equally, with loyalty, authority, and the sacred rating slightly higher than the rest. Overall, Haidt describes conservatives’ most sacred value as “preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community” (356-357)

The third section takes on what Haidt calls the makeup of most humans, which he calls 90% chimp and 10% bee. The 90% chimp represents our selfish goals, the 10% bee the part of us that recognizes we are better off in cooperative relationships. He discusses the importance of group markers, everything from fashion to tattoos to piercings to sports memorabilia, and the importance of congregating, claiming that “The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant” (262). He also discusses the need for groups to demand sacrifices as a precondition of entrance and sustained membership; ie, proof of loyalty, and respect for both the group’s hierarchy and what the group holds sacred. In the end notes, he mentions a theory that climatic instability 500,000 years ago “may have driven the first jump in humanity’s transformation into cultural creatures” (429). In times of disaster, we are reminded that cooperation is better than individualism. If we are wise, we realize that we all are part of groups, whether it is the group of man, woman, white person, black person, American, Mexican, human. Human beings all belong to many types of groups, in which they are called upon to sacrifice and contribute in order to access the benefits of group membership.

Haidt’s text is easy to get through, and heavily end-noted. It’s the work of an academic making an effort to make mountains of empirical data understandable for a broad audience. The Righteous Mind works as a means of mapping out the energies behind people’s values, natures, and group identifications. I can’t say I completely understand people as a result of reading this book, but in weighing my own proclivities against the charts, graphs, and explanations of morality in people, I do feel I am better able to see how I am situated among a society of many people who all have different value systems.

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