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The Righteous Mind

“We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out,” Haidt concludes in his book The Righteous Mind, alluding to the famous comments made by Rodney King after being beaten by police officers in 1991.

I’m sure everyone would love to get on board with the idea. Peace and love? Sign me up.

But of course, the problem is all those people who don’t see the world the way I do, amiright?

Surely everyone has thought this before, since each of us is the center of our own universe.

Center of the Universe — Source: Psychology Today

Center of the Universe — Source: Psychology Today

In other words, we all see ourselves as good, moral people, and somehow, we still manage to see a world full of immoral folks ruining it for us good ones. And so we reason and reason away, justifying why we’re the good ones and they’re the bad ones.

Haidt turns this idea of morality on its head and argues that our moral reasoning is actually responding to a moral intuition that precedes all of this reasoning. We feel that some things are right and others are wrong, and then we come up with ideologies and beliefs to justify those feelings. The metaphor he chooses is a small rider on a huge elephant. We like to think the rider is in control (i.e. that we arrived at our stances via reason), but we’re all being pulled along by an elephant (i.e. our moral intuition).

The results of this intuition vary from culture to culture.

Consider another metaphor Haidt throws around throughout the book, that our “righteous minds” are like a tongue with multiple taste receptors. Some tongues are more receptive to salty tastes, others to sweet, sour, etc.

Rather than taste receptors, we have moral receptors; six of them, to be precise. We all respond to all of them, but some stand out more than others, and it varies between cultures and people around the world.

The six receptors are:

Care/Harm
Liberty/Oppression
Fairness/Cheating
Loyalty/Betrayal
Authority/Subversion
Sanctity/Degradation

These aren’t just wacky ideas the author smoked up once upon a time in a dorm room. He’s conducted and leaned on loads of research that backs up each of them throughout the book. It was fascinating stuff, and honestly, I’m not feeling up to tracking each one down. So, you’ll just have to take my word for it, or read the book yourself, or do some Google searches — cuz it turns out there are many bloggers out there who do a tremendous job at summarizing these types of details. Thanks, Internet.

So let’s skip past the summary and get to the thoughts part of this entry.

Basically, Haidt crammed a lot into this book. Like, a lot (wait, am I still summarizing? … I’ll go with it). He even admitted to it at the end, saying he “feared he went to too many site along this tour” (to paraphrase) and honestly my mind was left spinning at some points. Each paragraph could leave me pondering for hours, and yet he decided to make the book way longer than 1 or 2 paragraphs, damn him.

I was particularly fascinated by the anthropological psychology studies he talked about, where they compared morality around the world. I’ve always felt so intrigued by the idea that some cultures seem so backwards to some Americans, and meanwhile, these same Americans may seem so backwards to those same cultures.

It’s tempting to lean on moral relativism to decode this situation, but Haidt points us more towards moral pluralism. Remember those six moral receptors? They exist everywhere; nothing relative about it. But some manifest more in some cultures than others, hence the pluralism.

Same goes for our own political climate here in the US. Haidt is a liberal-leaning academic, but by the end he seemed to have more positive things to say about conservativism in the U.S. than liberalism. Apparently, conservatives lean on all six of the moral receptors, while liberals tend to focus on two of them: fairness and care. We’re essentially speaking different languages when we argue about it, and so the arguments rarely land.

I’m eager to find a way to bridge that gap between these opposing sides. Times have been as polarized as ever, and this book felt like a good step towards understanding another angle.

But when Trump’s first State of the Union address came on last week, and tensions on social media heightened again, I realized I still struggle.

For me, sometimes it helps to keep rewinding through history, deconstructing how we got here in the first place, reaching further and further back, until you eventually arrive at an interesting beginning to our story of morality, an odd point in nature that precedes it all, and it calms me for some reason:

Once upon a time, the word “good” didn’t exist, nor had anyone uttered the word “evil.”

How’s that for a trip?

And look where we are now. That’s not supposed to leave anyone off the hook, but it reminds me of an inner nature underlying the complexities of our debates and conflict. We’re all just people, and when it comes down to it, we’re just trying to survive.

The more I think about it, the less satisfied I feel by that conclusion, so don’t read into it too much. Turns out, trying to summarize a book is one thing, but trying to solve all moral conflict on Earth is far too big an elephant to tackle today.

Love always from Planet Earth,

Doug