Book review: “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book The Codding of the American Mind, and I wanted to go to his original work The Righteous Mind which he wrote back in 2012. I was already familiar with some of the ideas in The Righteous Mind from his TED talk, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives” where he develops the idea of a moral matrix. Drawing on the concept of the Matrix from the movie of the same name, a moral matrix is a “complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to attack by arguments from outsiders.” And, like the Matrix, each is “a collective hallucination.” When you take the red pill and realize each individual is in a moral matrix of their own, three things can happen: (1) you can potentially try entering the moral matrix of another person and learn to see things from their point of view, (2) you can recognize some of the weaknesses of your own moral matrix, and (3) you can try to live outside a moral matrix. This is what I like about Haidt’s ideas, because I had developed similar thoughts, if not expressed so eloquently, in my own in-between on the liberal/conservative scale. And I appreciate the potential of this idea to heal cross partisanship divides.

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In this book, Haidt identifies two turning points in his life that moved him from a hardcore leftist atheist graduate student to a much more nuanced centrist position. The first was his graduate project in India, where he entered a new moral matrix for the first time: “I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of selfish desires.” After this experience, he becomes a pluralist: while still strongly endorsing leftist policies, he can accept the existence of other legitimate worldviews. Even coming to this point is probably more than many Americans can say today.

The next step comes closer to the end, and this was big for me, because I had a turning point that began with the same exact book as Haidt: Conservatism by Jerry Muller. Let me quote this passage in full:

To learn about political psychology, I decided to teach a graduate seminar on the topic in the spring of 2005. Knowing that I’d be teaching this new class, I was on the lookout for good readings. So when I was visiting friends in New York a month after the Kerry defeat, I went to a used-book store to browse its political science section. As I scanned the shelves, one book jumped out at me—a thick brown book with one word on its spine: Conservatism. It was a volume of readings edited by the historian Jerry Muller. I started reading Muller’s introduction while standing in the aisle, but by the third page I had to sit down on the floor. I didn’t realize it until years later, but Muller’s essay was my second turning point.

Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.

Muller next distinguished conservatism from the counter-Enlightenment. It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order). But modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of Enlightenment thinking, when men such as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic, and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project. Here’s the line that quite literally floored me:

What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is that the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.

As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances. Could it be? Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?

At this point in my life, I would also explain my political development as two key moments or experiences. The first is when I came out to my parents. Growing up in a religiously conservative home, I never had any reason to question my own moral matrix. But when my parents and my religious community reacted so negatively to what I had found was an essential part of my identity, I reacted negatively back. I would say for the first time, I had felt a sense of the liberty/oppression moral taste bud in relation to my Church and family. Even when I chose to not only remain in my religious tradition and maintain many of its expectations and norms, I still felt like a bit of a rebel, often embracing more liberal views and enjoying being contentious at family gatherings. I was also a bit happy to move away to Washington state for graduate school, where I could escape “Zion’s curtain.”

My next turning point came when I was prepping to go back to Utah to visit for Christmas. I had recently come out publicly on social media, much to the chagrin of my family: I had received a sharply worded letter from my grandma, and members of my home congregation back in Utah had sent flowers to my parents as if I had died. So I was still pushing buttons. But in an attempt at reconciliation, I wanted to read up on some conservative literature so I could better engage with my two uncles, who are notoriously contentious in political debates. I went and checked out Jerry Muller’s Conservative anthology from my school library. What I was not expecting was a thoroughly grounded philosophical treatise, with which I would nearly embrace every single idea. Granted, this was not anything on the Republican party’s platform, I can tell you that. After reading the book (and re-checking it out as many times as I can; I still have the library’s copy two years later) I choose to identify as a small-c conservative. When I read about Jonathan Haidt’s experience with the same book, I was glad to have found another so strongly influence by these ideas.

A Short Summary

To actually get to the meat of the book, The Righteous Mind is divided into three sections, all which are almost a book of their own. Part I, entitled “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second” is essentially a critique of pure reason. Humans aren’t entirely rational creatures, like we would like to think. Essentially, we go with our first gut reaction, and then seek post hoc arguments to back them up. He uses a metaphor that our minds are like a rider on an elephant: does the rider, representing our thinking, conscious mind, truly have control of the intuitive, emotional elephant? Not much. Haidt is in this sense a pessimist about human nature, accepting Hume’s thesis that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Funny, my wife and I are just reading another book called Against Empathy that challenges Haidt’s stance, pointing out the conundrum of trying to argue against human rationality with rational arguments. But I too largely agree with Haidt.

The second section elaborate of 5-6 moral “taste receptors” that can lead to a variety of moral palates: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Haidt shows with some of his own research that liberals tend to appeal only to two taste receptors: care/harm and liberty/oppression, while conservatives have a much more balanced palate, taking advantage of all 5-6. This is what he calls the conservative advantage, and credits it for Republican party’s success in elections since the 60s.

The final section “Morality Binds and Blinds” makes the argument that, while humans are selfish, we have are also evolved to be “group-ish” as well, meaning we can sometimes care more about the needs of our group than our individual needs, much like a hive of bees. He draws on the ideas of both Darwin and Durkheim to make this argument. Darwin’s ideas of group selection posit that evolution can occur on the group level, not just the organism level. This idea was out of favor for the past 50 years, but Haidt argues that this was done prematurely. Durkheim was a sociologist, who believed that group-level structures and institutions are absolutely vital. You can’t entirely focus on individual rights:

Now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other’s selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness) and wrote, in 1897, that “man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.” A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for out-groups.

There is an interesting sub-discussion in this section on the value of religion. He challenges some ideas of the new atheists that argue that religion has no essential survival value, that it was an evolutionary accident, and is more like a parasite than a survival benefit. I have recently listened to a few podcast debates, one between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, and another between Jonathan Haidt and Sam Harris. In this book, Haidt explains that the New Atheist argument traces the origins of religion back to a “hypersensitive agency detector”:

We see faces in the clouds, but never clouds in faces, because we have special cognitive modules for face detection. The face detector is on a hair trigger, and it makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction—false positives (seeing a face when no real face is present, e.g., ), rather than false negatives (failing to see a face that is really present). Similarly, most animals confront the challenge of distinguishing events that are caused by the presence of another animal (an agent that can move under its own power) from those that are caused by the wind, or a pinecone falling, or anything else that lacks agency.

Humans started attributing events, like thunderstorms and earthquakes, to a supernatural agent: God. It was an accident of evolution: the agency detector had survival value, and humans built on top of it the cultural debris of religion. While Haidt doesn’t challenge the origin story, he does strongly argue that the value of religion doesn’t lie in the beliefs themselves, but in the ability to form strongly cohesive groups. My favorite two examples are the dominance of ultra-orthodox Jews in the diamond market due to their lower transaction and monitoring costs compared to their secular competitors. The second example is the success of nineteenth century religious communes compared to the failed secular communes. The data suggests that this is partly due to an element of arbitrary sacrifice:

What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? Sosis quantified everything he could find about life in each commune. He then used those numbers to see if any of them could explain why some stood the test of time while others crumbled. He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.

Why doesn’t sacrifice strengthen secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.” But when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense. In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.


This is a masterful book, well grounded in research, and with what I believe is a compelling answer to our current political situation. We need to understand human nature a bit better, and I think the conservative understanding of human nature lines up better with the data. I would like to see more attempts at cross-partisanship, and a healthy number of centrists in political discourse. Check out Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy for more ideas.

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