The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Article excerpt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. By Jonathan Haidt. Allen Lane, 448pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9781846141812. Published 29 March 2012

Why can't we all just get along? According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the reason is that human nature is intrinsically "groupish" and judgemental. Haidt weaves together updated versions of experiments described in earlier articles to produce a smooth autobiographical narrative aimed at demonstrating how he has come to conclude that we are "designed" for groupish - a Nietzschean might have said "herdish" - righteousness.

The Righteous Mind's first of three parts offers experimental evidence in support of the claim (which Haidt associates with David Hume) that moral persuasion is not so much a matter of reasoning as it is of sentiment, intuition and emotion. In the second, he argues against the view that morality is exhausted by considerations of harm and fairness on the grounds that many people also care about liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (the last three notions being primarily associated with conservative thinking). It is unclear, however, why we should think of these as additional "moral foundations", rather than elaborations of the first two (or whichever ones prove to be the most basic upon further analysis). In the third and final part, Haidt appeals to research in evolutionary psychology that suggests that what distinguishes us from other species is our ability to cooperate with a conscious aim of fulfilling common goals. He concludes that "morality binds and blinds"; that is to say it endows us with collective identity at the cost of disposing us to feel righteous indignation towards those who do not share our sentiments. We thus divide into combative religious and political gangs with little interest in genuine conversation.

Haidt neatly combines nativist, empiricist and rationalist viewpoints to demonstrate that differences in our belief systems are caused by diverse environmental factors that trigger our innate disposition to be moralistic; the content of our beliefs is neither innate nor rational but part of our emotional development. …