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The Righteous Mind - Jonathan Haidt


What's worse than reading 0 books? Reading 1 book and forming premature opinions.
  • I would not be surprised if I misunderstood the author or overlooked certain things or formed premature opinions.
  • I’am expected to be the only consumer of this. If anyone else derives value from this, it’s a bonus.


Most of our opinions are based off of strong biases which rarely change. Morality has has genetical roots; differences between conservatives and liberals might be genetic. Liberals focus on individuality where are conservatives stress on community which relies on social constructs like religion. More interaction between the right and the left will help in reducing the animosity between these 2 sides.

We judge first and reason later.

We don’t objectively form judgements on things. We have lots of biases which are deep rooted in our head. We rarely question and rethink these beliefs. When judging a person or an incident, we pass the judgement first and then reason about our judgement. For instance, let’s take the below hypothetical scenario.

A man goes to the supermarket every week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken he privately has sexual intercourse with it. He then cooks it and eats it.

Was this person wrong? Why? A liberal might say this is fine in spite they being grossed out by this. Or they might say, it might negatively impact the person’s health. A conservative might quote that God disapproves of this. Getting grossed out is our bias. We then try hard to find reasons why this is wrong. We pass the judgement first and find the reason next.

Haidt presents an analogy of a puny rider trying to serve a mighty elephant. The rider is smart, sees the bigger picture and tries to guide the elephant which acts instinctively. [1]

Conservatives are more moral

How do you define morality? A liberal person’s answer will mostly be centered around care-harm, fariness-cheating and to a lesser extent around loyalty-betrayal. A conservative morality has 2 more dimensions - authority-subversion and sanctity-degradation. Here are the short definitions for these dimensions of morality.

  • care/harm : If your action is harming anything/anyone, it is probably wrong. #Compassion
  • Fairness/Cheating : Do you return favors? #Gratitude
  • loyalty/betrayal : Are you loyal to your national sports team? Are you patriotic?
  • authority/subversion : Do you respect your boss? Do you respect a temple’s priest / church’s Father?
  • sanctity/degradation : Does wasting food make you angry? Are you very intolerant towards the homeless? #Disgust [2]

Most people tend to believe that a newly born baby is a blank slate which can grow upto anything based on the environment it is brought up in. Haidt claims and quotes research which tells that morality has genetic roots. One way to internalize his hypothesis is that our brain has receptors for each of these dimensions. What we get genetically is how much these receptors react to outside world.

Haidt then tries to explain why evolution might have favored our brains to develop these receptors. To understand the importance of these moral dimensions, try to think what would go wrong in the context of evolution if no humans possess these receptors. Examples

  • If humans don’t care about their babies, that results in a weak next generation.
  • Loyalty to one’e group is important to keep the group together and be united to fight external threats.
  • An untidy environments trigger disgust. This makes us stay clean, thus guarding us from whole range of diseases.

Coming back to conservative vs liberals, Haidt explains that conservatives understand liberals because their morals are broader than the liberals’. However the converse of this is not true. Liberals have a hard time relating to authority and sanctity. Liberals believe in individuality while conservatives believe in the community. Liberals focus a lot more on care-harm than the conservatives; to the point where they feel conservatives have no compassion. Conservatives feel that liberals are less ethical [3].

We are groupish

Haidt tries to explain why humans might have evolved to co-operate. Like other animals, humans also fought against neighboring tribes over territory. In such fights the tribes where more people co-operated prevailed. This could be one of the key reasons for humans being social and groupish.

Haidt gives one more more interesting argument about this subject. Apparently there have multiple catastrophes on earth which altered the climate significantly. This would have had significant affects many human tribes. In such situations tribes which are more social have higher chances of survival than the less social ones. Even within tribes, the more social humans had higher changes of survival.


Religion is more than just a set of beliefs about supernatural agents. Religion has been the binding force among humans for 1000’s of years. Groups that used supernatural agents enforce good moral constructs prospered. E.g There has been enough research that we break our moral codes when no one is watching; the fear of God makes many people be moral and do good things. Haidt quotes experiments which report that conservatives are marginally more ‘giving’ than liberals. Conservatives show a lot of compassion for people of their group (race/religion ..). Liberals’ compassion is generally is more uniform across groups.

Why are we not constructive?

Once people join a team (political/religion) they get caught up in one moral matrix. While this is binding force for people in the same group, it also blinds them to alternate opinion. They see confirmation of their beliefs in their group and become inflexible. This applies to both liberals and conservatives.

Liberals are very good at care. They fought against slavery; they are fighting for gender equality; they fought for democracy. They push for changes in the society - at a very rapid pace, which can destroy the internal structure of the society. They trivialize the value of authority and sanctity which leads to disconnect between the conservatives and liberals.

The less we relate to people holding alternate opinions, the less we have a constructive debate. Whether you support the right or the left, it is important to understand the where the other side is coming from. The divide can be brought down only if we are willing to engage in a civil conversation with people holding opposing views[4].

Note that the book does not go in detail about how to solve idealogical differences between good people holding conflicting views.

Foot notes

  • [1] : I did not relate very well with this metaphor.
  • [2] : I found Haidt’s explanation about sanctity as a catch-all block for all dimensions of morality which don’t fit into the other 4.
  • [3] : Due to a combination of their environment and their receptors for sanctity and authority being more sensitive. God is an important construct which gives them purpose and makes them feel larger than life.
  • [4] : Haidt briefly touches the growing divide between left and right in US. He attributes that to some changes in late 20th century. Previously the all members of the house used in live in DC and had cross party interactions which is not the case anymore.