Menu Close

How Do We Repair a House Divided?

righteous mindEvery once in a while, a book comes along that is a “must read.” Given the divisiveness and vitriol in America today, I think we all need something to help bridge the enormous chasm that has grown between the Left and Right in our country. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., and his team’s related work, might just do the trick.

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist from University of Virginia specializing in moral psychology. He is interested in understanding why we believe what we believe with regard to our moral judgements of what is “right” and “wrong.” Dr. Haidt confesses that he was originally quite the liberal but, while studying moral psychology to buttress these liberal beliefs, he actually found himself shifting more to the right.
I would be very interested to hear what people on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum think of The Righteous Mind, but it seems to me that Dr. Haidt goes to great lengths to be “fair and balanced.” The fact that he was originally staunchly liberal and now offers many compelling arguments against his original views and discusses the many merits of conservative perspectives points to his integrity as a researcher, writer, and teacher.

I recently blogged on this topic in Can We All Get Along? because this issue has been really pressing on me. Coincidentally, Dr. Haidt and I both start out by using Rodney King’s famous quote, “Can we all get along?” And I hadn’t read Dr. Haidt’s book at the time of that blog – honest! That would be quite the irony to be dishonest about such a thing in a blog about morality and righteousness!

Dr. Haidt incorporates multiple disciplines such as social psychology, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, political science, anthropology, and sociobiology into understanding why good people are divided by politics and religion. Through some very ingenious (and fascinating) research methods, Dr. Haidt and his team show how most of our moral positions are derived from emotions and intuitions rather than from reasoning and logic. We’d all like to that our views on morality are grounded firmly in reason, but it is really that we tend to arrive at these positions through our emotions and sentiments and then, post-hoc, try to rationalize these beliefs.

In a metaphor that Dr. Haidt uses frequently to illustrate his point, he compares our reason to a rider on an elephant, with the elephant representing our instincts, emotions, and subconscious processes. Our rider (reason) can guide the elephant to some degree, but the elephant more often lumbers where it wants. And if this elephant is very motivated (say by fear), the rider is mostly likely going to be taken for a wild ride. Dr. Haidt doesn’t go into this detail, but I suspect, with various meditative practices such as mindfulness, our “rider” can become more adept at guiding the elephant.

With all the moralizing that both liberals and conservatives do, it is humbling (and possibly unifying?)  to know that ultimately our emotions are strongly influencing our moral and political convictions. Perhaps we can all learn to drop the pretence that we have our facts straight and the other side has their collective head in the sand.

Importantly, it is not necessarily a bad thing that our emotions heavily influence our decision-making. Rationally trying to sift through endless information would be slow, inefficient, and anxiety-producing. Indeed, in studies of people who have damage to their brains such that emotions cannot inform the reason in the decision-making process, these people become effectively paralyzed. Even simple choices, such as whether to sign a document with a blue or black pen, become overwhelming.

Dr. Haidt likens our moral foundations from which we draw our ethical norms to 6 different “taste buds”: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Interestingly, Dr. Haidt points out that the conservative moral palette is more broad than that of liberals. Liberals tend to be influenced by the first 3 moral foundations (care, fairness, & liberty), but the care/harm foundation seems to influence them the most. Liberals tend to not be influenced much, if at all, by the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In contrast, conservatives are influenced by all 6 moral foundations. Regarding fairness, liberals tend to equate this more with equality whereas conservatives equate this more with proportionality.

Liberals sometimes minimize the relevance of the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity (indeed, sometimes viewing them as irrelevant entirely), but Dr. Haidt points out that there are strong evolutionary and cultural reasons why all 6 moral foundations exist, and that they are still relevant today. Dr. Haidt states that “we are 90% chimp, 10% bee.” By “bee” he means that we are social animals. While we might act in our own self-interest much of the time, we also have a strong instinct to be in groups. Our need to be a member of a group led us to develop these various moral foundations because, at one time or another, they all had a survival value. They helped groups to cohere and cohesive groups tend to survive and thrive.

The moral foundations that we come to live by both “bind and blind” us, says Dr. Haidt. Shared moral foundations can help bind groups so they are more cohesive, but they can also lead us to being “blind” as to why members of other groups believe and act the way they do. The togetherness of our group results in us being more separate from other groups – the “we vs. them” mentality. Unfortunately, it is not just that we see other groups as “different” from us, we often judge them to be inferior to us and/or a threat.

Dr. Haidt’s main goal of The Righteous Mind is not some pollyanna-ish vision that we will all “be as one.” Often, members from the right and left sides of the political spectrum are scratching their heads wondering, “How does THOSE people NOT get it??!!” Dr. Haidt hopes that The Righteous Mind will promote a better understanding and, dare I say, greater tolerance of one another. The divisiveness in our politics and religious views, and all the finger-pointing, finger-wagging, and bashing that goes with it, is causing gridlock in Congress and an ineffective government about which most Americans are deeply frustrated and troubled. If we can learn to speak the same language (or a bit more than we do now), perhaps we can start to move forward. It returns me to that famous quote that “A house divided cannot stand.”

Perhaps Dr. Haidt’s entire premise of the book could be construed as liberal to begin with – as in favoring progress or reform. But, as it turns out, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians  and Independents can agree on something. Across the board, we all generally disapprove of how Congress is doing. A whopping 90% of Americans  think Congress is doing a poor job.

If you are a member of a book club or perhaps some friends who might be open to reading The Righteous Mind, I highly encourage you to do so and discuss afterwards. If you have a friend who is on the other side of the political spectrum as yourself, maybe you can each read it and then discuss over coffee. I can honestly say that this book as broadened my perspective and has helped me to better understand and appreciate those who hold different political and religious views than myself. I will continue to study these issues further because I feel a strong conviction to do my part to help us all “get along” a better than we have been lately. So, to this end, please read the book and discuss with family and friends!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *