“The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt

Okay, this is going to be a long one. It’s one of those books I couldn’t just read in the subway and then write about what I thought afterwards, and I decided to go back to my ‘student’ mode and take notes and all.

First of all, let me start by saying that this book is really interesting (I hate the word ‘interesting’, it’s usually used when you have nothing to say, but I really couldn’t find a better word), and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in politics or psychology, or basically how the human mind works (although, prepare to be disappointed if you think you’re a being of ‘reason’). The book is quite thick, yes, but the author, Jonathan Haidt, wrote it in a way that makes it easy to read. Plus, his ‘In Sum’ at the end of each chapter will be a good way to review everything he’s said.

The book begins by a survey into where ‘morality’ comes from and what it relates to. What do people have in mind when talking about morality and moral values? On the top of our head, I think most people would agree that it has something to do with ‘not harming others’. Even if something doesn’t affect us directly, we are prone to judge on that something based on our ‘moral values’ if it harms others. How do we make such judgment? How do we ‘reason’ that something is moral or immoral? Haidt argues, based on his numerous experiments, that our morality does not come from our logical reasoning. Something in our gut feeling tells us that something is morally wrong or right, and we use our reason to justify that gut feeling. Us humans rely much more on our intuitions than we would like to acknowledge, so really, we are not that different from animals. Haidt uses the analogy of the ‘elephant and the rider’ in describing our intuition and reasoning. Our intuition is the elephant, which, with its mind set on going to a certain direction, can only be minimally influenced by the rider, our reasoning, who may sometimes decide where the right path is, but wouldn’t be able to, for instance, change the elephant’s direction drastically.

Moreover, our moral judgement is very much affected by our surroundings, even if it’s simply how our body is physically affected. The author tries to make us aware of the ‘Rationalist Delusion’: our brain does not process information that is ‘logically’ or ‘objectively’ contrary to our beliefs, whatever those personal beliefs may be. We find it hard to accept ‘truths’ that are against our already set beliefs and values. Reason alas does not ‘seek truth’, rather, it seeks arguments to support our ‘truths’, the truth that our gut feeling and intuition, and often enough, our genetic draft have already planned. How many times, indeed, have we been convinced by something that was totally contrary to our belief system, despite the facts barely laid before our eyes? I believe that is indeed what is happening with a number of issues we face today in society. On the one hand, the NRA must go ‘No, these data are biased, the good guys with guns can indeed protect the bad guys with guns, my gut feeling tells me that’. On the other hand, okay… I can’t think of a counter example for the ‘other side’, which here, is my side, since every time I try to think of a pro-gun argument, my intuition tells me that it’s all crap. But you get the point.

We are each born with a small elephant that sets a general direction to which we will be more inclined to, and according to the influence of the environment and the situation we’re in, we may deviate a little from our original path, but not drastically. Which, in other words, is that those who are liberal today were genetically programmed to be so, and the same goes for the conservatives. Of course, the degree to which you express your political beliefs may differ, but the point is that you are somehow ‘born’ liberal or conservative, which, really, when you think about it, is pretty scary. Genetics, that’s some hardcore stuff…

That is why Haidt believes and encourages people, especially politicians, to appeal to the elephant rather than to the rider. Our elephant decides the moral values we feel are ‘right’ and will guide the rider afterwards, hence deciding our political tendencies and who we will vote for. If this is right, in how people are more likely to change moral values and judgments on how emotionally influential the other person is, and not based on reason, it’s a sad world for politics and other so-called intellectual worlds, where really, reason has but little importance. Maybe that is why people like Sarah Palin and Park Geun-hye still stand ‘strong’ on the political arena, despite what I think are objectively ridiculous comments and statements they so often blurt out in public. It’s all about how you wrap up things, especially in politics. However, on the other hand, maybe it’s naive of me to think that this whole process is ‘sad’. This is what it is, it’s all about the packaging, and once we are aware of that, the burden is on us to make the best usage of that knowledge, and work on the packaging. It would only be a ‘sad’ thing if there was any realistic possibility to change it, but since apparently we are programmed not to use reason as much as we should, there is no reason to lose time on thinking how sad this is.

Reason is the ‘press secretary’ of our intuition, which we mainly use to justify our judgments based on our feelings, and not to actually make sound judgments.

According to Haidt’s researches and findings, there are 7 ‘taste receptors’ to the righteous mind, which basically, are triggers that make our inner elephant susceptible to the arguments and persuasion tools around us. These seven triggers work differently for liberals and conservatives, and according to Haidt, the Republicans in the US have succeeded in triggering more of these seven palates than the liberals have, thus managing to draw more people to their side.

The seven triggers are: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, Liberty and Fairness.

To Liberals, ‘care’ is equal to ‘universal care’, while to Conservatives, it is limited to ‘local care’ and ‘loyalty’. ‘Fairness’ for Liberals is ‘equality’, equality of chances for all, having the rich pay for the social welfare of those less privileged, while for Conservatives, it is ‘proportionality’, you get as much as you work for, as much as you deserve. ‘Loyalty’ is hard for Liberals to connect because they focus more on ‘care’, but for Conservatives, this is well translated and connected to the feeling of ‘nationalism’. Conservatives perceive ‘authority’ more than just authority or hierarchy. It’s also about ‘responsibility’ and ‘obedience’, respect and the legitimacy of authority. Once again, Liberals have a harder time to connect, because they equate ‘authority’ to ‘hierarchy, power, exploitation’ and hence ‘evil’. ‘Sanctity’ once again (obviously) resonates more with the Conservatives, since it’s about preserving the sanctity of religion and marriage, the whole ‘family values’ speech, whereas for the Liberals, sanctity would rather translate into ‘preserving the environment’. ‘Liberty’, as in the opposite of ‘oppression’, is about ‘social justice’ and against the ‘accumulation of wealth’ by a minority of class for the Liberals. For the Conservatives, it’s preserving individual liberty against the ‘nanny state’. Finally, ‘fairness’ should be understood more as a ‘hatred in domination’ rather than ‘love of equality’. In other words, Conservatives feel that those who don’t participate and contribute to the dynamics of society or labor should be punished. Liberals are more careful, since they have in mind ‘retribution’ and would not want to thread upon it.

