The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt. Pantheon Books, 2012
In a world where people draw lines in the sand between religions and the vitriolic waters of politics make islands of ideologies, Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, offers a glimpse of hope.
According to Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, logic is not a suitable guide for interpreting moral issues. To better explain the relation between our moral inclinations and conscious thought, he uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The bulky elephant, which signifies our emotions, makes the first decisive moves along a moral trajectory. The rider, who embodies reason, attempts to steer the giant beast by concocting justifications for the new course. Understanding that our emotions are in control, Haidt believes, will help bridge the gap between groups with conflicting ideas.
Throughout the book, Haidt broadens the definition of morality to clarify why polarized groups, such as religious conservatives and atheists or Democrats and Republicans, often fail to see eye to eye. Morality, Haidt says, is not solely about fairness and preventing harm; it also incorporates notions such as liberty, loyalty and authority, and it serves to create bonds between people.
In the political realm, Haidt presents research to explain why Republicans and Democrats diverge as much as they do. Democrats care more about harm and fairness when making moral decisions than loyalty, authority or sanctity. Republicans, on the other hand, are better able to interweave these moral threads. Understanding that our feelings guide our behavior and that political adversaries have different emotional triggers, he writes, will help both groups come to terms with each other.
As for spirituality, Haidt argues that religions are ultimately less about believing in a higher power than about forming bonds with others and being part of something larger than oneself. To illustrate, Haidt draws parallels between religious groups and fans who pack college football games every week adorned in team colors, locked arm in arm and singing fight songs with their brethren. People are built to seek membership in a like-minded community, he attests, be it a Sunday church service or a stadium.
Though at times highly philosophical, Haidt’s book is a must-read if you want to understand how conflicts arise—and how we might prevent them.