The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our political differences. Haidt is an expert in moral psychology, which examines how we come to adopt our beliefs about morality.
The book explores both evolutionary and cultural reasons why some people are liberals, conservatives, or libertarians. It also explores why the sides disagree with each other so much and what we can do about it.
Consider these your Righteous Mind spark notes.
The book is based on some core ideas about the way we evolve emotions, beliefs, and values and what can be done to (if anything) to change them.
Haidt argues that each human being has an innate set of character traits and personalities that affect the way we behave.
He makes an important distinction when he uses the word innate. He doesn’t believe in determinism – meaning your wiring can’t change. Instead, he compares it to the first draft of a book that can be revised.
You start with the foundations of your personality, belief systems, and values, then your environment and interactions with other people help shape them all over time.
We all like to believe we make careful, conscious, and rational decisions. Often, we don’t.
More often than not, we use intuition — emotion — first, then fill in the gaps with information second.
Haidt first presented this idea in The Happiness Hypothesis.
He uses the analogy of an elephant and a rider. The rider is your prefrontal cortex – the rational, conscious, decision-making part of your brain.
The elephant is the older part of the brain you developed through evolution before the creation of the pre-frontal cortex.
In short, the impulsive, emotional, quick thinking brain represents a massive part of your behavior.
The rider — you — think it’s in charge, but it’s not.
Daniel Kahneman is known for making a similar analogy in his book Thinking Fast and Slow – the fast brain is the elephant and the slow brain is the rider.
The reason Haidt brings this up in the Righteous Mind and why I bring it up in the Righteous Mind book summary is simple – The elephant brain governing your behavior helps explain why different sides of the political aisle both think they’re right at the same time.
They both use emotions first, then fill in gaps with data. Thanks to confirmation bias, both sides can hunt for “evidence” that matches their view.
When you think about evolution, you think survival of the fittest.
While evolution does involve individuals trying to advance, we also try to advance the groups we belong to.
Group selection occurred because being able to work together as a group helped the entire group survived. The people who learned to cooperate in groups survived and the ones who didn’t died off.
This is why we have so many “tribal” behaviors and tend to look at other from an “in group” and “out-group” perspective.
Some people scoff at religion. Why? Because, to them, the belief in a supernatural being doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Haidt argues that focusing on the supernatural beings and hyperbolic stories in religions miss the point.
The main reason religion exists, according to Haidt, is social cohesion.
The focus on religion in the book is about survival. All of evolution is about survival.
Which group is more likely to survive? The one with a shared belief system or the one where each individual believes something different?
Whether or not you agree with religion has nothing to do with its utility.
Religion evolved as a way to order societies and the evidence shows that it’s a good way to form social cohesion. It isn’t a coincidence that religion is found in basically every human civilization.
Some studies show religious people are healthier, happier, and more balanced.
It makes sense. When you have a simple answer to life’s biggest questions, you have less to worry about. You can put faith in an ordered system outside of yourself. You can rely on it.
Will Durant also pointed out the efficacy of religious beliefs in his book The Lessons of History:
“Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.”
Through research and experiments, Haidt discovered there are 6 moral foundations that constitute people’s beliefs and value systems. Their work also shows that the foundations you care about most can predict which political party you’ll side with.
The care/harm foundation is pretty straightforward. If you care a lot about protecting other people, the care/harm foundation is one of your moral foundations. Both liberals and conservatives use the care/harm foundation in different ways. Think liberals caring about climate change and conservatives caring about people in their religious communities or being pro-life.
If you care about how people are treated, then fairness is one of your moral foundations. Again, both liberals and conservatives use the fairness foundation in different ways. Think – liberals fighting for equality through taxation and conservatives fighting for fairness and protecting rights through lack of taxation.
The authority/subversion foundation focuses on order, respect for authority, and the ability to “fall in line.” The authority/subversion foundation is prevalent in non-western cultures and is a feature of social conservatism, e.g,, respect your parents, respect the law, respect the authority of the church, etc.
The loyalty foundation means you care a lot about your family, the communities you belong to you, and your nation as a whole. People who emphasize loyalty/betrayal often focus on playing for “their team,” which is why conservatives tend to be nationalists and liberals are more universal.
If you’re someone who cares about autonomy, freedom, and generally would prefer to be left the hell alone, you have a strong sense of liberty.
Both conservatives and libertarians value liberty, which is right libertarians tend to skew to the right.
The sanctity foundation deals with ideas of purity, sacredness, and virtue. You can see this foundation in most social conservatives and religious people. Not so much in liberal and secular people.
Haidt’s research suggests that liberals mostly use the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundation.
Conservatives use all six, which Haidt thinks it’s easier for conservatives to relate across the board.
He also says Conservatives have an easier time understanding liberals whereas the opposite is untrue.
Since they use all six foundations they can find common ground with liberals, but since liberals only use two they have an actual blind spot to conservative beliefs, leading them to have no idea how conservatives can be good people.
“Groups create supernatural beings, not to explain the universe, but to order their societies.” – 13
“We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct why we ourselves came to a judgment. We reason to find the best possible reasons why someone ought to join us in our judgment.” – 52
“It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the fault of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice – Buddha” – 52
“The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” – 80
“Self-esteem is more like an internal gauge, a “sociometer” that continuously measures your value as a relationship partner.” – 90
“We lie, cheat, and justify so well that we honestly believe we are honest.” – 95
“And now that we have access to search engines on our cell-phones, we can call up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion twenty-four hours a day.” – 99
“The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may literally be addictive.” – 102
“We believe our own post hoc reasoning so thoroughly that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue.” – 220
“You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies.” 277
“It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love – love within groups – amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the best we can accomplish.” 284
“Often our beliefs are post hoc constructions designed to justify what we’ve just done or to support the groups we belong to.” – 290
“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-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” – 314
“Many Americans feel that they’re on a ship that’s sinking, and the crew is too busy fighting with each other to bother plugging in the leak.” – 320
“If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on the moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left.” – 342