Using the appeal of ‘sanctity’ for the Republican voters

‘Liberal’ candidate for the 2012 Korean Presidential Elections. Focus on the ‘welfare state’, and hence on the ‘Care’ palate for voters

For the above triggers, the author uses the term ‘Conservatives’ not necessarily to designate the American Republicans, but rather the Conservatives in a more fundamental sense, those who want to preserve the status quo and remaining authority. Nevertheless, since Republicans do share traits with the Conservatives, it is the author’s argument that these Republicans know how to manipulate the moral psychology to their advantage. They appeal to the ‘elephant’, while Democrats appeal to the ‘rider’, trying to convince them the benefit of their policies in a logical way. Furthermore, the liberals and democrats only use the Care and Fairness palates to appeal to their votes or the center group, which, evidently, has less effect than if they were using all the palates.

After listing the different ways to appeal to Liberal and Conservative individuals, Haidt talks about how these individuals work in groups to advance the causes they believe in.

People are selfish, it is a known fact, but they can also be selfish in groups. Our groupishness is one of the magic ingredients that made it possible for civilization to bust forth, in fact. The fittest group will pass on their traits to future generations, and genes mutate and drift, influenced by this ‘natural selection’. So naturally, following the primary human instinct to reproduce and procreate, our genes are prone to act on that being ‘selfish in groups’ to survive. There is a ‘hive switch’, according to the author (hive as in ‘bee hive’ and hence our tendency to cooperate in groups rather than being selfish on an individual level), which is our ability to transcend our self-interest and lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves. The feeling of being part of something bigger, of belonging and connecting with others, is something that comes very naturally. Once more, Conservatives and Republicans know how to activate that hive switch better than the Liberals and Democrats. Unfortunately, that switch, which can be turned on by various elements, is especially susceptible to ‘similarity’ and ‘synchronization’. Yes, us humans are more likely to be comforted when we find similarities with others. The focus and emphasis on ‘diversity’, a frequent rhetoric among Democrats and Liberals, is thus not a strategically smart move. Of course, we can turn this outlook on similarity to a similarity of common goals and values. Synchronization is something that was actually talked about in the ‘Soft Power’ class at GSIS, with people being sensitive to synchronized movements, something that is done in group, without necessarily a specific meaning. National anthems, chants, and so on are perfect examples.

Moments such as this NFL Kickoff game in 2011 act as ‘hive switches’ for people. The feeling of belonging to a group makes each individual feel as strong as ever, diminishing his/her inner selfishness.

The author is clearly a Democrat and a Liberal, and he is not shy in letting it known to his readers. However, he sees the limits that the Democratic Party in the US have, especially when it comes to their strategic moves in political campaigns. After all, politics, elections and voting, it’s all about gaining the majority of votes, and if you have the chance to know better how our minds work and how we make our decisions, you should make the best of that knowledge. Even if it means that you have to concentrate more on the packaging than what the packing holds.

Personally, the biggest thing I got out from this book is my better understanding of the outcome of the presidential elections in Korea this (last) year. The outrageous and clearly idiotic comments Candidate Park blurted out during the presidential debates only mattered a little for the voters. For most voters who would have voted for the conservative party anyways, their judgment had already been made. No matter what nonsense she said, their elephant had already walked towards a certain direction, and the rider followed, without comment. For those who couldn’t make up their mind, the image she provided, that of a ‘secure’ and ‘safe’ future based on her ‘sound’ experience watching how her father ‘propelled one of the most remarkable economic revivals in history’ gave hope, in this time of economic and financial instability.

Park Jung Hee and his family, among whom, Park Geun Hye, the new Korean president for 2012. A nostalgia for ‘family values’, ‘authority’ and ‘order’ for the conservative voters.

Haidt’s conclusion is hopeful and optimistic. Once we have acknowledged that we are all in fact, ‘good people’, who try to make the best out of our reality and life, we should talk more and discuss more to exchange ideas. After all, each party, liberal or conservative, offers good points. The free market sometimes works, and it is important to offer welfare to those who don’t have the same opportunities.

My conclusion is a bit more pessimistic. Having read his logic and reasoning on how feeble and weak our reason actually is, I have little faith in people and their ability to set aside their beliefs and their truths to actually bother talking with those on ‘the other side’. Often enough, it’s those with the more powerful conviction in their values and beliefs who choose to step up a bit further and ‘change the world’ and ‘make the world a better place’. So it’s just as much harder for these people to compromise, I think. Of course, I would love it if people could talk and exchange their views, but how possible is that? Hmm… as one studying social sciences, that’s  probably NOT the wisest, or the most appropriate thing to say.

PS: This was probably the longest and the most difficult book review I’ve had to write so far. And, my review and summary didn’t even include everything the author said… I only chose what I found the most interesting, personally. Others may focus on other points. But, regardless, I would recommend it to anyone who has the time to read it. It’s not a difficult read and Haidt is very clear in his explanations. 

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3 thoughts on ““The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt

  1. shinsoo says:

    Like oul unni said, this book made me really calm at first. That elephant analogy feels pretty strong, even mesmerizing. Then it got me really frustrated again, because if this analogy works, there seems to be little hope. I wish there were some more explanation between the WEIRD people and the elephant. Also I got the notion that the analogy applies better on moral issues? That part confused me. I will finish the book and write my own review!

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