The righteous mind

The righteous mind

The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion by Jonathan Haidt was recommended to me by a colleague. It’s central thesis is that morality binds and blinds. As Haidt puts it: ‘It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as if the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.’

I found this central argument fascinating, found the middle of the book much less exciting and nearly gave up, and was pleasantly surprised when it picked up speed again at the end, when you get to the juicy bits on politics and religion. Annoyingly you probably can’t just skip to them, as you need the chapters that come first to understand the argument.

Haidt starts by showing how moral psychology works in practice. He defines moral systems as ‘interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible’. In these systems intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second, and social and political judgements depend on quick intuitive flashes. He points out confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think, and describes conscious reasoning as being like an internal press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the President. So, in political matters we deploy our reasoning to support our team and to demonstrate our commitment to it.

Religious practices bind people into groups. Haidt points out that that’s what politics is about too – binding ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. He argues that yearning to serve something larger than the self has been basis of many modern political movements. But there are key differences between what in the US context are called Liberals and Conservatives.

Firstly there are actually some genetic differences between Liberals and Conservatives relating to neurotransmitter functioning and our response to threat and fear. Conservatives react more strongly than Liberals to signs of danger, even to low-level threats. Then there are the differences that lead to the fundamental blind spots of the left and right. For the left this means not considering the effects of your policy changes on moral capital and a tendency to overreach and do things too quickly. For the right it means failing to notice certain victims, failing to limit the powers of the elite, and failing to see a need for change as times change.

Liberals see the major function of government as being to stand up for the public interest against corporations and their tendency to impose externalities on others, particularly on those least able to stand up for themselves. But Conservatives can detect threats to moral capital that liberals can’t perceive. We need groups and we love groups, but groups necessarily exclude non members. However, if you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, as Liberals can have a tendency to do, you destroy your moral capital. Haidt suggests that on issue after issue its as though Liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive.

There are some great snippets in here which I liked. The fact that Gingrich encouraged Republican congressmen to leave their families in their home districts rather than to move them to Washington, which Haidt argues reduced social interaction between Liberals and Conservatives and so increased partisanship. He also shows how counties and towns are becoming more segregated into lifestyle enclaves. So, my American friends, if you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89% chance that the county surrounding you voted for Obama.

Finally, I loved the acronym WEIRD – people who grow up in Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic countries. We are the statistical outliers on many psychological measures, which is often easier to forget when reading many western-centric studies of psychology and happiness.