Skip to content

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion


Morality isn’t a place where most people stumble – or rather, it’s not a place where most people stumble into their reading. Plenty of people struggle with other people’s morality while quietly sweeping their own under the rug. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion doesn’t give away that the book is about moral principles and what is – and isn’t – moral. However, this is the core of the work. I stumbled on it while researching some other topics and realizing that Jonathan Haidt had written it. His previous work, The Happiness Hypothesis, contains the single-most useful tool in my tool bag for understanding myself and others. That is his Rider-Elephant-Path model. (The path is an extension by Dan and Chip Heath that shows up in Switch.) On this alone, I would have picked up the book.

However, I had another reason to read it. I was trying to reconcile Predictably Irrational’s statement that we love the stuff we have more than the things we don’t – and the knowledge that we have covetousness in our societies. While I didn’t resolve this discrepancy, I feel like I’ve made progress on understanding how one set of foundations can lead us to two different conclusions.

Morality isn’t a Bug

Before we set to understanding how morality works, it’s important to recognize that morality was built into humans. It’s the product of natural selection – not an unintended side effect. While Darwin believed in “survival of the fittest,” he was also fascinated with morality and how humans could develop it. The answer to Darwin’s puzzle seems to be that groups that collaborate internally are better prepared to compete with other groups who are not as good at collaborating.

Morality, it seems, is a system put in place to enhance our ability to work together as cohesive units. Group effectiveness is enhanced by collaboration and our ability to set aside our individual needs for the needs of the greater good. (For more on collaboration, see Collaborative Intelligence.) All things being equal, those groups of animals who are best able to collaborate and function as a single, multi-part organism are best suited for survival. Early human tribes and societies survived because of their ability to work together.

It seems that the idea of reciprocal altruism is woven into the fabric of our genes. Somewhere we picked up the skill of bonding into groups and leveraging our ability to give to others as a way for everyone in the group to gain more benefits. Something about this reciprocal altruism was different than our animal kingdom peers.

Crossing the Rubicon of Shared Intention

Points of distinct change are related back to the Roman army crossing the Rubicon river towards Rome – something Caesar did that broke Roman law. The Rubicon crossing became known as a defining moment or a signal of an important change. In searching for the moment when humans became collaborative, scientists and historians have sought this “Rubicon crossing”. Many scientists believe that it was the introduction of language that allowed us to start to work together and therefore collaborate. However, Haidt argues that the real Rubicon was slightly earlier, when we picked up a neat little trick of shared intention.

With the trick of shared intention, we could look into each other’s minds and see a singular idea that was shared. Our hunter-gatherer forefathers could suddenly work together on a hunt and reap the collective rewards. This was the true transition for us. Language came later as a natural consequence of our desire to take the shared intention we could visually communicate into something that was easier to achieve.

Partially Resolved Issues with Dunbar

With this, I struggle to resolve the claim that humans are the only animals with shared intention, and therefore the need to be hyper-social, as indicated by Robin Dunbar’s work equating neocortex size in primates with the size of their social groups. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s number.) If you can predict the sociability of primates through neocortex size, then how can shared intention be a characteristic of only humans? At some level socialization has to be about shared intent, right?

Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, uttered, “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” It seems like this would be a basic form of cooperation and collaboration, but chimps don’t do it. They can’t manage the neuro-social concept of shared intention. While it may be hard for you and your brother coordinate when to lift and where to set down a couch, chimps have no capacity for it at all.

To resolve this discrepancy, I reviewed Dunbar’s writings and found that his article “The Social Brain Hypothesis” raises the question about shared intentionality. He refers to the human capacity as “theory of mind.” Dunbar describes this as “intentionality 2.0,” with chimps being capable of something like “intentionality 1.5.” In short, I don’t feel as if this discrepancy is fully addressed, but do accept that it’s one of the contested areas of anthropology and one which hopefully will become clearer soon. After all, it can be that this discrepancy may be part of why humans have been able to control our planet.

