The Righteous Mind: a paradigm-shifting look at how we behave ethically

This is a guest review of  The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon, 2012, 448 pages) by John Scarbrough, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology and Sociology at Lincoln Land Community College, Springfield, Illinois. It is, however, more than just a review. It is a thorough analysis of a paradigm-shifting book that may foster the integration of philosophical ethics with psychology, sociology, anthropology, and perhaps even biology in college curricula of the future. It purports to help those with left political leanings understand those who lean right a little better, but this is not just a book about political leanings. It is a book about how we are motivated ethically, and it is well worth the attention of thoughtful people everywhere.

A Tale (Tail) of Two Elephants
Louise and Ralph are elephants tied together at the tail. Louise, the mommy elephant, almost always turns left but in a forward direction often in disregard of what her tiny rider Logic instructs her to do. Ralph, the daddy elephant, almost always turns right and aims backwards, usually in disregard for what his little rider Facts directs.

And, of course, if they are standing still, there is tension from the opposite pulls. But when they try to go somewhere or get something done they pull and strain and get red and blue in the face. Well Louise generally gets blue in the face and Ralph generally gets red in the face. And they snort and holler and almost trample one another in frustration. Louise accuses Ralph of not listening, not seeing nuance, not stopping to smell the flowers but worst of all, Louise accuses Ralph of being a dunderhead pachyderm low on empathy and not caring for others at all. Ralph bellows that Louise is soft in the head, illogical and always giving away everything they own and not requiring the recipients to work for it. Louise loves change and hope and anything new and Ralph hates disruptions in his hard working routine, despises rule breakers and particularly hates new elephants coming into his territory, particularly ones that are taller or browner or believe in a different elephant god. How dare they?

Book Summary

Part I “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second”

“The mind is divided, like a rider and an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.”(p. xix)
The elephant is made up of successful, evolved emotional and intuitive reaction modules which have served us well and have helped us survive as a species. The rider is a later add-on who generally isn’t as rational as we believe him to be, but rather rationalizes what the elephant has already decided to do. This backs up Hume’s view of human nature and strongly disagrees with Plato’s views of our rationality. And it agrees with Wilhelm Wundt’s experiments in his 1890’s psychology laboratory.

It’s all based on research, including fMRI’s of people’s brains while making decisions. The activity goes to the amygdala and other emotional centers first, actions are initiated and then the information goes to the “thinking” neo-cortex.

But the rider does convince the elephant sometimes and is most often successful when he is among a group of supportive peers whom he admires, respects and whose approval he wants. The elephant is most likely to listen when these people are gently questioning the elephant’s conclusions. But when either Louise or Ralph is scared, they both react with fear and become more conservative. Even bad smells and tastes can make the elephant more judgmental and more likely to push her further into her entrenched position.

Later in the book, he adds that group rituals, group marching and music helps us change the direction of our hard-headed elephant.

Morality partially grew out of an innate distinction between the worship of the sacred on one end and the violation of the sacred resulting in disgust on the other. We have a “face-finding module” in our brain which takes amorphous stimuli and constructs the perception of a face, perhaps an angel or an elf. Added to this is a built-in module to seek agency. The kitten who is chasing your hand under the covers is not thinking about the cause but only attacking the effect. We construct great searches for the cause and often have concluded gods cause the rumblings of nature. Whether it be the farmer in Kansas praying for rain or the Hawaiian trying to placate the volcano goddess Pele, we humans have looked for lots of supernatural causes. Whether there is a god or not is another question, but we certainly are tuned to look for her.

Morality is intuitive first and second socially learned to acquire the continued interaction of peers we value. Morality, according to Haidt, is not about the search for truth. And this tells us a great deal about why liberals and conservatives yell right past one another.

We lie, cheat and with the help of our press secretary (prefrontal lobe) are so good at it that we easily convince ourselves. Two of our “logic” tricks are special twists of confirmation bias: “Can I believe that?” is used when our elephant already has a strong emotionally based belief and we want to believe it. “Must I believe that?” is used when someone else is trying to persuade us and we don’t want to believe it. If 99% of climate scientists conclude global warming is largely the result of humans and we believe it is not, then all we need is to find one scientist (or more often, one politician) who disagrees to enable us to hang onto our belief.

