The Righteous Mind: Why Don’t We All Just Get Along?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it so hard for us to get along? How can we understand each other better?

The Righteous Mind, a book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, attempts to answer those questions and help us understand why hostile groups have different conceptions of what it means to be “right.” Liberals and conservatives lack a common language, and reason-based arguments about morality are ineffective. This leads to political polarization.

Read on to learn more about The Righteous Mind.

Why It’s Hard for Us to Get Along

The Righteous Mind explores how our divergent moralities evolved, why morality is about more than just fairness, and how we can counter our natural self-righteousness to decrease political divides. Haidt explains why people around the world, including liberals and conservatives in the United States, have different moral frameworks. He argues that moral judgments are emotional, not logical—they are based on stories rather than reason.

The Righteous Mind builds this argument on three basic principles:

  • Morality is more intuitive than rational. 
  • Morality is about more than fairness and harm.
  • Morality “binds and blinds” us.

The Righteous Mind uses examples from history and studies of human nature to explore why we hold the moral beliefs we do and why moral values differ so dramatically across historical, geographical, and party lines.

Haidt agrees with Bible verse Matthew 7:3—he says we are all often self-righteous hypocrites. To understand ourselves and reach some form of enlightenment, we must drop our own moralism and examine the world through the lens of moral psychology, which states that people are governed by different moral frameworks. Consequently, we have trouble understanding humans with moral frameworks that are different from ours. This leads to many of the large conflicts in the world today. 

Consider whether you think these situations are morally wrong:

  • A family’s dog dies by no fault of their own and they’ve heard dog meat is tasty, so they grill it up to find out. No one sees this happen.
  • A man buys a chicken from the supermarket before dinner, but before cooking it, he has sex with it. No one sees this happen.

The first situation will probably seem a little less disgusting than the second, but if you’re a well-educated, liberal or libertarian, non-religious Westerner, you likely evaluated both scenarios with some nuance, believing that it’s not easy to place an obvious moral judgment on either case. (We’ll discuss why you have trouble making these moral judgments later in the summary.)

However, if you do not exist in one of these categories (you’re not a Westerner, or you’re religious), it’s likely that you think it’s simply morally wrong to eat your pet dog or have sex with a chicken carcass and eat it after. As you can see, moralities are different across societies. Once you understand this, it becomes easier to understand and empathize with different groups of people and their moral beliefs. 

Haidt argues that morality is intuitive, not rational, and that our cultures shape these intuitive moral judgments. He builds this argument on three basic principles, which make up the three parts of The Righteous Mind

  • Part 1 (Chapters 1-5): Morality is more intuitive than rational. 
  • Part 2 (Chapters 6-8): Morality is about more than fairness and harm.
  • Part 3 (Chapters 9-12): Morality “binds and blinds” us.

Morality’s Origins and Evolution

Clearly, we all define “morality” differently. But why are our beliefs about what’s right and wrong so different? To understand why morality is primarily intuitive, we first need to understand how morality evolved.

Moral psychologists ask where morality comes from and how kids learn what’s right and what’s wrong. The two clear answers are nature and nurture.

  • If you answer nature, you are a nativist, and you think moral knowledge is pre-loaded, potentially from God or from evolution.
  • If you answer nurture, you’re an empiricist. You think children are blank slates and their morality is grafted onto them from their upbringing and their life experiences. 

Moral psychologists argue that the answer is somewhere in between nativist and empiricist views. They put forth rationalism, the theory that knowledge comes from reason, not experience or intuition.

However, Haidt argues that this common theory is wrong as well. We’ll move through three common arguments for rationalist thought and three counterarguments that, according to Haidt, debunk the theories of rationalism:

  • Rationalist argument #1: Children develop moral frameworks on their own.
  • Rationalist argument #2: Morality is only about reducing harm. 
  • Rationalist argument #3: Morality is governed by reason.

Haidt argues that the rationalist’s narrow definition of morality is not only incorrect but dangerous. The attempt to ground society in just one moral principle, like preventing harm, leads to societies that are both unsatisfying and potentially inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles. In fact, the righteous mind has six “taste receptors,” or foundational moral principles.

The Righteous Mind goes into depth with these six moral foundations and explains how different groups respond to them in different ways, causing division—particularly along ideological lines.

The Righteous Mind: Why Don’t We All Just Get Along?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Righteous Mind summary:

  • Why we all can't get along
  • How our divergent moralities evolved
  • How we can counter our natural self-righteousness to decrease political divides

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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