Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


the righteous mindThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

By Jonathan Haidt 

Narrated by Jonathan Haidt


Jonathan Haidt believes there is an answer to Rodney King’s question, “Can We All Get Along?”

As most may remember, Rodney King was beaten by police officers after a high speed chase in March of 1991 that led to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.  Haidt’s short answer is yes, but we are not there yet.  The long answer is explained in “The Righteous Mind”.  Jonathan Haidt believes the answer lays in human morality.

Is morality innate or learned?  Jonathan Haidt says it is both.  Not a simple answer but a persuasive argument.  Haidt argues that the human mind is the seat of morality.  He suggests moral imprinting occurs in humans at birth. However, imprinting is not fully formed.   Haidt argues that human morality is like the first draft of a book with an outline that is filled in as one grows into adulthood.  Haidt suggests that humankind is 90% monkey and 10% bee.  MONKEYThe monkey’ part is individualistic.  The bee’ part is hive bound or group oriented.  Haidt believes morality is seated in the hive bound nature of society.  Bees organize; i.e. establish rules of conduct based on group rather than individual needs.

Haidt believes that human brains are evolutionarily imprinted with a moral foundation made up of six fundamental hive oriented beliefs:

  1. Care/harm for the other, protecting all from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, a concept of justice, treating others in proportion to their actions.
  3. Liberty/oppression, judgments on whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. In group Loyalty/betrayal-to your group, family, nation.
  5. Authority/subversion with a notion of respect for tradition and legitimate authority.
  6. Sanctity/degradation, a concept of purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

Haidt argues that these moral foundations are inherent in human beings and refined in good and bad ways by social experience.  He believes morality comes from imprinting that occurs, within these six fundamental categories of belief, when humans congregate (hive) to accomplish common purpose. Haidt links grouping (hives) and moral belief to instinct.

Haidt is an avowed political liberal.  He argues that political differences between liberals and conservatives revolve around human morality viewed from group norms of behavior; i.e. rather than having political positions come from an individual rational mind, they come from an instinctual belief that presages reason.  Both conservatives and liberals reason with a rational mind but each begins their reasoning from instinct based on grouping’ norms.

elephantHaidt pictures instinct as an elephant with reason as a rider.  The elephant is instinct formed by human’ grouping and the rider is reason formed by individual’s minds.  Human reason is hugely influenced by instinct.  The elephant is big.  The rider is small.  If the elephant wants to move in a particular direction, the rider is led by group instinct (the elephant) and uses the reasoning mind to justify the instinct.

Liberals and conservatives lean in the direction of their instinct and use their intelligence to justify instinctive response.  In other words, human beings use reason but most often to justify rather than elucidate.  If one’s grouping instinct is politically left or right, rational arguments lean in the direction of instinct rather than truth or reality.

To successfully argue with a liberal or a conservative, one must understand the elephant.  Without truly understanding the lean (group norms) of the elephant, opposing arguments are a waste of breath.  Chance of changing minds lays in visiting and influencing an opponent’s instinct, the elephant in the room; i.e. the group that is (1) cared for or harmed, (2) treated or cheated, (3) freed or oppressed, (4) loyal or traitorous, (5) authoritative or subversive, (6) sacrosanct or degraded.

The most disturbing part of Haidt’s social theory is its denial of God.  He argues that God is a creation of man.  He suggests that a believer can believe organized religion is a creation of man but Haidt’s theory offers a powerful rationale for the denial of any God.  Haidt is denying God because God is an elephant in the midst of the American population and most nations.


Haidt has an august collection of intellectual supporters, including Emile Durkhiem, and Richard Dawkins.  Emile Durkhiem did not believe in God but he believed religion to be an essential ingredient of social solidarity.  Dawkins, more bluntly, argues “belief in God” and religion impedes modern human progress.

We can all get along but we need to understand the moral foundations of other’s positions, respect them, and then logically attack their societal foundation.  This is hard work and as Daniel Kahneman infers in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, we are not up to the task.  Both Haidt and Kahneman suggest that instinct can save us but it can also lead us astray.

Haidt and Kahneman suggest it is possible to increase the level of human cooperation by more clearly understanding the nature of thinking and acting.  Haidt argues that to change society’s opinion about politics or religion requires attacking the elephant in the room because reason is only an argument that follows instinct which is the foundation of society’s moral behavior.

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