The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

11324722Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Pantheon, 530 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”, Haidt’s book reviews a series of evolving theories on how and why people are motivated to believe the way they do. The rejection of these theories in history is blended with Haidt’s own evolution from student to social psychology professor, and he spends the bulk of the book documenting why these theories fail to hold up.

It isn’t until chapter eight that Haidt presents his understanding of how morality is created for each individual and then, later, triggered by politicians into swaying voters to their side. In Haidt’s construct, there are six foundations:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Fairness/Cheating
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Sanctity/Degradation
  6. Liberty/Oppression

Of course, these foundations have different definitions depending upon your viewpoint. Take “fairness/cheating”, for example. Haidt found there are two kinds of fairness. To some, fairness implies equality of outcomes. To others, fairness means proportionality — people should be rewarded on the basis of what they contribute.

This dichotomy echoes what Arlie Russell Hochschild found in her sociological examination of Tea Party voters in Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own LandThe voters Hochschild met hate the government for supporting people who (they believe) do not work; to them, such support is unfair. To many liberals, though, such support is necessary in the name of fairness.

Fairness/Cheating is just one of only three foundations that “trigger” liberals. (The others are Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression, although the latter is only in the service of underdogs and powerless groups.) Conservative voters, according to Haidt, are trigger by all six foundations. Thus, politicians trying to rally voters to their base can rely on a broader variety of ways to connect with voters.

If a politician wants to create support for a wall along the southern border, for example, they can claim that building a wall stops violence (Care/Harm), stops people from getting government assistance (Fairness/Cheating) or jumping the immigration line (Sanctity/Degradation), and respects the rule of law (Authority/Subversion). If a political wants to expand support for not building the wall beyond liberal voters, they have to find a way to hit the three foundations that do not sway liberals.

Haidt’s six-prong view of morality, called the Moral Foundations Theory, certainly provides a lot of food for thought. (I highlighted nearly 50 passages while reading.) I can see support for his theory, and I can see gaps with it (namely, controlling for race and education). His construct is the reason for both the subtitle of this book and my decision to read it.

However, he quickly moves on to pontificate on why he finds conservatives to be the more enlightened voters and why religion is and, more importantly, should be the ultimate bind for society. In sharing those thoughts, he throws out there that he thinks liberalism — the economic and governing philosophy rather than voting viewpoint — is insufficient as a governing philosophy and that diversity is bad for political cohesion.

These throwaway sentences are left largely unsupported, and I found myself growing frustrated with Haidt. To be frank, he comes across a man with a holier-than-thou attitude in the last few chapters, eager to cast dispersion rather than foster understanding. I kept asking myself how I, as a fairly liberal voter, am supposed to “trigger” a conservative’s Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression foundations without buying into oppression-fostering rhetoric I don’t believe in. To that, Haidt has no answer.


  1. This sounds interesting, but I think your frustrations at the end would also be sticking points for me. The idea that conservative voters are more enlightened seems… inaccurate to me, given the general trends of the GOP. But maybe he makes a bigger distinction between the GOP and conservatives than I do.


    • He has one line in parenthesis where he says he separates conservatives from the GOP, but that is all as far as making a distinction goes. I certainly can see merit to his assertion that conservative voters are triggered/moved by more markers, but I’m still not sure how that makes them more enlightened.

      He has another book, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, that I’m curious to try. It’s received some buzz on the (political) podcasts I listen to, but I thought the interview he did with Ezra Klein about the premise to be interesting. Certainly not my point of view, but not without merit (as some podcasters have asserted).


    • Thanks, Juliana. Yes, I’m sceptic. I could see the argument that it is easier to sway them, but Haidt didn’t sell me on the fact that it makes them more enlightened. In fact, by asserting that they aren’t moved by fairness and care, Haidt pretty much makes the case for his critics that they are less enlightened and far more selfish.


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