Foundations of Morality

Haidt argues that there are six foundations for morality:

  1. Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  2. Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  4. Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness and respect for those things of deity and avoidance for those things which are figuratively unclean.
  6. Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Interestingly, we each view these individual foundations with different importance. While nearly everyone accepts the bedrock foundation of care/harm as a formation for morality, political liberals lean more heavily on only the first two (care/harm, fairness/cheating), political conservatives rely on the next three (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation).

It’s worth noting that the sixth foundation evolved after some of the initial research, so liberty/oppression isn’t represented in the comparisons of liberals and conservatives. Of the first five, care/harm and fairness/cheating were more highly regarded by all But when asked about endorsements, conservatives were more interested in authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression above the concerns for care/harm and fairness/cheating – at least in the very conservative camp.

The difference in the relevance and importance of these foundations seems to cause a great deal of conflict – particularly in politics.

Conflict Resolution

When I speak about conflict resolution, I argue that all conflict only has one of two causes. It either is because of a value difference or a perspective difference. In doing so, I typically use Reiss’ model from Who Am I? and The Normal Personality to describe the 16 factors that influence behavior. However, when I mapped out the alignment between Haidt’s morality foundations and Reiss’ model, I found that the care/harm foundation seemed to have no allegory in Reiss’ work, and several of Reiss’ basic desires seemed to have no moral foundation (curiosity, saving, romance, eating, physical activity, and tranquility).

It seems that these moral foundations don’t match Reiss’ research on motivations very well. While we may be moral creatures, our morality isn’t always defined as a basic desire.

Recognizing Morality

While researching morality, and when children first develop their sense of morality, it becomes apparent that a child’s conception of morality is incomplete – and it changes. When hearing stories or asked about morality, children initially base their sense of morality on whether the person is punished or not. Except, it seems, when someone in the story is directly harmed. However, quickly in childhood development they develop a sense between those things which are “special, important, unalterable, and universal” rules that must always be followed and which ones are seemingly arbitrary and changeable.

For instance, rules about hair styles, food, clothing, and the like are social conventions rather than something which is based on a strong moral foundation. This insight – the difference between moral imperatives and social conventions – is what allowed the Jesuits to so effectively navigate the waters of their initial posts into other societies. Heroic Leadership recounts that there were several situations where the Jesuits had to step outside of their traditional religious trappings like clothing and adopt an approach that was more socially acceptable – while at the same time remaining true to their core moral beliefs.

Nature vs. Nurture

If children’s views on morality seem to have some basis in what they’ve known since birth, but then change over time, where does that leave us on the nature vs. nurture question? An ingenious model for nature and nurture was devised by Gary Marcus. He says, “nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.” That is, we start with something, but our experiences – particularly our peer experiences – can rewire the functioning.

He goes on to suggest an analogy: “The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood.” I would add here that it’s not just the genes that influence the brain’s development. Prenatal conditions – particularly stress conditions – can dramatically influence the structure of the developing fetus, leading to non-genetic changes in the development. (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers discussed fetal origins of adult disease – which explains how this works.)

It seems like genetics can account for one-third to one-half of the variability among people’s political attitudes – the rest of the differences in political perspective can be explained by their experiences in life. However, nurture – or our environment – plays a role in shaping genetics as well. It’s not a one-way street.

Genetics and Coevolution

Humans, as we began to live in agrarian societies, developed an odd genetic change. As we domesticated animals which produced milk consistently, we had access to lactose, the kind of sugar in milk. Typically, mammals lose their ability to use lactose after childhood. However, when there’s a ready supply of milk, those who can process the lactose in milk have an advantage against starvation compared to those who can’t process lactose. Thus, it is believed that humans (most of us) developed the ability to continue to use the sugar in milk, even as adults.

This is just one of the many ways where our genes coevolved with the way that we created societies. For instance, Tibetans have genetic changes to create blood more conducive to their high-altitude living. As we change how – and where – we live, our genes change.

