top of page
  • Tony

The Righteous Mind: book review and summary part 1

The subheading of the book 'why good people are divided by politics and religion' very aptly describes itself. I have always been interested in and enjoy debating about social issues and have several 'controversial' theories. What initially attracted me to the book was that I have always felt uneasy when people justify issues with the phrases 'because it just is' or 'because it feels wrong/right' but have never been able to articulate why. The Righteous Mind provides an excellent insight into the psychology of why people may believe what they do, why people may disagree of 'clear-cut' topics and why it may be difficult to change people's minds on certain subjects.

'Can't we all get along?'- Rodney King


Haidt (the author) argues that every human seeks 'righteousness' which is not dissimilar to the idea that every human strives for what is 'good'. The reason why I think Haidt avoids the use of 'good' is because of the idea that what is 'good' or 'bad' and what is 'right' or 'wrong' is relative and fundamentally an arbitrary construct (although this could be argued to be not the case). And this is constantly seen in modern day life. For example, who decides who is right in a international conflict? Is stealing for your starving family morally wrong? And who even decided that doing harm is wrong? Every notion of what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' is just a product of society. What might be seen as right or normal in the East can be seen as abhorrent in the West (more on this later) which, for me, suggests morality and right and wrong are arbitrary, social constructs (though very important ones!). (This is very much a strong opinion loosely held and am reading very interesting posts around the subject- message me if you're interested).

Examples that Haidt give illustrates how morality is relative include a tribe in the Philippines, where young men gained honour by cutting others' heads off. Obviously, something some other people would strongly frown upon. Equally, the Hua tribe in Guinea bars boys from eating foods that resemble vaginas.

Another example of how societies shape our beliefs on righteousness includes a study where Indians and Americans where given a series of scenarios and where asked whether actions in them were right and wrong. It is important to note that generally, Indians are generally more sociocentric while Americans individualistic (groups vs individuals). Here is an example of an action which Indians thought were wrong but Americans acceptable: In a family, a 25 year old son addresses his father by his first name. And an example which Indians said where acceptable and Americans wrong: A man had a married son and married daughter- after his head, his son claimed most of the property while his daughter got little- judge the son.

Here, it is important to distinguish between moral and conventional rules. Haidt gives the example of a study when asking a child whether it is okay to not wear school uniform- most said no. However, if the teacher said it was okay then it most said it would be okay. On the other hand, when asked whether pushing another child of a swing, with the teacher permission as okay, most said no. In the first scenario, we have a conventional rule- a social convention that is arbitrary and changeable, while the second is an 'innate' desire to do no harm-a moral rule. It is important to remember who are we to judge what people do simply as a function of the way they have been raised.

Anyway, Haidt argues that the reason why we strive for righteousness is that it helps us form cooperative groups, unlike other animals. Group selection is the idea that natural selection acts on entire groups, leading to some groups outcompeting others and disadvantages individuals. So similar to natural selection, groups and their beliefs of righteousness evolve, with certain groups being outcompeted from the 'gene pool'. In summary, different groups believe different things as a product of this group selection.

Rationality and Reason

So some examples that Haidt give that illustrate our different stances on righteousness include:

  1. A family's dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious so they cut up the dog's body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

  2. A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

Haidt asks the question what is morally wrong with these actions. In scenario 1 did the family do anything wrong? If you're studying for medicine and dentistry interviews you should come across the four pillars of ethics, which, in summary, are:

  1. Autonomy

  2. Beneficence (having best interests for the patient)

  3. Non-maleficence (do no harm)

  4. Justice

So did the family do anything unethical? Surely they are exercising their free will since it is their dog? Surely they're doing no harm since the dog is dead? I don't feel like beneficence and justice apply to this situation. This line of reasoning can similarly be applied to the second scenario. In fact, Haidt argues this is an efficient use of natural resources.

So what if we agree that these actions are not morally wrong. Why is it that if one believes the actions aren't morally wrong, one may feel initially disgusted? This is the first insight Haidt gives into his explanation of people's reasoning behind what they believe. Mainly that gut feelings, especially disgust and disrespect, drive moral reasoning. 'We're born to be righteous but we have to learn what we should be righteous about' is a quote very aptly summarises part 1 of this book. We all strive for righteousness, but what is righteousness depends on certain, unpredictable things.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page