Part II “There is More to Morality than Harm and Fairness”

The rider is reason; the elephant, intuition / inclinations: who is really in charge? Image:

Are you liberal and WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic)? If so your values tend to narrowly emphasize individual rights and fairness. If you are conservative and non-WEIRD, your moral systems emphasizes these but also emphasizes the importance of the community and things sacred. Conservatives emphasize a broader set of values in making judgments while liberals focus so much on individual rights that they minimize the importance of tradition, rule of authority as well as the divine and religious. No wonder a woman’s rights trump the sacredness of the fetus for the liberal and the words “God and country” ring so many bells for the conservative.

So both the liberal and the conservative elephants’ moralities are based in a continuum of at least these five dimensions: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Individualistic cultures emphasize care and fairness while communitarian societies emphasize all five. Isn’t it interesting that liberals tend to be individualistic and conservatives tend to emphasize the group? Just the opposite of how many political arguments play out in America today.

Haidt argues our moral foundations arose to help us survive in groups. Care/harm evolved to enable us to take care of children; fairness/cheating evolved to make cooperative groups work and help keep members from being exploited; loyalty/betrayal arose from making and keeping coalitions; authority/subversion came from establishing relationships in hierarchical groups; and sanctity/degradation came first from avoiding bad food and later from avoiding pathogens and parasites. I’d say these are interesting but not proven. And, of course, much of his argument hangs on these issues. But whether they evolved biologically or not, it seems fair to argue that these moral traits exist and came about to solidify people within groups.

As a result of his research, Haidt added the Liberty/oppression moral foundation and altered the Fairness/cheating moral foundation to emphasize the proportionality of fairness, or at least the perception of proportionality. In other words, his respondents wouldn’t have liked Jesus’ story of the worker who came late to the vineyard and received the same pay as those who worked all day. Liberals and conservatives both emphasize proportionality of effort, although, as you can guess, they interpret this very differently.

In his own studies, Haidt demonstrates that liberals score much higher on care and fairness and conservatives score more highly on loyalty, authority and sanctity. Much of this data comes from people filling out questionnaires and answering questions on the web site, It’s not clear if these large samples are truly representative of U.S. adults. And this may be a big problem for the research. Others have found that the extreme left and the extreme right are both authoritarian and closed minded. Are these findings the result of a sample bias?

Further, he argues that these results fit nicely with Emile Durkheim’s vision of how society works collectively and interdependently. Durkheim was the great sociological thinker and researcher from the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century who showed how suicide was not primarily an individual act but varied enormously by how tightly one was integrated into meaningful social groups. And this evidence goes against such great thinkers as John Stuart Mill who championed individuality to the point that he argued the only true reason the state could restrain someone was to prevent harm to others. Mill presents a utopia of individualism and Durkheim presents a reality of interdependence of peoples. And that interdependence is cemented by social rituals, tradition, observance of authority and loyalty to one’s group.

Haidt is the first psychologist (other than me) who I’ve ever heard mention and appreciate the great ideas of Durkheim. Indeed psychology and sociology are respectively marked by an emphasis upon the individual or upon the group.

Part III “Morality Binds and Blinds”

Charles Darwin argued that group level selection for group survival traits was essential to understanding evolution. From the 1970’s to the present scientists like Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) have argued that Darwin was wrong and that there is no mechanism except for the individual organism to compete and survive on an individual basis with traits gradually emerging or disappearing based on large numbers of individuals. And from this it was inferred that individuals are naturally selfish. Remember back in college when your professor did all kinds of twists and turns to “prove” that people who give to charity are doing it for selfish reasons?

Haidt disagrees and says that humans, bees, ants, wasps and termites and a few species of other critters, including some shrimp and beetles have evolved genes for ultrasociability. It’s called multi-level evolution and is supported by a few scientists, including no less luminaries than E. O. Wilson and G. Holldabler from their studies on evolution of insect groups to help feed long dependent offspring and to aide in inter-group conflict.

