Notes on The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

A thread for thoughts and questions about this book. (Note: The posts may not correspond chronologically with the book.)

Here’s a brief description of the book. Haidt has three ideas to explain why people have great difficulty agreeing upon political and religious matters. First, most people are influenced by intuition and emotions, more than reason, when it comes to choosing political and religious positions. Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider (reason) sitting on an elephant (intuition). For the most part the elephant is in control. Second, for Westerners morality involves reducing harm, and that which does not harm someone is morally acceptable. Haidt argues that there are actually five other moral domains, and conservatives tend to use all six, while liberals tend to think in one or two. This can create a barrier and source of misunderstanding between the two groups. Finally, religion has the power to cohesion in a group, but it also can impair judgment and reasoning. (I’m not sure about the last point, because I haven’t completed that section of the book.) With this knowledge I believe Haidt’s goal is to help people from different political and religious backgrounds to better understand and communicate with one another.

3 thoughts on “Notes on The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

  1. A New Thought on Why the Older Generation Can’t Pass on Their Wisdom to Younger Generation

    I once daydreamed about writing a letter to my twenty-year old self about the things I’ve learned since, thinking that if I could get that information I’d be better off. However, I don’t think think this would work–my younger self just wouldn’t heed the advice. Why? I never had a clear explanation for this, but I had a strong gut feeling that a impenetrable wall preventing the transfer of this knowledge existed. A passage from the book may explain the reason.

    In the passage Haidt describes a classic experiment by the Piaget, the famous cognitive psychologist. In the experiment, Piaget pours the same amount of water in two identical glasses, and asks a child if the each glass has the same amount of water. The child says yes. Now, Piaget pours one of contents into a taller narrower glass, and asks the child if the amount of each water is the same. Children younger than seven years old say the taller, narrower glass has more water.

    They don’t understand that the total volume of water is conserved when it moves from glass to glass. He also found that it’s pointless for adults to explain the conservation of volume to kids. The kids won’t get it until they reach an age when their minds are ready for it. And when they’re ready, they’ll figure it out for themselves just by playing with cups of water.

    In other words, the understanding of the conservation of water wasn’t innate, and it wasn’t learned from adults. Kids figure it out for themselves, but only when their minds are ready and they are given the right experiences. (Bold added)

    Could it be that they’re minds (or souls?) of twenty-somethings just aren’t ready for certain type of knowledge, and they also haven’t had the necessary experience? The fact that they can’t understand the wisdom of elders because they lack experience is banal, but the fact that cognitively twenty-somethings may not be at the right developmental stage seems more novel. (It’s possible that developmental psychologists like Erikson has posited this post-childhood stages of development–I ca no longer recall.)

    One other thought that came to mind: Suppose the lack of experience is the main missing ingredient. For example, suppose you gave a lot of experiences relating to the conservation of volume, experiences in different contexts. Could understanding this principle occur at a earlier time? (I would guess Piaget or others after him already tried this.)


    Here are possible analogues of conservation of volume for twenty-somethings:

    1. Understanding the real limits one’s knowledge and abilities–namely that the limits are more significant that twenty-somethings realize. Understanding this should naturally lead to humility; to more nuanced versus simplistic understanding.
    2. Our hopes and dreams may not be as satisfying and important as twenty-somethings realize.


    3. Understanding the limits and costs of idealism. This involves realizing that good reasons exist for compromising one’s ideals; that a certain degree of hypocrisy will almost always exist, even for principled and ideal actors. Here, I’m especially thinking about politics and foreign policy. My sense is that many twenty-somethings don’t or can’t really grasp this. (Shoot, my twenty-year old self would be very disappointed in what I just wrote.)

  2. Evolutionary and Religious Explanations for Morality

    Haidt provides a evolutionary explanation for morality, relying a mulit-level selection process. That is, Haidt believes that human beings faced faced selection forces both on individual and group levels. Human groups that functioned better as a group had a greater competitive advantage over human groups that did not, and this ultimately allowed genes (and even cultural elements) to pass on spread. Haidt, reasonably, believes that morals and norms closely associated with morality made groups function better. Religion–the rituals, narratives, and rules–came out of and co-evovled with these naturally selected elements. The underlying goal here is to provide a secular explanation for morality.

    Here are some comments about this:

    1. Haidt mentions in the book that he wanted to avoid what he called the “classic mistake of an evolutionary theorist”–namely, “to pick a strait and then ask: “Can I think of a story about how this trait might once have been adaptive?” Haidt goes on to say that the answer is almost always yes because we use reasoning to find any explanation we want. But Haidt might be doing the same thing. The leaps he may take may be smaller, and he may rely more heavily on existing knowledge (in the fields of anthropology and evolutionary biology). But there are still leaps that I aren’t easily falsifiable, and even theories from anthropology and evolutionary biology aren’t rock solid.
    I came away feeling like the gap between religious explanations of morality and scientific ones isn’t as great as some imagine.

    2. One of the main points of Haidt’s book is that people arrive at their political and religious beliefs, not through a logical, conscious, and objective process. Instead, many of our positions derive from a farrago of many factors such as, culture, experience, emotions, intuitions, genetic predispositions, and even some degree of reasoning. At least that’s my understanding.

    Now think about existential questions, like the existence of God, the purpose for human existence, the nature of human beings, etc. If my understanding of Haidt is accurate, people answer these questions not primarily through logic and reasoning, but through a process that is not objective or scientific. This seems to move religious explanations closer to scientific ones, at least with regard to these type of questions.

    And this raises another question for me–or reaffirms a view I’ve had–namely, that science and logic can’t answer these existential/metaphysical questions–or at least not answer them definitively. The questions fall outside the limits of both. And if one says that this is not the case, one is basing this claim on the assumption or intuition that logic and science have the capacity to do so. Or they confer a degree of power and capacity that is not arrived at via a reason and science. On a related note, if one person says reason has greater powers of arriving at truth than people believe, and another person disagrees, how do we prove who is correct? Is this even provable?

    In other words, answers to existential questions are never objective or scientific, not really; they’ll always be subjective.


    I forgot to mention something else. That the primary source and foundation of morality stems from group selection seems like a shaky notion. What kind of moral authority does natural selection have? What would compel an individual, who didn’t want to adhere to a moral code, to follow out? Or, more specifically, what’s to stop individuals from picking and choosing the morals they choose to uphold and the extent to which they do so? Natural selection doesn’t seem to the moral authority to make moral code an imperative to follow.

  3. Specific Ideas on How to Make an Someone’s Elephant Lean Towards a Political or Religious “Enemy”

    Haidt believes that reason, in the form of logical arguments–don’t really change the minds of people who disagree with you. I agree. Instead, he believes getting their elephant to lean toward you is the way to get them to change their minds. What does this mean?

    My sense is that the idea essentially comes down to getting the person to like you. Haidt doesn’t really provide a lot of practical tips on how to this, so I wanted to offer a few:

    1. Get them to laugh. It’s hard to dislike someone that makes you laugh or that you laugh with. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to not like someone that makes you laugh. Laughter is an icebreaker, and can break any existing ideological differences.

    2. Be a good listener. Genuine interest in someone, their opinions, feelings, hopes and dreams, is extremely appealing. If you have this interest and listen thoughtfully and patiently, they will be far more open to your ideas, feelings, etc.

    3. Look for shared interests, especially ones you’re both passionate about. Liberal and conservative can bond if they like the same sports team, for example.

    4. Share a good meal. Eating together has a bonding effect. If participants come from different cultures, and share and enjoy food from these cultures, that’s even better.

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