Book Review: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

I started reading this book because I wanted some insight into why, as so many American liberals are asking themselves these days, a substantial majority of poor and lower middle class White Americans consistently vote Republican even though the Republican’s social policies are clearly opposed to their economic interests. The author assert that loyalty to a group will often make a voter cast his or her ballot against their own interest. He further asserts that there are six pillars or morality but liberals ignores three of these, much to their political disadvantage.
The six pillars of morality are 1) Care/harm, 2) Liberty/oppression, 3)Fairness/cheating, 4)Loyalty/betrayal, 5) Authority/subversion and 6) Sanctity/degradation.
Liberals are big on the first three but completely trivialize the latter three. Social conservatives are about equal on all six, while libertarians are big on Liberty/oppression and moderately concerned about Fairness/cheating but trivialize the other four. Of course the libertarian’s notion of Fairness/cheating runs along the lines of “I’ve worked hard for my money, the government has no right to take it away from me.” while the liberal and even the social conservative may concede that taxes should be levied for roads, bridges, fire departments, police, schools, snow removal, ambulances, the military etc.
Liberals, of course have a greater tolerance for taxes being used for matter of care/harm, such as medical care, food stamps and housing for the homeless.
Libertarians and social conservatives have, in recent years, formed an alliance that favors the Republican party. The Republicans offer the libertarians the gift of low taxes, and freedom from government interference with their economic endeavors, which is all they want from government, and at the same time they offer the social conservatives the gift of socially conservative policies such as advocating the criminalization of abortion (sanctity/degradation) and policies that favor law and order.(authority/subversion.)
Haidt asserts that Democrats have a difficult time swaying the minds of voters because they fail to perceive that reason and logic is not sufficient. Voters vote their gut. Haidt makes the analogy that the personality as an institution is an elephant, and reason and logic are the rider. In the elephant resides the intuition and emotion, and political decisions are made at that level. The rider is just there to find reasons to justify these intuitive or emotional decisions-the rider is the “press secretary.” Once in a while, when reality dictates, the rider may override the elephant, but those instances are unusual. If you want to influence a voter you have to appeal to their elephant-the emotional and intuitive part, and the Republicans, in general, do that well while the Democrats, in general, do that poorly. This is because the Democrats, as liberals, are blind to concerns of loyalty, authority and sanctity, those aspects of belonging to a group, that influence many voters more than perceptions of their own self-interest.
I think that there is some truth to Haidt’s analysis, although it saddens me to think that there is so little of rationality in the political decisions of so many voters. My brother’s nanny, I’ll call her Mary, voted for George Bush because, as a Catholic, she was hoping that he would find a way to ban abortions. This vote was clearly against her self interest because she would soon be dependent upon Social Security and the Republicans are in favor of keeping Social Security payments to a minimum, (or if it were politically feasible, eliminating them altogether.) Appeals to reason, such as that Bush was unlikely to succeed in banning abortion, and that even if he did, there would still be abortions but they would be illegal and dangerous, did not sway her. She voted as her elephant dictated. Her elephant was listening to the Catholic church which insisted that good Catholics vote for candidates that opposed the legal right of abortion. At the time of Bush’s election, the Catholic church, of course, was stressing the issues of abortion and homosexuality, both sanctity/degradation issues. Recently, however, a Pope has been elected who plays down these issues and stresses care/harm issues such as economic inequality and resultant poverty. This portends a significant change in the way Catholics may vote in future elections. Rather than telling church-goers to vote for candidates who favor the banning of abortion, the church may soon be telling them to vote for candidates who favor liberal programs and the redistribution of wealth. Imagine how the politics of this country could change. Perhaps the best way to influence voters in groups is to influence their leaders.
Haidt is basically speaking to liberals. Conservatives, except for a few libertarian eggheads, will not read this book-his arguments are too cerebral for them. When you start talking about Kant and Bentham and Durkheim and Manicheanism and yin and yang, you will lose that audience. He believes that if liberals want to sway voters they have to find a way to appeal to the voter’s elephant-the emotion and intuition. He notes that Bill Clinton was successful in doing this, but most Democratic politicians have not been, while Republicans are masters at this art. Personally, though, I think that our nation’s politics are polarized to the degree that Haidt’s notion of “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” isn’t going to work.
Haidt tries hard to find good things to say about all political points of view. The liberals and conservatives compliment each other, he say, as a principal of yin and yang. Politics should not be thought of in Manichean terms of good versus evil. Liberals are the engine of politics while conservatives are the brakes, and any safe vehicle needs both. The problem today is that the brakes are on and the vehicle isn’t running at all.
Haidt’s examples leave something to be desired. In terms of praising liberals, he sites the success of getting lead out of gasolene due to the efforts of liberals standing up to the oil industry. He says that the reason that crime was so high in the 70s and 80s is that a generation of poor kids had grown up poisoned by lead and that lead to a decrease in their I.Q. and anti-social behavior. He says that the unexplained drop in the crime rate during the 90s and the first decade of this century is due to the removal of lead from the environment leading to a generation of poor children, not hampered by lead poisoning who have higher I.Q. s and better impulse control. Personally I can think of three social factors that may have effected the crime rate:
1) Wade V. Roe-legalized abortion leading to fewer unwanted children and those few being snatched up by loving adoptive parents. (Conservatives don’t want to acknowledge this.)
2) The vast increase in our prison population. While many prisoners perhaps don’t belong in prison, there is a certain proportion who, if they were out one the street would be committing crimes. (Liberals don’t want to acknowledge this.)
3) The aging of the population. Most crimes are committed by people in the 15 to 25 demographic. Older people commit fewer crimes, thus in an aging population you will find fewer criminals and less crime than when the baby boomers were in this demographic.
So while lead removal may have something to do with the drop in the crime rate, I don’t think it was the panacea that Haidt indicates.
Haidt feels that the libertarians are onto something when they advocate that medical care, rather than being an insurance mediated enterprise, should be subject to market forces. Obviously, insurance mediated medical care has been a disaster, but certainly a health system subject to free enterprise and market forces would also be a disaster. If you look around the world, the best health outcomes are in countries that have socialized medicine and finance it well out of taxpayer money.
Haidt is big on promoting groups-hives as he calls them. He says that the human being is 90% chimp and 10% bee, and it is this ten percent, the tendency to hive that permits people to interact socially and perform pro-social acts. He praises all of the benefits of social grouping. Conversely he laments diversity, saying that it decreases social cohesion. That may well be. I live in one of the most diverse neighborhoods on the planet, and, while it is peaceful, there is no social cohesion to be found there. But what would Haidt’s solution to diversity be? Ethnic cleansing?
“Liberals stand up for the victims of oppression and exclusion,” Haidt writes. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently, on sexual orientation). But their zeal to help victims combined with their low scores on the loyalty, authority and sanctity foundations often pushes them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital. For example, the urge to help inner-city poor led to the welfare programs of the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births and weakened African-American families.” Of course, one could also find other causes for the social breakdown of the inner cities-such as the fact that ending segregation led to the exodus of the middle class from the inner-city, leaving only the least healthy and most vulnerable segment of the population in the community.
While Haidt has a lot of interesting things to say, I did not find his theories helpful in solving our political dilemma. He say that conservative avoid doing things that disturb the hive. This is no longer the case. When right-wing politicians shut down the government in an attempt to abolish sensible changes to health insurance practices, which is all the ACA is, one can see that they, themselves are the biggest threat to the hive. As a liberal, I would seek to preserve the hive by getting these people out of power.


  1. Mark Kottmeier says

    As a liberal, I agree with you on just about all points and would not leave a comment but for the impulse to do some proof reading when reading pieces written by writers. Permit me…

    It’s “as a PRINCIPLE of yin and yang” – not “principal”. This has been irking me since Noah’s Flood, and only Americans confuse the meanings of the two words.

    It’s “he CITES the success…” – not “he sites etc.” unless he was placing something somewhere.

    It’s “GASOLINE” – not “gasolene”, It has always been so.

    Salve, Mark

  2. Hi Mark,
    Nice to know someone is carefully reading the post!
    Your criticisms are correct, I should proof read a bit more thoroughly before publishing.

  3. Four score and seven minutes ago, I read a sweet artecli. Lol thanks

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