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The Righteous Mind

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We are without doubt living in an era of polarised thinking, marked by much bickering across social and political lines. Although the tendency for humans to sort themselves along ideological divides is nothing new, there is a pernicious fervour that infuses public debate today. By providing a platform for anyone to share their opinions, the internet has helped stoke a cacophony reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, where the standard bearers of every social, political, religious and philosophical viewpoint is represented. Too often the result is a collision of paramount and inviolable ideas. The American political system, long burdened by its dualistic and argumentative culture, is now hobbled by this increasingly inflexible state of debate. 

Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist, addresses this in his book The Righteous Mind – a rare and powerful work, first published in 2012, that shatters our assumptions about how and why we embrace the ideas we champion. Haidt demonstrates that our moral values – and the various political orientations and religions that reflect them – are not governed, as we like to think, by our intellect and reason but by self-serving mental processes outside our awareness. We take and hold the positions we do because of deeply intuitive reflexes rooted in our evolutionary past. When we argue our political outlook with others we are merely rationalising it post facto. Good reasoners, Haidt writes, are “really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons”.

What determines whether we fall more or less on the right, or left, on the political spectrum is the extent to which we are influenced by any of these ancient tendencies, or “moral foundations”, as Haidt calls them. They are innate imperatives – attitudes and certain behaviours – once linked to success and survival over millions of years. A personal holding conservative view points, who is highly patriotic and is an unquestioning supporter of the military, but who is against immigration and social welfare is acting on such compulsions. The absolute necessity of tribal cohesion in ancient times drives his or her patriotism and loyalty towards the flag and military. The human evolutionary impulse to preserve group sanctity (and avoid despoilment) such as avoiding toxins, infectious people, and dubious outsiders drives his or her negative reflexes towards immigration. Meanwhile, our instinct for fairness and the need to stop cheaters, slackers and freeloaders in the tribe compels the conservative view-holder to frown upon social safety nets which can be abused to the detriment of society. 

Intuitions have a mind and will of their own. This is evidenced by the fact that so much argument between opposing sides in a debate results in so little conciliation or synthesis.

A liberal who believes in protecting the environment and curbing the sometimes unchecked powers of corporate interests may be impacted by the same moral foundations, but these are seen differently owing to that person’s upbringing and personal dispositions. For instance, championing clean air and water from an environmental perspective is rooted in the same impulse towards sanctity and away from degradation that compels the conservative to frown upon immigrants. The desire to limit powerful corporate influence and privilege stems from the instinct to uphold fairness that drives the conservative to oppose the welfare state.

Haidt outlines several such moral foundations. He likens each person’s constellation of them to an elephant, and our logical capacity as the animal’s rider who can seldom, if ever, completely control the beast. Intuitions have a mind and will of their own. This is evidenced by the fact that so much argument between opposing sides in a debate results in so little conciliation or synthesis. Riders are addressing each other’s rationalising faculty, and not, instead, the other’s elephants. 

Exceptionally well-researched and written works about our unconscious motivations, like The Righteous Mind, should be required reading for all. Given the polemics of our age, individuals, collectives and society in general would benefit from digesting Haidt’s findings. The book can help us become less automatic and more self-directed in our thinking and behaviour, and increasingly effective in the way we share ideas.

Haidt shows us that if you want another party to seriously consider your view point, you should avoid confrontation and rational arguments, and engage in friendly, emotionally compelling talk that speaks to the other person’s intuition – their elephant. He reminds us that political parties to some degree already know that, and have for a long time been addressing our innate predispositions to sign us up for their cause.

“Political parties and interest groups strive to make their concerns become current triggers of your moral modules,” he writes. “To get your vote, your money, or your time, they must activate at least one of your moral foundations.” If we are to free ourselves from one aspect of political manipulation, we have to see and acknowledge our susceptibility in this regard.  

The information contained in The Righteous Mind can also make us less polarised in our conversations with one another. By understanding that we are all similarly motivated below awareness, we might learn to be less judgemental of others whose ideas seem otherwise inexplicable and alien to us. Political disagreement can become less of a personal affront; and those holding opposing views less blameworthy. We might even look at some moments in history, like the Brexit Movement, or the election of Donald Trump, and see, first and foremost, the deeper influencing matrices of our nature at work – something we all share in common. 

Haidt tell us in his last chapter that humans are groupish animals that “construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods” which they fight and die to defend. Given that, we may have no choice but to better understand why we think and behave the way we do, rather than just react reflexively to one another. If this is one key to averting deeper chaos, we might eventually learn to create a more effective politics in which our innate leanings translate to more evenhanded governing philosophies. For any one group to suddenly or irrevocably change a society’s balance of moral capital – the ground on which our various elephants can calmly tread – is to court the troubles that we are now seeing.

This review originally appeared in the journal Human Givens, 2018, vol 25, no 1, p51.

John Zada