What Psychology Teaches Us About Moral and Political Divides

By | May 31, 2012

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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
By Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon, 2012

Right after John Kerry’s devastating loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, Bill Clinton told the Financial Times that the Kerry campaign had failed to engage voters on “values” issues, that middle Americans saw the party as “two-dimensional aliens.”

“If you let people believe that your party doesn’t believe in faith or family, doesn’t believe in work and freedom—that’s our fault,” he said.

Clinton’s remarks highlighted a panic that occasionally descends on the American Left—one that peaked rather spectacularly after Kerry’s flameout: What if there’s something we simply don’t get about conservatives, something that will render useless all of our best-laid plans to win them over with our clearly superior logic and understanding?

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt confirms all of the Left’s biggest fears. Yes, there is something liberals simply don’t get about conservatives. There are a few things, actually.

The book can be seen as divided into two parts: a large, expansive exploration of the roots of our morality, how morality connects to group dynamics and evolutionary adaptations, and the many ways in which we are not as coolly rational as we’d like to think we are. Then, toward the end, there is a shorter, less convincing section in which Haidt attempts to apply the book’s many insights to contemporary politics and policy.

Key to all of this is Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), developed by Haidt and some of his likeminded colleagues. (Their website,, provides an excellent, interactive introduction.) On a psychological level, argues MFT, there isn’t one thing called “morality.” Rather, morality emerges out of mental modules that have evolved to deal with six different concerns: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. The key insight here—and the idea that makes MFT so powerful—is that each of us is attuned differently along these six dimensions.

Through their empirical research, Haidt and his colleagues have uncovered the moral underpinnings of America’s most well-represented political ideologies. American liberals tend to be primarily concerned with care/harm, followed by liberty/oppression, followed by fairness/cheating, with the other three concerns getting scraps at best. Social conservatives, on the other hand, care about all six concerns approximately equally. And it’s easy to go finer-grained here, too: libertarians, for example, care most about liberty/oppression and second-most about fairness/cheating. The other four are tied for last place.

One thing Haidt and his colleagues discovered is that conservatives tend to have a broader set of moral concerns than liberals. Liberals have trouble getting out of their cozy world of three core dimensions of morality. When Haidt and his colleagues asked conservatives to fake liberal responses to the questions posed on, and vice-versa, they found that liberals couldn’t pull it off—they had much more trouble stepping inside the heads of their ideological opponents than did their right-leaning friends.

Haidt and his colleagues have spent years exploring MFT in experimental settings and online at Some of the most memorable parts of the book come when Haidt relates these experiments, which typically consist of an unfortunate subject faced with some rather icky questions: Would it be wrong to have sex with a chicken? To eat the family dog after something killed it? For two siblings to have sex?

Fascinatingly, even when these vignettes are carefully and artfully written to avoid any victimization, subjects highly attuned to the concerns the experiment is designed to elicit (sanctity/degradation in the case of the above three, for example) will try to invent a victim. As Haidt writes:

I had trained my interviewers to correct people gently when they made claims that contradicted the text of the story. For example, if someone said, “It’s wrong to cut up the [American] flag because a neighbor might see her do it, and he might be offended,” the interviewer replied, “Well, it says here in the story that nobody saw her do it. So would you still say it was wrong for her to cut up her flag?” Yet even when subjects recognized that their victim claims were bogus, they refused to say that the act was OK. Instead, they kept searching for another victim. They said things like “I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t think of a reason why.” They seemed to be morally dumbfounded—rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively.

This theme comes up over and over throughout the book: our moral rationalizations are window dressing. Haidt’s experiments, and reams of other psychological research, suggest that for the most part our moral ideas emerge from gut-level reactions, not carefully reasoned thought. But once we’ve had such a gut reaction, it wouldn’t do to simply throw up one’s hands and say, “I don’t know why I believe it, but it’s true” (as some of Haidt’s subjects were forced to do when they were starved of other options). Instead, we weave stories that back up our claims.

The Righteous Mind is a fascinating read, and it’s hard to do it justice in a single review because of how much ground is covered. By his final chapter, Haidt has written what feels like a dozen dissertations worth of research on psychology, evolutionary theory, and moral philosophy.

That’s why the last chapter is disappointing. This is where Haidt tries to latch his ideas onto the present day, to make an argument for moral ecumenism in our highly polarized political environment, and he doesn’t quite pull it off.

At one point, Haidt asks us to imagine communes with 25 adults “who knew, liked, and trusted one another,” ones where the shared beliefs and values of the members of each were known and publicly posted.

A commune that valued self-expression over conformity and that prized the virtue of tolerance over the virtue of loyalty might be more attractive to outsiders, and this could indeed be an advantage in recruiting new members, but it would have lower moral capital—“the resources that sustain a moral community,” as he explains elsewhere—than a commune that valued conformity and loyalty. The stricter commune would be better able to suppress or regulate selfishness, and would therefore be more likely to endure. As Haidt puts it:

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense. There is not a big margin for error; many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions and technologies that increase it.

There are at least a few missing steps here. Few people, liberal or conservative, would argue that a tiny community teetering on the brink of oblivion is the place for hedonists or free-thinkers. But that’s not the salient question here—the salient question is whether the concerns of social conservatives and social liberals deserve equal weight simply because they come from equally genuine places.

Haidt wants us to think so, wants liberals to try to step into the shoes of conservatives (Haidt, for his part, is and always has been a liberal, but he writes that his research has pushed him a fair bit toward the center). And it’s an important impulse given how quick both sides are to strip the other of their humanity, to cast their opponents as grisly caricatures. But when it comes to the most difficult part—actually showing why liberals should hear out conservatives on issues—Haidt’s arguments come across as thin.

Issues surrounding homosexuality and gay marriage highlight this weakness in the text. It’s one thing to argue convincingly, which Haidt does, that moral dimensions like purity/sanctity have served evolutionarily important purposes as we have climbed from small bands of hunter-gatherers to the most powerful species on the planet. But now that we’ve arrived, now that those of us in the developed world are fortunate enough to not have to worry about society coming apart at the seams, what is it about arguments against gay marriage that we should respect? Why shouldn’t we see concerns about homosexuality as no-longer-useful evolutionary artifacts? What Haidt struggles with and can never quite break through is a version of the naturalistic fallacy. We all like fat and chocolate; that doesn’t mean fat and chocolate are inherently good or worth defending on a rational basis. Because of how we’re attuned, fat and chocolate can be dangerous.

The same goes for homophobia. Haidt’s otherwise sophisticated argument does nothing to shut off a counterpoint: Homophobia seems to be a clear case where (some of) our brains are telling us something—homosexuality is dirty and a threat to the sanctity of our persons and our communities—that simply isn’t born out by any of the now considerable empirical research that has been done on the subject. Why, exactly, are we supposed to see this view as in any way on par with other, more empirically defensible stances? The arguments against homosexuality—that its acceptance cheapens marriage, that it destroys families, that it corrupts kids—have all been studied and debunked. They all reek of the sorts of flimsy post-hoc justifications offered by the subjects of Haidt’s experiments. But we’re supposed to be respectful of these views because they are … what? Deeply felt? Spawned from the same cognitive mechanisms as liberal beliefs?

It’s easy to focus on The Righteous Mind’s final chapter, especially given the extent to which the conversation about Haidt and his work have revolved around politics. But this important book—and it is an important book—is much more notable for what it explains than for what it argues. And whatever its polemical weaknesses, it does, in vital ways, help ideologically driven people to at least understand where the other side is coming from.

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast and The Boston Globe. He is a master in public affairs student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at 


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