No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The Righteous Mind

Haidt, J. (2013), The Righteous Mind – Why good people are divided by politics and religion, New York: Knopf Doubleday.

The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the role of morality in human nature and its impact on politics and religion. The book aims ­to provide a new perspective on these divisive topics and to encourage more civil, respectful, and enjoyable conversations about them. The human mind is designed to do morality and this capacity has been instrumental in the development of civilization. People often feel a sense of righteousness when they adhere to their moral values, which can lead to conflict and divisiveness when those values are challenged. Why is this the case? And how can we reduce the hostility and disagreement that often result from moral differences?


The first chapter introduces the concept that moral intuitions come first, followed by strategic reasoning. Moral values and beliefs vary widely across cultures and individuals and moral psychology is an important field of study to understand these differences and to reduce conflict and divisiveness. The central metaphor of the book is the mind being divided like a rider on an elephant, with the rider representing conscious reasoning and the elephant representing unconscious processes. Haidt critiques Lawrence Kohlberg's influential theory of moral development, which posits that people progress through a series of stages as they learn to understand moral concepts. Haidt argues that moral psychology needs to consider the role of emotions, culture, and social context in moral decision-making.

The second chapter describes the interaction between reason and emotion in the human mind. Reason is not the primary driver of moral judgment, but rather serves to support and justify pre-existing moral intuitions and emotions. People construct life narratives to make sense of their experiences, and these narratives often include a moral component. Various psychological studies support this idea. Haidt describes the "rationalist delusion", referring to the tendency of some individuals to view reason as the ultimate arbiter of moral truth, while downplaying the role of emotions in moral judgment. The history of western philosophy which often favors reason over emotion. Haidt's own experiments support the dual-process model of moral judgment, in which moral emotions and moral reasoning are separate processes that sometimes compete with each other. People are often unable to provide reasons for their moral judgments.

Chapter 3,4 and 5 focus on how moral foundations shape our moral intuitions and how these foundations vary across cultures and political ideologies. It explains that our brains are constantly and automatically evaluating things in terms of potential threat or benefit to the self, known as affective primacy, and this evaluation often happens before we are even aware of it. Social and political judgments are particularly intuitive, as they often rely on quick evaluations of people and groups rather than careful reasoning. The influence of intuition can be reduced through deliberative practice which involves actively and repeatedly thinking through complex moral or political problems to improve reasoning skills.

Moral judgment is primarily driven by intuition, with reasoning serving a secondary role. This is supported by experiments demonstrating that people's moral judgments can be influenced by subtle emotional cues. People will often come up with justifications for their moral judgments after the fact. The body also plays a role in moral judgment, by means of physical sensations such as disgust and the desire to cleanse oneself after immorality.

Research using fMRI scans has shown that the emotional areas of the brain become more active before a person makes a moral judgment or decision, suggesting that emotions play a significant role in moral decision-making. Other research has found that people are more likely to make prosocial decisions and be more empathetic when they feel positive emotions and that people's moral decisions can be influenced by subtle changes in their emotional states. The elephant in the rider-and-elephant metaphor (representing emotions and intuitions) is not an absolute dictator, and can sometimes be swayed by reason but this process is rare and often requires a significant effort, as people are resistant to changing their beliefs and are not good at seeking out evidence that challenges their existing beliefs.

Chapter 6 focuses on the idea that moral judgment is multifaceted and complex, and cannot be reduced to a single principle. According to Haidt, moral judgment involves multiple "taste buds," or moral foundations, that are universal but can be experienced differently by individuals and cultures. He discusses six moral foundations that have been identified by psychological research: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

Haidt writes that moral philosophers have often attempted to reduce morality to a single principle, like maximizing welfare or upholding rights and justice, but he argues that this approach, known as moral monism, ignores the complexity of moral principles. He compares moral monism to a restaurant that only serves one type of food and compares the diversity of moral principles to the diversity of individual tastes in food.

Chapter 7 focuses on the – according to Haidt – overly cynical idea that behind every act of kindness or moral behavior, there is either selfishness or stupidity. Moral behavior can be motivated by a variety of factors, including intuition, emotion, reason, and social influence. Moral elevation, which refers to the experience of feeling uplifted and inspired by witnessing acts of moral goodness, is a powerful motivator for moral behavior. He also discusses the role of empathy and compassion in moral behavior and the importance of social context in shaping moral behavior. The chapter also points out the idea that moral behavior is often driven by a desire to feel good and to be seen as good by others, which is called "moral credentialing".

In chapter 8, Haidt describes the political advantage that conservatives have over liberals due to their understanding of moral psychology, arguing that Republicans use appeals to loyalty, authority, and sanctity to trigger moral intuitions, while Democrats primarily focus on care and fairness. Haidt has developed a moral foundations tool, used to measure an individual's moral foundations through a questionnaire, which showed that individuals who identified as liberal had a higher emphasis on the Care and Fairness foundations, while those who identified as conservative had a more balanced emphasis on all five foundations. Therefore, a more nuanced understanding of moral psychology could lead to more productive political discourse and decision making, according to Haidt.

Chapter 9 is about people's political beliefs not just being based on reason or self-interest, but also on moral emotions and intuitions. Haidt suggests that the way people process information is shaped by their political beliefs and that this can lead to ideological echo chambers where people are exposed only to information that confirms their preexisting beliefs. Therefore, it is important to understand and respect the moral beliefs of others, even when they disagree with one's own beliefs. Understanding moral psychology can lead to a more tolerant and civil society, and it can improve the ability to have productive political discourse.

Chapter 10 and 11 are about the ability of humans to temporarily transcend self-interest and become part of something larger than themselves, such as a group. This is an adaptation that evolved through group selection. Religion and other forms of groupish behavior, such as chanting and dancing, may so have evolved as a way to facilitate groupishness and create a sense of unity and cooperation within groups. This may have played a role in the success of human societies and may continue to be an important aspect of human nature. Certain experiences can activate this so-called 'hive switch' like experiencing awe in nature, consuming certain hallucinogenic drugs, and participating in religious rituals.

The last chapter of the book is about the increasing polarization and negativity in American politics and how it has led to dysfunction and a feeling among many Americans that they are on a sinking ship. There was a shift in behavior in Congress in the 1990s and an increase in "oppo" research. This increase in polarization is now a threat to the world, with the failure of the two parties to agree on routine bills leading to a downgrade in America's credit rating. The book concludes with suggesting that a better understanding of moral psychology can lead to more constructive political discourse and decision making. A more holistic and less divisive approach to politics, one that takes into account the full range of moral foundations, could lead to more effective solutions to social problems.