Bees build hives and have specialized labor and humans build tribes and corporations and complex societies with specialized labor. Is all of this the result of biological evolution? No, it’s the result of the co-evolution of genes and society. Our groupishness is the root of our success as a species and the root of our conflict between groups. And that trait did evolve on a group selection level. Or did it evolve on an individual level which benefitted the group? And groups with more individuals with these traits survived better. Either way, the result, according to Haidt, is ultrasociability.

According to Tomasello, a primate researcher, “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” But we humans do that and much more all the time.

“Bees construct hives out of wax and wood fibers, which they then fight, kill and die to defend. Humans construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods that, even in the twenty-first century, they fight, kill and die to defend.” (Haidt p 207)

He goes on to argue that massive co-evolution of genes and culture has occurred in the last 12,000 years. We are not genetically identical to our hunting and gathering ancestors and some of the modern genes evolved to prepare us for war as well as for co-existence within our groups. We also evolved to suppress aggression, to aide in territorial defense and prevent free-riding of lazy group members. A moral community was born.

So we are a lot like chimps but shared intentionality and a moral community made us a little like bees with a “hive switch.” Symbols and threats flip that switch. Flags, flag pins, Iranian nuclear facility building, immigrants and political parties all trigger our groupishness, trigger our hive switch and make it much more likely the elephant and not the rider will respond to such threats and symbols. We were all Americans for a few days after 9/11.

He goes into the role of mirror neurons, oxytocin (the chemical that binds) as well as dopamine and other feel good neurotransmitters. And he covers transactional leadership and advises leaders to use our knowledge of human groupishness to get a group to work. Leaders should help diverse peoples feel like a family, use synchrony like singing together, marching together (to flip the hive switch) and use healthy team competition, not individual competition to motivate.

He asks, can’t we all get along and love each other unconditionally? Nope. Evolution didn’t prepare us for that. The most we can accomplish is love within our groups based on similarity, fair dealing with free riders and “… a sense of shared fate…may be the most we can hope to accomplish.” (Haidt p 245)

And then Haidt tells us religion is not a waste of time and resources. Like so many other social activities it builds social capital and moral capital and, like Durkheim told us long ago, with all of its failings, religion binds us together into a community of believers. It unites us within our group. “Moral systems are 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.” (Haidt p 270)

He says that thinking about religion as nothing but beliefs about the supernatural may lead you to conclude that at best it is delusional and a waste of resources and at worst the path to the downfall of human culture. But if you think about it as Durkheim did, you will see that it is a great cohesive force within groups and thinking about it from a Darwinian perspective may lead you to believe is the result of multi-level selection and the basis for binding humans together. God may or may not exist but religion is a powerful and basic force binding people together.

Review of the Book

This book may be a game-changer; it may start a paradigm shift helping liberals and conservatives to better understand the focus of each other. Clearly, without any doubt, Haidt demonstrates that we are not solely rational creatures absorbed only in our economic self-interest but we are highly emotional beings who are great at rationalizing ideas and behaviors which our elephant already supports. And our self-interests are based on six inherited moral foundations of care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Whether these moral foundations are biologically inherited through individual selection, group selection or developed socially is important but whatever the source, these foundations of morality clearly emerge from the data and are part of us. But why do conservatives emphasize all six and liberals only two or three? And are people born that way? Yes, about 40% of our conservative or liberal leanings are in our genes, genes waiting to be shaped by experience.

It seems that we need liberals to explore, innovate and come up with changes that may help our societies survive. And we need conservatives just as much to put the brakes on and keep us from changing too quickly.

But, as Michael Lynch points out in the New York Times (“Opinionator,” Sep 30, 2012), there is something contradictory about spending a couple hundred pages of rational, well documented discourse using hundreds of scientific studies, in other words, reason, to convince us through logic that we are not really creatures of reason. So, while this book is greatly insightful, it must only be one part of a very complicated picture.

