Review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind


I have been puzzling for quite a while about what separates us into political factions in this country and what to do about it. My significant other found this book and suggested it to me. It is not a whimsical book. It is well researched and documented. I would suggest reading it in small segments and taking time to digest what you have read. There are 376 pages in the text and 114 pages of notes and references. I can’t do justice to the whole book in a review but will provide you with some of the highlights.


Haidt sees human nature as “moralistic, critical and judgmental.” We commonly see ourselves as reaching a conclusion in various ways and then developing feelings about our beliefs. He concludes from his and others’ research that we have this backwards. We first develop an opinion through intuition and experience and then search ways to justify what we feel/think.


He presents five moral foundations upon which we base our perceptions of ourselves, each other and the world. First is the dimension of care/harm in which we look out for the vulnerable among us. Second is fairness/cheating with liberals more concerned about equality and conservatives more concerned about proportionality (getting what you deserve). Third is loyalty/betrayal which involves cohesive coalitions and threats to your group. Fourth is authority/subversion or responsibility for order and justice. Fifth and last is sanctity/degradation, concerned with the noble and pure aspects of society. Liberals tend to be most concerned about the first two foundations while conservatives are generally concerned about all five.


These moral foundations form the basis of ideologies which bind together various societal groups. Conservatives tend to think that rules and constraints are necessary to prevent people from acting on their base instincts. Liberals tend to think that constraints are seen as chains which must be broken to “free the noble aspirations” of people.


The author agrees with the philosopher John Stuart Mill that input from both sides are necessary to maintain a healthy political balance. The problem is that both sides have become entrenched and see each other as the enemy and as destructive to their views as well as to our society.


While not a main focus of the book, Haidt does suggest some ways to get past this impasse. He suggests that both sides need to form “more positive social connections” with each other. Both sides need to learn how to listen to each other without arguing or raging. We need to hold off discussing our differences until we can hear what is important to the other side and have established trust. He also sees the need to change our “election procedures, institutions and environments” which all contribute to our standoff.


He does not go into great detail about any of the needed changes but then he did not present this as a goal of his book. I think he gives us plenty to think about on the way to understanding and hearing each other. The specifics of how to work together need to come from shared good intentions and understanding of both groups toward each other. In my opinion, no one will win a war between cultural and political groups. Instead our culture as a whole is ravaged by the conflict. Our future depends on finding ways to build on shared motives and goals while respecting the differences which remain inherent in our groups.

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