“The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt explains his ideas on Moral Foundations Theory. I just finished reading it and let me tell you, it was worth the effort. The first couple of chapters sucked me in with his elephant and rider analogy of human behavior, but about halfway through it started to lag. Maybe it got too technical. Maybe it just didn’t feel relatable. There was a time when I thought (and noted), “Yes, but what can we DO about it?” The last few chapters gave me some ideas and some hope, so I’ll rate it A for awesome.

Moral Foundations Theory in The Righteous Mind

The subtitle tells you exactly why I decided to read this book, “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” I don’t know how many times I’ve wondered to myself (and aloud to my family) why such seemingly intelligent people could be so fired up and ready to physically go to blows over a difference of opinion. I have close friends and family that support and push political agendas that, in my opinion, just seem crazy. Why? What the heck, people? This book helped me make some sense of it.

Now…do I feel better? Do I think there is any hope of avoiding something seriously damaging to our world in the near future, now that I’ve read this book? Not really. Sorry. I’m a pessimist when it comes to collective thought and politics these days. I just don’t see a way out. But I do know that I’m not the smartest person around or the most well-informed, so there’s still a glimmer of hope in the back of my mind. A miracle could happen. There could be, somewhere out there, individuals scattered across the world, that can help the rest of us pull our heads out and turn the ship around. Right?

Yeah…kind of in a mood this week. Sorry.

But this book! His theories and his research have really lightened my mood. There are reasons why things are happening the way they are. There is a way to understand others and come to some kind of compromise. There’s chance that we could start the ship toward living together in peace. It’s a hopeful kind of understanding of the human mind.

“Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together.”

We all actually do have a similar goal, to live in peace, to end violence, for everyone to have enough, but we all come to it from different directions. We’re told not to post our thoughts and ideas on social media. Don’t share your point of view. Keep your opinions to yourself. It’s not polite. But if we can’t talk to each other about these things, how do even begin to understand?

“…self-righteous…means ‘convinced of one’s own righteousness, especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others; narrowly moralistic and intolerant.’”

We ALL are, left and right, liberal and conservative, self-righteous about something.

“Emotions are not dumb. Damasio’s patients made terrible decisions because they were deprived of emotional input into their decision making. Emotions are a kind of information processing.”

This reminds me of what Noah Rashad was saying on Secular Buddhism. The point of emotion is our intuition telling us something MAY be important. Our job is to notice it, pause and make an assessment, and then CHOOSE an action based on that assessment. Haidt here is speaking of patients that had lost their emotions due to accident or defect. Logic and reason will only get you so far. Those who base their action solely on logic and reason will end up doing atrocious things.

“In this chapter I’ll show that reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth.”

That is exactly what we do. We have a feeling, think about it some (hopefully), reason why we should have that feeling, and then go with it. Haidt says that when we want to believe something we reason to find out if we can, and when we don’t want to believe something, we reason to find out if we must.

His idea of Moral Foundations Theory is fascinating. He compares our morals to taste buds on the tongue, a limited number of basic tastes that combine to make each of us different. We’re born with a first draft of innate taste buds but our experience revises which ones we use more, rely on, or prefer. That really hit home because I’ve always thought of myself as naturally a conservative person, more likely to prefer less change and stable outcomes, but I’m liberally trained by my experience in the world. I have learned to enjoy some change and look for different experiences, points of view, and ways of thinking.

A whole chapter is dedicated to why we seem to be compelled to form into groups and take sides. And explains why some of us tend to be a bit more individualistic. It’s always safer in groups, that’s why women always take a friend to the restroom when they’re out in public. And groups are safer when we all have similar values and norms. This was my favorite chapter.

“We humans have a dual nature – we are selfish primates who long to be part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. If you take that claim metaphorically, then the groupish and hivish things that people do will make a lot more sense. It’s almost as though there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.”

It is easier to live in a group than alone. Self-sufficiency is inefficient, like “The Rational Optimist” points out. But there are degrees of groups, from urban city to rural farms, from suburbs to mountain towns. And what it takes to get along in each of those is different. I keep seeing east coast city dwellers attempt to make laws and regulations for Midwest farmers, and west coast suburbanites dictate what life should look like in the rural south. That’s where the fights begin. Is there a way for us all to live our own lives in our own areas without harassing our distant neighbors about how they live theirs?

Have I convinced you to go get this book? I hope so. One more thing before I go. The last chapter was titled, “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” It’s the chapter that gave me some hope. We all have to live here together, whether we like it or not. The best way to do that is to stop making other people live and act the way we want them to. Instead of lifting up and emphasizing our differences: race, color, culture, location, creed, etc., we could do a lot better by emphasizing our similarities. If we make teams and take sides, good and evil, right and wrong, it’s very hard to meet in the middle. There is no compromise with a partner that is evil and wrong.

We could sit back and take care of ourselves, leave others to do the same, and compromise when we need to so that we can share space without getting on each other nerves. Seems too reasonable. Probably will never work.

If you’d like to read my first post about this book, go back to The Righteous Mind: New Read. If you’re interesting in learning more about Moral Foundations Theory, I have an extra copy of this book that you’re welcome to have. The first person to comment that they want it will get it!