Book Review: The Righteous Mind


Everyone is so angry at each other. Social media is a mess. Everyone just screams and treats their opponents as evil. But when everyone is Hitler how can we live together? The Righteous Mind is a fascinating book which seeks to help us understand one another. I have actually come across Jonathan Haidt before in some of his online lectures. He is very balanced, insightful and I enjoyed this work.

Haidt is not a Christian nor is this a Christian book. The author is an evolutionary moral psychologist. Evolution is the mechanism which is cited and explored as to the reason why we operate the way we do even religiously. Now as a Christian and a pastor I believe that God created the world and human beings apart from an evolutionary process. I believe in a historical Adam and Eve. This is not a denial of adaptation within a species or natural selection. But this is a book review, not a post about my thoughts and beliefs regarding evolution/creation. Just wanted to put that out there.

In this book, Jonathan does a great job describing the social function of morality (not the content of morality). He describes the function of religion as well. It feels a bit weird to be under the microscope as one of the religious people he is describing. Jonathan is actually very positive about the societal benefits of religion as well as its liabilities. And that is the major insight and contribution of this book: seeing how morality functions within various communities, religions and political groups.

The book is divided into three parts which make up Haidt’s view of morality:

Part I: Intuitions come first, Strategic Reasoning Second

The key debate regarding morality is the relationship between intuition (emotion, passion) and strategic reasoning (cognitive processes). There is the Plato model which says that reason leads and intuition follows. There is the Jefferson model which says that reason and emotion are co-pilots each operating equally. And then there is the Hume model which says intuition leads and strategic reasoning follows as a servant. Haidt argues for the third model.

The key metaphor he gives is an elephant with a rider on its back. Intuition is the main driver with reason acting as a rider who is essentially justifying the movement of the elephant. His argument isn’t that the elephant is always right or that it cannot be controlled. Rather his argument is that if you are going to change people’s minds then you have to go beyond just the cognitive and appeal to their intuition as well. Haidt argues for better trained riders and elephants.

Part II: There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness

Part of the problem we face is that morality is often reduced down to harm or fairness. But morality is more complex than that. If one takes in western and non-western cultures we find there are actually six foundations of morality: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation.

The key metaphor here is a tongue with six taste receptors. There are some things which taste sweet to those who call themselves liberals and conservatives. There are things which taste sweet to religious people and the non-religious. Those on the liberal/left side of things tend to have very strong inclinations toward the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations. Conservative/right leaning folks tend to have a mixture of all six. Now Haidt is politically liberal. He has spoken at democratic conventions and written for left-leaning publications. He is not saying that one group is better than another. He is simply trying to help each side understand the other. Why do those on the left prize marginalized groups? Why do they say the rich need to pay their “fair” share? Because they are high on the care, oppression, and fairness foundations without much concern for loyalty, authority or sanctity. Why do conservatives care about people kneeling for the American flag and the Christian heritage of the nation? It isn’t because they don’t have care, oppression or fairness foundations but that these three are basically on par with the other three: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This isn’t an argument about who is right, but insight into understanding how people come to their moral conclusions.

Part III: Morality Binds and Blinds

While we are certainly individuals Haidt argues that we are also naturally “groupish” and prone to tribalism. He doesn’t see this as a bad thing, but a necessary trait in order for people to form cohesive communities that maximize human potential and encourage human flourishing. According to Haidt a shared morality helps to bind together communities which foster trust and trade while discouraging largely damaging behaviors.

The key metaphor here is that people are 90% chimps and 10% bees. We function very much individually, but we have a “hive switch” which activates in us from time to time. For instance when we go out in nature and are overcome by how vast it is. He cites military service, college football games and going to church as other examples. Basically, it is whenever we are caused to forget that we are individuals and consider ourselves as a part of a whole. But this doesn’t work on a universal scale. We just don’t operate in that way. Nor should we. When the hive becomes the sole identifying factor it goes wrong for that is fascism. But when you have a series of connected smaller hives it produces greater happiness and social cohesion.


Haidt’s purpose in this book to help us understand each other and how we arrive at our moral judgments. To that end, I think he does a fine job. Interestingly, apart from the evolutionary origin stories I found very little in this book which would contradict the Christian worldview. We are individuals who need community and certainly have a shared morality. As Biblical Christians, we wouldn’t say it is our Christian morality which binds us together. Rather we would say it is Christ who unites us together. Further, our morality doesn’t just ascend out of the group think of evangelicalism. Our morality comes from divine revelation in the scriptures.

So would I recommend this book? It is well written and very insightful, but I can’t say I would recommend it to everyone. If you want to dive into moral psychology then yes I would recommend it. If you are able to read and benefit from someone who doesn’t share a Christian worldview, then I would recommend it. More likely I would recommend starting with Haidt’s new book which he co-authored with Greg Lukionoff entitled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation For Failure which I hope to review soon.

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