Jonathan Haidt, the highly influential psychologist, is here to show us why we all find it so hard to get along.
By examining where morality comes from, and why it is the defining characteristic of humans, Haidt shows why we cannot dismiss the views of others as mere stupidity or moral corruption. Our moral roots run much deeper than we realize. We are hardwired not just to be moral, but moralistic and self-righteous. From advertising to politics, morality influences all aspects of behaviour. It is the key to understanding everybody. It explains why some of us are liberals, others conservatives. It is often the difference between war and peace. It is also why we are the only species that will kill for an ideal. Haidt argues we are always talking past each other because we are appealing to different moralities: it is not just about justice and fairness - for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty are more important.
With new evidence from his own empirical research, Haidt proves it is possible to liberate us from the disputes that divide good people. We can either stick to comforting delusions about others, or learn some moral psychology. His hope is that ultimately we can cooperate with those whose morals differ from our own.
(Questions from Penguin Books, UK)
Q: It's pretty common for a person to think they are almost always right, and anyone
who disagrees with them is wrong. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan paraphrasing Abraham
Lincoln, "All of the people can't be all right all of the time". Why do we find it so hard
to believe we could be wrong?
A: Because our reasoning ability was designed (by evolution) to seek justification, not
truth. We are like lawyers who are given a position to defend, and are told to seek some
legal justification for the position. We always succeed. So once we arrive at a belief
(on global warming, or evolution, or tax policy) it becomes ours, and we lose the ability
to seek out disconfirming evidence. This is called “the confirmation bias:” we look only
for evidence to confirm our beliefs, and we always succeed in finding it.
Q: In recent years the political debate seems to have become more polarized than
ever - not just in the US, but all over the world. Are we becoming more moralistic? Or is
it just our perception, and things aren't really getting all that much worse?
A: Human nature can’t change in a century, but human societies can change in a decade
or two. In the US and in Europe, we are all coming off a historically extraordinary time:
the Second World War and the postwar decades. The massive global moral struggle united
people in each country into teams, which reached great heights of sacrifice and
cooperation for the common good. In America we call the generation that lived through
World War II “the greatest generation.” And they really were great. They were able to
trust their governments and each other. They were able to compromise. But now that they
have all left public life and been replaced by the baby boomers, things are very
different. For the baby boomers the moral battle was a civil war. In the USA, it was a
battle over the Viet Nam war, civil rights for African Americans, and traditional gender
norms. In many countries it was left vs. right, and so a whole generation grew up
demonizing the other side within its own country. When this generation began to enter
public life in the 1980s, and to dominate it in the 1990s, cross-partisan cooperation went
to hell. There are many other causes of the decline, but this is one of them.
Q: Can you see any way to inject some constructive debate back into the political
A: Yes! First, I hope everyone will learn about moral psychology and understand other
people better. I’m under no illusion that my book will change the way people think about
themselves – nobody has ever found a way to overcome our biased thinking about ourselves.
But it is possible to increase understanding of others to the point where we merely
disagree with them strongly, without thinking that they are evil people who secretly want
to destroy our country. If we can reduce our demonization of each other, then we listen to
each other with less disgust. We’ll react less savagely to politicians on our side who
compromise with the other. Secondly, if we can reduce demonization, we might be able to
gain broader public support for some changes to our civic institutions. In the United
States, there are some simple changes to the way we run and fund elections that will
reduce the number of extremists who win election to the congress. At present, extremists
win the party primary and raise the most money, and so they have a strong advantage over
more centrist politicians, especially in the House of Representatives, where most of the
districts are “safe” districts for one party.
Q: After writing THE RIGHTEOUS MIND, do you find it any easier to accept that your
own moral beliefs and judgments might be wrong?
A: Yes. I’ve learned that every group (not every individual) understands some aspects
of human moral functioning and flourishing, and not others. No one group has the whole
story, so you’ve got to look on all sides and try to see things as they see them. I’ve
also learned that public policy questions are really complicated mixtures of factual
assumptions and moral commitments, and that the factual assumptions are often driven by
the moral commitments. When you’re a member of a moral community, the solution to problems
such as global warming or out-of-control government spending looks simple, but it’s never
simple. So I’m not as opinionated any more about public policy issues – except for those
involving political civility, in which I think I now have some expertise that justifies my
Q: Has writing the book changed your own political views?
A: Yes. In 2004, when I shifted my research from examining cross-cultural differences
in morality to examining ideological differences in morality, I was firmly left of
center. But in trying to understand conservatism from the inside, as an anthropologist
would, I came to see that they are right about many things – or at very least that they
have some insights into how to run a stable society that encourages individuals to become
self-disciplined. Writing the book changed me into a centrist who takes a yin-yang view of
politics. As John Stuart Mill put it in 1859: “A party of order or stability, and a party
of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from the book? Do you think we can change
for the better?
A: In my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis, I offered the analogy that the
mind is like a rider (conscious reasoning) on an elephant (the other 99% of mental
processes, which are really in charge of behavior). Books usually appeal to riders: they
explain things using concepts and evidence. But the rider is not really in charge, so
nothing changes after you read a book. I therefore tried to write The Righteous Mind
to appeal to the elephant as well as the rider. I’m trying to get people to feel
things as they read. I’m hoping that by the end of the book, partisans on all side
will have an intuitive sense that intuitionism is true (so don’t trust your reasoning so
much), that morality varies across ideological groups (so don’t be so certain that you’ve
found the one and only moral truth), and that other moral “matrices” are interesting
places to visit (so don’t avoid those who are different from you). These changes may be
short-lived, but if they encourage people to have more conversations across moral lines in
the weeks after they read the book, this may lead to them to start or strengthen
relationships with a few people who are different from themselves. The changes might then
Q: The cover shows an 'offensive' gesture. From a moral psychology standpoint, what
does 'offensive' mean? And do you think some people will be offended by your book?
A: The choice that Penguin made to place an offensive gesture on the cover has many
pluses and minuses. On the positive side, it really does capture the central thesis of the
book, which is that we evolved to be tribally righteous creatures that enjoy engaging in
moralistic hostility toward members of other groups. Also on the positive side, it’s very
funny, and I am getting a number of requests from American friends for the UK edition of
the book. But I fear that the UK cover will be offensive to social conservatives, who
already lament the coarsening of culture and the spread of “profanity” (which is the
opposite of sacredness). Anything we disagree with can be offensive, but anything that
violates our sacred values is deeply offensive, even outrageous. In the book I try to say
what each side’s sacred values are, while showing why these values are really valuable. I
really do respect the left, the right, and the libertarians, and so far the early reviews
from all three camps have been extremely positive. If you show respect for people’s most
sacred values – if you acknowledge that your opponents are morally motivated – you can
then disagree with them, and even criticize them, without angering them. This is my
fondest hope for the book: that it will change demonizing disagreements into respectful
and constructive disagreements.
For more information, including reviews and blog posts applying the book to current
events, see www.RighteousMind.com