Under what conditions, other than with peers, marching, moving in sync to music and doing Japanese corporate style exercises does our elephant respond to reason and change its point of view? Haven’t we measured the cumulative effect of a university education on broadening the outlook of students over a four year period? I suspect the fMRI studies of decision-making in the brain, as fascinating and illuminating as they are, aren’t capturing the full range of decision-making over time. Plato cannot be completely wrong about the role of reason and he and Hume don’t completely disagree about the role of passion in our thinking. After all, didn’t Plato argue that reasoning well was a difficult thing to acquire and that usually only the philosopher-kings became really good at it? And surely I haven’t spent forty years teaching people to think critically, to no avail. At least my elephant hopes not.

And what about the well documented birthers, anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-acceptance of-global warming folks who make up about 30% of the Republican Party (see The Republican Brain, by Chris Mooney)? While their actions make sense within Haidt’s model (science causes change and threatens world views which are based on tradition, authority and the sacred and “Obama isn’t one of us.”), aren’t they too traditional? Aren’t the Tea Party followers so reactionary that they are blinding us to decisions which need to be made to save our country and perhaps the whole world?

If conservatives are much lower on measures of empathy than liberals, how does this all fit in with measures of sociopathy? But aren’t far left authoritarian figures just as low on empathy as the far right? Sociologist G. William Domhoff in an online posting “Who Rules America” (June 2009) documents the many studies which note there is a “right” and “left” way to most things we perceive. And his research, unlike Haidt’s, finds remarkable authoritarian aspects to personalities drawn to the far left and the far right. How can these separate sets of finding be reconciled? Is there a third piece missing or are Haidt’s samples biased, particularly the ones taken on the Internet?

And aren’t the New Atheists (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens and others) and other anti-religion people of the left and the libertarian party ignoring important traditions of sacredness and respect for hierarchical authority which has built our societies by creating social and moral capital?

Then there are the conservative’s fears of immigration and religions unfamiliar to them. While understandable using Haidt’s framework, is it workable in a fast changing society? Our society is changing at such a dizzying pace that Toffler (Future Shock) might be shocked! And Haidt tells us that fast change can generate fear and fear is the one emotion originating in the amygdala which makes both liberals and conservatives more resistant to change and therefore, even more conservative.

What about the northern European societies who are 90% atheist? How will they build social and moral capital? And how are they meeting the needs which religion has always served?

If we evolved to bond with our in-group, how do we expand that in-group to include all of humanity? Or is that past our abilities? Didn’t the United States of America arise out of colonies?

Didn’t the city-states of Italy merge to become Italians? Didn’t the European Union form out of many countries? But, of course, we are now seeing that union threatened.

So one question is: How far can we push group solidarity and respect? Will it take an alien invasion to get us to cooperate with cultures very different from our own? And are things changing too fast for the evolved abilities of the human species? Can our elephants handle it?

Closing the Allegory

And, as Louise and Ralph struggle and wrestle and bump each other, they edge ever closer to the ragged cliff. If they fall, neither will survive. And gone will be Louise’s dreams of a perfect future as well as Ralph’s memories of a perfect past.

We need both but will they fight and bruise one another so badly that they force a stalemate while other nations surge forward and dominate the world? Or maybe they’ll fight until they fall off the ragged cliff causing our society to collapse. There is a sobering third choice and that is working out a compromise based on the understanding that both are natural and necessary and deserve respect*.

Will the “Mommy party” and the “Daddy party” benefit from marriage counseling or will they continue on the path to divorce?

Whatever happens, the world won’t stop changing as the great but, I think deluded, William F. Buckley hoped when he said his position was, “standing athwart history, yelling Stop.”

*Go to for Jonathan Haidt’s specific suggestions on how to handle similar situations and personalities in our homo sapiens ‘duplex’ (a classification he frequently uses…part chimp, part bee colony) world. In short, take a look at what personal and political changes he suggests we make before we fall off that cliff.


Dawkins, Richard (1989). The Selfish Gene (2nd ed.). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Domhoff, G. William, June 2009 “The Left and the Right in Thinking, Personality, and Politics” Internet: Who Rules America?

Haidt, Jonathon, 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon.

Holldobler, B, and Wilson, E. O. 2008. The Superorganisms. The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies. W. W. Norton, New York.

Lynch, Michael, “A Case for Reason” September 30, 2012 article in the online New York Times Opinionator

Mooney, Chris, 2012 The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality. New Jersey: Wiley.

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