The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion

By: on October 26, 2013 |


The Righteous Mind:  Why good people are divided by politics and religion by: Jonathan Haidt

384pp.: Random House, 2012

Reviewed by: Angela MacLeod Irons


What would you think about a family who, after their pet dog was killed by a car, cut up the dog’s body and then cooked and ate it for dinner? Or what about a man who purchased a chicken at the grocery store, brought it home and then had sexual intercourse with it before cooking and eating it? It is these scenarios that Jonathan Haidt challenges us with on the first pages of his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt presents the reader with hypothetical situations designed to make one squirm and second-guess all previously held beliefs regarding the nature of morality.

Haidt uses his work in moral psychology to attempt to explain why groups of people from different cultures, religions and political beliefs tend to see the world so differently from one another. Although at times this comes across like the carpenter with only a hammer who sees the entire world as a nail, the framework of moral psychology provides a number of insights for anyone who has ever tried to understand an opposing point of view.

The basis of Haidt’s explanation regarding the different ways liberals and conservatives see the world is his six “moral modules.” These modules came about as a result of Haidt, along with his research partner Craig Joseph, developing a long list of virtues from cultures all over the world. From these, they extrapolated the six major themes that they claim all morality is based upon. These modules consist of the following virtues:

• Care/Harm – The basis of this module is the desire to nurture our children, although it also extends to other groups that require care (that typically remind us of our children), and even other species.

• Fairness/Cheating – This is the foundation of most people’s genuine inclination to be kind to strangers and results in co-operation.

• Loyalty/Betrayal – Our affinity toward people who are loyal to our particular group and our negative feelings toward individuals who betray these same groups is explained by this module.

• Authority/Subversion – The inclination of humans to develop social hierarchies comes from this module. Haidt suggests that this was an evolutionary adaptation, as it is also seen in higher order apes such as chimpanzees.

• Liberty/Oppression – This builds on the Authority/Subversion model in that it recognizes that some authorities are legitimate (such as democratically elected governments) while others (such as dictatorships) have crossed into tyranny.

• Sanctity – And finally, there is Sanctity. If the above chicken story made you feel especially uncomfortable, this moral module was guiding you. This is the belief that some people, places or things are sacred, while others are base or profane.

Haidt then goes on to use these six moral modules to attempt to explain the differences between those who are on the left and the right of the political spectrum. He states that liberals tend to have Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression as their moral base while conservatives use all six modules. In fact, you may even find that some left-wing beliefs are even quite hostile toward Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Additionally, in the modules that both sides have in common, the way they are interpreted differs between the right and the left. For instance, the left views Care as something society as a whole should be responsible for (primarily through government), and the left is primarily concerned with victims of exploitation. The right thinks that Care should be focused within the family or through local organizations. Regarding the Fairness module, the right interprets this as the ability to keep all that one has worked for, while the left views it on a societal level and thinks that redistribution among the population should occur due to the advantages and disadvantages that individuals of different levels of wealth experience.

Even within the left and the right, the relative importance of each of the modules will differ from individual to individual. Voters who are primarily concerned with Care, Fairness or Liberty may be attracted to the policy platforms of either right-leaning or left-leaning candidates, but voters who are very strong in Loyalty, Sanctity or Authority will only find a home in conservative parties. This results in a natural disadvantage for liberal candidates, as it limits their potential voter base.

One of most interesting insights Haidt includes in this book is the research he did (along with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek) pertaining to how well liberals and conservatives actually understand each other. They asked 2,000 Americans to complete a questionnaire designed to evaluate the six moral foundations. One-third of the group was asked to fill it out as themselves, one-third was asked to fill it out as they thought a typical liberal would, and the final third as a typical conservative would. The researchers found that moderates and conservatives were the most accurate in their answers whether they were pretending to be liberal or conservative. Liberals were the least accurate, particularly if they self-identified as “very liberal.” These individuals were especially inaccurate when answering questions with respect to the Care/Harm model while pretending to be conservatives, as they assumed that conservatives would disagree with statements such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal,” or “Justice is the most important requirement for a society.”

These results, along with the insights gained from the moral modules, go a long way toward explaining why many liberals are so gobsmacked when an individual such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford or former U.S. president George W. Bush is elected. They lack the moral tools to see the appeal these conservative candidates have for right-wing voters.

In additional to individual morality, Haidt also looked at groups. Human beings love to join groups, as evidenced through the proliferation of team sports, general interest clubs, friendly societies, and fraternities and sororities. Haidt argues that human nature developed this trait because groups can accomplish much more than individuals can. People do many things in order to reinforce their association with a group, be they rituals such as tribal tattooing or fraternity hazing, the displaying of common symbols such as a sports uniform or placing a bumper sticker on a car, or the use of muscular bonding, which is the use of moving together in time, such as with dancing. An excellent example of muscular bonding is the Haka routine performed by New Zealand’s national rugby squad, the All Blacks. The point of studying groupish behaviour is that individuals operate not only in their own self-interest, but also in the best interest of the group. Additionally, religion is often one of the most important groups in a person’s life. Belonging to a group or a religion (or a political party) will also influence the way we view the world and, in turn how the six modules will influence our views of morality.

Back to the dog and the chicken. If you are a liberal, you may view the actions in these two scenarios as unpleasant or even disgusting, but nobody was hurt, so they are morally permissible. However, if you are a conservative, you are likely affected by Sanctity, and therefore you view the actions as morally wrong even though both animals were already dead.

In short, The Righteous Mind is an insightful and interesting read. It is a very rich book that provides the reader with a number of different ideas that are a result of many years of Haidt’s scholarly work. Whether you are a politician, a policy wonk or a voter, this book will challenge not only your personal views, but also how you view your political opponents. It is a recommended read for individuals all along the political spectrum.


Angela MacLeod Irons is an Alberta-based public policy analyst and researcher who has worked in banking and as a researcher for the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education.  She is a graduate of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

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3 thoughts on “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion”

  1. Randy Hillier says:

    One of the best books I’ve read to help me understand why perspectives can be so manifestly divergent between people standing on the same common ground of objectives

  2. Kit Ingoldby says:

    So, yet more proof that leftists are stupid and have a weak grasp of reality.

  3. Charles Scott says:

    I use Prof. Haidt’s work in my teaching at the undergraduate level in marketing. While almost diametrically opposed to him in profile (politically conservative, business-focussed, evangelical Christian), I regard his insights as highly valuable in understanding the different perspectives that people have when they choose to follow leaders, buy things or generally look at the world. It is also worthy to note that his approach to this subject is more objective, respectful and effective than many within various “camps” – including the one that I spend significant amounts of time in.
    Well done, Prof. Haidt.

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