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Don't discount the importance of emotion when reaching across the ideological divide.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidit

Knopf Doubleday

Publishing Group

2012, 448 pages, $28.95

Why are people so divided by politics? Jonathan Haidt addresses this question in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by bringing to bear hundreds of years of moral philosophical tradition and modern psychological research. He provides at least part of the answer through a field of study called "moral psychology"


In the first part of the book, Haidt examines the underpinnings of our moral psychology. Thousands of years of Western philosophical tradition have elevated reason and logic to the point that we sometimes lose sight of the limits of rationality and discount the role that emotions play in decision making. In fact, not only do emotions have an important role in our thinking about moral issues, they have a dominant role.

Haidt suggests the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, where emotions are the elephant and the rider is reason. The elephant has an outsized say in the direction we are going to go in. The rider can influence the elephant, but the rider is not in charge. In fact, Haidt goes a step further and demonstrates, though psychological experiments, our rationality is often employed to invent post hoc justifications for our emotionally driven moral preferences (i.e., rationalizations). Haidt suggest that internalizing the metaphor of the rider and elephant can help us be more patient in our discussions of politics with other people because we then understand that the arguments they articulate in favor of their positions are often not the products of authentic, deep, rational thinking, but are really expressions of their emotional response to an issue. Of course, this conclusion applies to everyone, suggesting that we should all exercise more humility regarding the veracity of our political beliefs.

It isn't that there's no hope for communication between people of opposing political views; it's just that the common approach of winning your "opponent" over with superior reasoning will likely be ineffective. Haidt use the metaphor of a dog wagging its tail. A dog wags its tail to communicate that it is happy. In this metaphor, our rational articulations are simply a communication (a wagging tail) of our intuitive, emotional beliefs (the dog itself). Just as you can't make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail, you can't change someone's mind by logically refuting their arguments.

Instead, you need to be able to see things from the other person's viewpoint, deeply and intuitively. This allows you to engage in a friendly, civil conversation where you can provide your reasons for your beliefs. When the other party does not feel that they are under attack or engaged in a win-or-lose debate, they no longer need to devote their rational faculties to justifying their own beliefs. This atmosphere of empathy provides the opportunity for your reasoning to shape their intuitions (and vice versa--you may change your own intuitions in response to their reasons). In short, Haidt says, "empathy is the antidote to righteousness" --although not necessarily one that is easy to employ.


With the critical role of emotion/ intuition and the secondary role of rationality in moral reasoning established, Haidt moves on to the second part of his book, which is to establish a descriptive definition of moral systems. The Righteous Mind does not attempt to establish what is morally right or wrong. Rather, Haidt's goal is to define the function of a moral system so we can discuss its role in why people are divided by politics. Haidt defines a moral system as "set of interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh with our natural psychological tendencies (e.g., to form groups, etc.) and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible." In other words, moral systems provide a sort of glue that holds together a society of individuals with diverse and self-regarding interests.

Further, a moral system is not typically based on a narrow definition of what is right or wrong. There are numerous aspects of morality, although it is a finite number--Haidt does not suggest that moral systems are relative, with morality totally dependent on context. To explain, Haight compares the tongue, which has receptors for sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes, to the mind, which senses morality along various dimensions. Based on his research, Haidt suggests that we can expect to find the following six "foundations" in most moral systems:

* Care/Harm: We react negatively to cruelty and want to help those who are suffering.

* Fairness/Cheating: We like it when others appear to be good partners for collaboration and want to punish those who cheat.

* Liberty/Oppression: We react negatively to signs of attempted domination.

* Loyalty/Betrayal: We react positively toward "team players" and negatively toward those we perceive to have betrayed our group.

* Authority/Subversion: We are sensitive to rank or status and to signs of other people not behaving within the bounds of their position.

* Sanctity/Degradation: We are sensitive to symbolic objects and threats. This foundation often plays a special role in group cohesion (i.e., a group forms around a shared belief of sanctity).

Haidt and his colleagues established a website called yourmorals. org. It invites visitors to take a test that determines which of these foundations are most important to their personal moral system. After tens of thousands of visitors (who also self-identified their political persuasions), Haidt was able to identify clear patterns in the moral systems of liberals and conservatives. All six foundations are present in the moral systems of each group, but the weights are different.

Liberals emphasize care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating above the other three foundations. Of these, care/harm is the most heavily weighted, and liberty/oppression is second. Fairness/cheating is third and will sometimes be sacrificed in favor of the other two. It also means the remaining three foundations are often not given much consideration.

Conservatives tend to weight all six foundations about evenly. This means, for example, conservatives are often more willing than liberals to sacrifice care/harm and let others get hurt to achieve other moral objectives.


Just these survey results provide a powerful clue into why politics can be so divisive--but this is not the whole story. In the third and final part of the book, Haidt examines how our biological predispositions amplify these differences.

Western society tends to emphasize individuality and even laud self-interest. For example, one of the underpinnings of our capitalist system is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" metaphor: that the self-interested actions of individuals benefit society at large. A downside of this emphasis on individuality is that we underestimate the power of social groupings.

Social groupings are not just social constructs--they have biological foundations. For example, scientists have discovered that powerful brain hormones encourage people to bond to their groups and that particular types of neurons cause people to most readily empathize with people who share their moral foundations. The consequence of these biological features is that people divide themselves into "tribes"--though we are individuals, we also want to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to find solidarity with people similar to ourselves and with whom we have sense of shared fate. Political parties provide a vehicle for bonding with others of similar values and demonstrating our loyalty to our colleagues by rejecting people in other parties.

Our choice about which political group to join also has biological influences. For example, our genetics influence how reactive we are to threats or how much pleasure we get from exposure to novelty, change, and new experiences. Increased sensitivity to threats is correlated with a conservative political outlook. Increased openness to new experiences, etc. is correlated with a liberal political outlook.

Haidt does not suggest that our genes predetermine our political persuasions; he suggests that they do have more influence than we might think. For example, life experiences have an important influence on our political views--although our genetic predispositions might cause us to seek out life experiences that then lead to a certain political outlook. For example, someone who is genetically predisposed to derive more pleasure from new experiences and diversity will seek out such things. Along the way, they will meet people who are similarly predisposed and who have likely already arrived at a liberal political outlook and set of moral foundations. As they form bonds, they reinforce each other's moral world views. Also along the way, we each develop a personal narrative or story that we use to explain our journey through life, and that explains how we came to our world views. This provides a rational, self-satisfying explanation for our political views.


Political parties have narratives too. Haidt refers to these as "grand narratives" because they tie together groups of people with compatible personal narratives. An illustration of a grand narrative of the political left revolves around heroic liberation: "authority, hierarchy, power, and tradition are chains that must be broken to free the noble aspirations of the victims." The political right also has narratives--for instance, narratives revolving around the heroic defense of values. In either case, people then identify their personal narrative with a grand narrative of a political party or movement, further enmeshing them in the political group.

Haidt next revisits the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives and considers how they might affect our ability to interact. You may recall that liberals weight the moral foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression most heavily. This, combined with the grand narratives of the liberal tradition, means that liberals have strong moral feelings for victims of oppression--a proverbial "third rail" of liberal politics. You may also recall that conservatives weight all six moral foundations about equally. This, combined with the grand narrative of the conservative tradition, means that conservatives' most sacred value is to preserve institutions and traditions that sustain the community's moral systems.

Because liberals deemphasize three of the six moral foundations, they have a harder time understanding conservative positions than vice versa (as illustrated by experiments that ask liberals and conservatives to predict each other's positions on various issues). In some cases, liberals may not even see that loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation are legitimate moral foundations. As a result, in the course of pushing for reform, liberals may not adequately consider the strength of the community's complete moral system. Conservatives, on the other hand, have more difficulty than liberals in seeing the victims of existing social arrangements. This means conservatives may be less apt to push for updates to those arrangements or to create new ones. The outcome is that morality binds us into ideological teams that are focused on "winning" ideological and policy battles, and it blinds us to the fact that the other team has good people with valuable lessons to share.


So, how can we start to cross this moral divide? Haidt does not suppose there are any easy answers. He suggests low- (or no) stakes friendly interactions with people from the other side as a starting point. An environment that implies "debate," "win/lose," or other forms of conflict will cause everyone's rational "rider" to devote their energy to simply justifying their elephantine moral intuitions. Hence, it is essential to intentionally shape the discussion environment to provide opportunities for friendly interactions as precursor to policy/ideological discussions. Haidt gives the example of U.S. congressman who, before the current partisan rancor, used to intermingle with members of the opposite party at social events (i.e., sports leagues for their children, dinner parties, etc.), but who now rarely, if ever, interact with members of the opposite party outside of formal legislative sessions. For local government and community meetings, this suggests formats that include time for participants to interact in a friendly manner before diving into potentially divisive topics.

When it comes to the actual discussion of political issues, Haidt believes it is essential to move beyond a black/ white, right/wrong paradigm and instead recognize that there is wisdom in both liberal and conservative moral systems--both are necessary for a healthy political system. This approach --looking for the right balance instead looking to determine a winner and loser--leads to better solutions and offers the possibility for more constructive and respectful conversation because the stakes are lowered from all-or-nothing to balancing conservative and liberal views.

When discussing a controversial political issue, Haidt suggests thinking about the six moral foundations and attempting to determine which one or two are the most important in that particular case. This might make it easier to recognize where each tradition --liberal and conservative--has something valuable to offer. To illustrate, Haidt offers examples of points from both traditions that he finds valuable. On the liberal side, he cites the necessity for government to place limits on private corporations because the free market pricing system for goods and services does not capture all of the costs that corporations impose on society (e.g., pollution). A related point is that government regulation is sometimes necessary to solve complex collective action problems that can't be addressed by individuals (e.g., government regulation of lead emissions in gasoline). On the conservative side, Haidt suggests that market economies often work extraordinarily well and that there is wisdom in looking for opportunities harness the power of the market to solve social problems. Haidt also recognizes wisdom in social conservative views about the importance of community-level groups (i.e., families, church organizations, civic groups, etc.), and other traditional social institutions for preserving the moral capital that allows us to continue as a functioning collective society.


Haidt's message is that the difficulty we experience in talking to people across the political divide is not because one side is right and the other wrong. Rather, the way our minds are designed causes us to see ourselves as righteous and to from groups with those of similar views. Our intuitions drive our views and our rational faculties are often employed in a secondary role--sometimes to simply offer rationalizations for our intuitive conclusions. This makes it difficult, but not impossible, to connect with other people who have different moral foundations.

SHAYNE KAVANAGH is senior manager of research for GFOA's Research and Consulting Center in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:The Bookshelf; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Author:Kavanagh, Shayne
Publication:Government Finance Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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