The Righteous Mind. Series 4.1.

My husband, Paul, and I host a weekly reading group. We read one book in the fall, another in the spring. This past spring we read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind which, week after week, generated the best discussions we’ve had to date. (Note that I’m not doing a comprehensive book review here.)

Haidt notes that morality is just what the human mind does, along with “language, sexuality, music, and [other things scientists are reporting on].” (xiii) But what he drives home is that “human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also moralistic, critical, and judgmental.” I’ll paraphrase Haidt in the words of a beloved friend. We’re Judgey McJudgers. All of us. Even calling others judgey is judgey. And we can’t side-step this cognitive constraint anymore than we can side-step language or sneezing.

On Haidt’s hypothesis, “an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary biology, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.” (xii) Since obsession with righteousness is a feature of the human mind, it’d be interesting to know why, i.e. what righteousness/self-righteousness does for us both individually and as social organisms.

Haidt spent the past 30+ years doing that research and lays out his findings in terms everyone can understand. Haidt’s labour is to our benefit. Here’s my endorsement of his project. Haidt constructs a launch pad from which people who occupy seemingly different moral universes can embark on discovery missions into each others’ realms. And in the course of these voyages, just as in many sci-fi movies, we’re liable to learn that most often the scary aliens, those on the other side of political and religious divides, are nothing to fear. Rather, what we ought to fear are the consequences of not making this find. Yet to do so, we must first surmount the fear of travel.

Accepting Haidt’s righteous mind hypothesis is a challenge for some given that the terms ‘righteousness’, and especially ‘self-righteous’ have negative moral connotations. As Haidt notes righteousness is broadly defined as arising from an outraged sense of justice, morality, or fair play,” and self-righteous is to be “convinced of one’s own righteousness, especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others; narrowly moralistic and intolerant.” (xiii) Ouch.

I’m dubious that anyone will list self-righteous as an attribute on her online dating profile. Although, at one time some would-be Romeo might describe himself as a Righteous Dude, and perhaps list his favourite song as Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers. I’m dating myself here. The point is there’s a bit of yuck associated with self-righteousness. And not without reason. As Haidt says “our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.” (xiii) And unfortunately, it’s this very strife that sometimes leads to violence. Some utterly unconscionable; e.g. the Inquisition and genocides. However, these righteous minds of ours are also what makes it possible for us to hang together in cooperative groups. And in virtue of this cooperation we do many wonderful things such as make music, build shelters, and alleviate painful diseases.

I’ve thought about how Haidt’s observations dovetail with those of classical philosophers in the Western philosophical cannon (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume). Let’s take the notion that though our sense of righteousness or self-righteousness might be a precursor-to or consequence-of things we deem good or bad, it doesn’t follow that our righteous minds are themselves good or bad. Aristotle’s observations about rhetoric nail this point home. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, rhetoric is broadly defined as the art of persuasion. Political speech writers use rhetorical techniques to persuade people to follow some course of action ‘because it’s good’, or to discourage some other ‘because it’s harmful’. Rhetoric is what gives political discourse its theatrical flourish. But this flourish doesn’t make the speech true, false, sincere, or disingenuous. It falls upon the rhetor, the speech-giver, to be honest or dishonest with the audience. And it’s this last point that rightly worries people.

One can use rhetoric to manipulate people’s feelings of righteousness, and thereby move the masses to commit atrocities. Such as the Shoah (Holocaust). But it should never be forgotten that it’s righteous-themed-rhetoric by which the masses are moved to resist these acts, such as Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat.” And, in the name of civil liberties, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream.” As Aristotle says, “If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made against all good things except virtue, and above all against things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.” Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004. p 8

Anyway, I’m making some leaps with Haidt’s hypothesis, but I think they’re apt. Now let me tell you what prompted this blog entry. If you haven’t yet read The Righteous Mind, here’s a spoiler alert. I’m about to quote the last two paragraphs from the last chapter. I’ve reread these tonight to help overcome the fatigue of being surrounded with people caught in the throes of moral outrage. And it seems there are a lot of these sort about of late. Certainly media amplifies that impression. But a little review of Haidt’s work restores me, gives me some balance. I am reminded not only to be patient with others, but also to wiggle my rusty halo from the divets it has impressed in my swelled head where I can give it an honest inspection. Moral condemnation of moral outrage, too, is a judgment seated in my own feelings of ‘goodness and rightness’. I, with the plank in my eye, am no better.

[The Righteous Mind] explained why people are divided by politics and religion. The answer is not, as Manicheans would have to, because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness.

We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult — but not impossible — to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations [care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity].

So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try. Don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust. And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with sincere expression of interest.

     We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.

Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind. Allen Lane: New York. 2012. Conclusion, pp 317-318.

Worth 18.5 minutes of your time is Jonathan Haidt’s Ted Talk (2008), The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

You’re sure to find copies of The Righteous Mind in second hand stores and, being a popular book, there are plenty of places to buy your own new copy.

Categories: Political Rhetoric

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies


  1. My bookshelf. 1. Daniel Kahneman. –
  2. The Art of Rhetoric: Working through the challenges and disagreements that arise from our shared lives. –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: