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adrw // Andrew Alexander

The Righteous Mind

Books, Author(Jonathan Haidt)4 min read

2012 | Jonathan Haidt

The primary picture for the conscious mind's self-justificating system is that of a elephant with a rider. The elephant leans in one direction or the other but the rider doesn't have much of any control which way the elephant leans. Yet, the rider always has a justification for rationally why the elephant leaned one way or the other.

In practice, this means that our mind will continuously find ways to justify the righteousness or morality of our actions and views in a way to present a rational reason for why we leaned one way or another on a specific issue or action. The elephant decides in our mind very quickly and the rational explanation for our moral decision can often be left struggling for words.

This book transformed how I view myself, my own self-confidence in my rationality, and others. Understanding the moral psychology model outlined in the Righteous Mind, it's easier to understand how people can take actions that are hurtful or irrational yet have little remorse if their rider has come up with a satisfactory explanation for why they did or think what they did.

In one study among different groups of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, the authors found that when given a task to write pros and cons of an argument, the only different education provided was that the subject could write a longer list of arguments for their position. No amount of education gave the subject the ability to bring up with the same intellectual vigor and verbosity arguments against the position they held.

My wife pointed out that in one of my own notes from before I read this book, Buying a House?, I generated 4 arguments for, but 16 arguments against (which is the position I hold). This note ends up being another piece of evidence to affirm the study's findings.

Even for myself, I catch myself now realizing that certain things I do or say can be hurtful even if my gut reaction is that I was justified or "righteous" in doing it.

It also helped me become more self-conscious of times when I feel very, very strongly a desire to do something and yet rationally I can now better recognize that that strong urging may not be a rational decision at all but just my emotions or gut leading me in one way or another.

Throughout the book, the author does a reasonable job at focusing on the psychology of moral decisions across cultures mostly ignoring religion. He does finish the book asserting his own opinion as fact that no single morality is correct or is supreme over all others, a rather unprovable exclusive truth claim.

I still believe in an absolute morality though have a better understanding for the differences between moral views in different cultures and religions and that they often are felt as moral issues, not simply cultural practices, and that they can sometimes, even more so than Western secular educated morality, better address the 5-6 moral "tastes" that we have and respond to.

Selection from Author's Introduction/Overview

This book has three parts which you can think of as three separate books, except that each one depends heavily on the one before it. Each part presents one major principle of moral psychology.

Part I is about the first principle: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post-hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images that hogs the stage of our awareness. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis, where I described how the rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection. In this book I’ll use the metaphor to solve puzzles such as why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite and why political partisans are so willing to believe outrageous lies and conspiracy theories. I’ll also use the metaphor to show you how you can better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason.

Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness. The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. I’ll explain where these six taste receptors come from, how they form the basis of the world’s many moral cuisines, and why politicians on the right have a built-in advantage when it comes to cooking meals that voters like.

Part III is about the third principle: morality binds and blinds. The central metaphor of these four chapters is that human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins. We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.

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