The Need for Communities

There are some unique challenges that happen once we collaborate. The benefit of having a group of people working together creates additional value that spills over to every member of the group – even if one member of the group isn’t doing anything to help the group. More broadly, when we’re building communities, we must address anyone who isn’t helping the group. This can range from the slacker, who simply isn’t doing their share; to the free-rider, who is doing nothing; to people who are actively trying to extract value at the cost of other members, the cheaters who undermine the trust and altruism that drives the ability for the community to function. Collaboration calls this problem “social loafing”. The problem operates at every level of group, from the largest organizations to the smallest teams.

We evolved with a bias towards communities that were working, and therefore we developed a set of morals that supported the development of those communities. Trust discusses one of the positive factors for community development. Trust removes the friction of operating with others. The other side of keeping communities together is less glamorous. The need to punish members of a community for behaviors like social loafing that reduce the social capital of the community is an unfortunate necessary. (See Bowling Alone for more on social capital.)

Looking Good vs. Being Good

We develop a set of moral foundations that supports our ability to work together. While we personally only have the desire to appear good – not to actually be good – we collectively create a set of foundations to keep people to at least creating the appearance of doing good. If people are caught, they know there are punishments (or sanctions), so they maintain the attempt to appear good.

The foundation of community is reciprocal altruism, which amounts to “tit-for-tat.” That is, we are willing to sacrifice to the degree that we expect others will be willing to do the same for us. (See The Science of Trust for a more in-depth conversation of advanced models for cooperation.) For this to function, we don’t have to be good. We just must look good. That’s one of the reasons that we’re so interested in what other people think.

The reality is that none of us – whether we’re looking historically or into our own lives – are completely good. Research has proven that we’ll cheat to the level that we believe we can get away with it – and the degree to which we can convince ourselves that it’s OK.

Permission to Believe in Our Goodness

We are seeking permission to believe that we’re good. Typically, we’re not looking for ways that we’ve not been good but rather how we can justify our behaviors in the cloak of goodness. We don’t think of things that disprove or disprove our beliefs. We have a serious confirmation bias, which blinds us to things that don’t fit into our existing thoughts. (Confirmation bias is spoken of repeatedly in the literature. You can find out more by starting at Choice Theory.)

The truth is that you can find evidence for whatever you want to prove. Even if it’s wrong, someone will have produced some shred of evidence that you could refer to with the purpose of proving your point. For instance, though thoroughly discredited and retracted from publication, a single “study” showed a link between vaccination and autism. The stigma remains about vaccinations, despite all the work that has been done to reverse it. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.)

We don’t want the truth; we want a truth that we can believe in. We want a story that we can tell to make it ok.

Press Secretary Rider

Our elephant, the emotional, most primitive basis of our mind, wasn’t equipped for working in a social world as large and complex as humans created. That’s why we have a larger neocortex, which accounts for 50-80% of our brain mass. The neocortex is our rational rider, our logical, thinking brain, except the rider isn’t exactly logical.

The rider is more like a press secretary who must justify, explain, and create stories for whatever the elephant has decided. It fills in the missing pieces with whatever happens to be around. (See Incognito for more.) This rider is useful in social circles – so the elephant keeps the rider around and transports it from place to place. After all, having your own public relations firm becomes a necessity when you need everyone to believe you’re good – when you’re not completely good.

Being social and truly committed to a group takes quite a bit of neurological work and it’s at the heart of nations.

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)

Printed on American money is the Latin phrase, E pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.” This is the essential magical act that every successful nation must perform. It’s the transformation of some – or all – of our will from individual-serving people to nation-serving people. This magical act transforms individuals into groups who are capable of supporting one another – and sacrificing for one-another.

The transformation from individuals who have their own selfish needs into one nation is powerful. It’s a conversion that most nations pull off only partially. We’re willing to commit some of our personal will and resources towards the nation – but only a portion. In contrast, ants and bees have E pluribus unum down.

Hive Mind

Ants and bees are interesting creatures. They work together in a single community where there is specialization of roles and massive selflessness. There is a queen bee who creates all the eggs but whose specialization makes her dependent upon the rest of the hive. Workers and drones manage production (pollen retrieval) and protection so that the queen can continue to lay eggs and grow the hive. Each member does their job – even if it leads to their own personal death – in service to the community.

Humans are all too often self-full creatures who are interested in their own needs and desires instead of the needs of their community. However, what if we could flip this on its head? What if, at times, our community instinct was so powerful that it could cause us to behave in selfless ways? As it turns out there is an evolutionary switch that does this. We can be selfless and serve the community.

In The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire, Kotler (and Wheal) speak of group flow. In this state, the individual fades away and the whole team functions as a single unit. In the context of Navy SEALs, it allows them to be an effective team working for the good of the entire team (and the mission). The ability to switch a bunch of individuals into a single, multi-person organism exists, but it isn’t easy to get fully engaged.

It doesn’t require being a Navy SEAL and their power of group flow to flip the hive switch and feel connected to other members of your team. The armed forces do this through synchronized drills designed to align everyone’s physical movements into a single coordinated action. This synchronization helps drive the awareness of the larger group to which someone belongs. We’re wired to get happiness from our relationship with other people so flipping the hive switch is a solid way to improve happiness. This explains how armed forces in combat situations can feel good – despite external circumstances.

Happiness from Relationships – not Objects

In America, we live in a consumer culture, where you can be happy if you just own this kind of car, this kind of watch, these shoes, or the next gadget. Advertising is sending us the message that we’re not good enough – but we can be if we’re willing to acquire another object or two or three.

The problem is that this isn’t true, at least in a lasting way. The truth is that we’re happy when we’re connected to other humans. Study after study reveals that we have less health issues, we live longer, and by every survey instrument we’re happier – when we’re in a relationship. While we may be amused and interested in our latest “toy,” the luster quickly fades and the new car becomes passé, the shoes worn out.

The truth is that the “WEIRDer” we are, the more likely we are to see ourselves as separate from others and see the world as a series of objects. The harder it is for us to have true happiness.

Moral Literature is WEIRD

WEIRD is an acronym:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

Most of the moral literature that has been written is based on studies that were performed on WEIRD people – they are, after all, the people who have the time to consider such things. Their peers and most accessible people to those studying morality are those who are similar to themselves and are WEIRD as well.

These sorts of people believe in reason and that reason is the root of morality; but the truth is that the rider follows where the elephant leads – not the other way around.

Intuition First, Reason Second

Our press secretary riders are constantly explaining and excusing what the elephant is doing. The elephant (our basal brain, including emotions) is evolutionarily wired to make snap judgements, and those judgements have a bias towards the negative. This was beneficial to our development as a species. However, it means that our intuition comes first and then we reason with a decision that has already been partially made.

We start by rationalizing and starting to verbalize our “gut feel” for a situation. Most of the time, it stops there. We develop some excuse for what’s going on. Too few people, too few of the times, have the capacity to peer into the intuition of the elephant to see the underlying meaning.

Haidt acknowledges that much of the Judeo-Christian Bible is about evolutionarily useful cleanliness practices. Raised in these environments, artifacts exist to warn us of harm that may not exist – or may no longer exist.


Perhaps the greatest advocate for morality is organized religion, and, at the same time, it’s organized religion that has done the most damage to the noble effort of morality. Gandhi once remarked to an English friend, “I don’t think much of your Christianity, but I like your Christ.” The things that organized religions have done in service to deities who are the pillars of moral certainty is frightening. Somewhere, religions have fallen into blind trust of religious leaders. (The quote is pulled from Spiritual Evolution.)

Buddha remarked that, according to the Dalai Lama, if religion is proven wrong by findings through investigation and experimentation, then religion must change. (See Emotional Awareness.) This is the heart of developing a religion rooted in reality and one for which the moral compass can be adjusted to accept the changing awareness of the world that we live in.

Perspective of Compassion

Religion is the engine for delivering up the kind of long-term social stability that has served our species so well. Religion was supposed to, and sometimes does, engender compassion. It’s this compassion that drives us to investigate The Righteous Mind of others.