In his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks why we tend to assume the worst about our political opponents and find ourselves unable to work together. He suggests that under the sway of our moral intuition we assume that our views are self-evident truths and that anyone who opposes them must therefore be stupid or evil. “Understanding the simple fact that morality differs around the world, and even within societies, is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind,” he writes.
As he told Leonard Lopate on WNYC yesterday, “People don’t tend to vote for the policies that will benefit them the most, they vote for moral ideals.” He uses the term “righteous” in his book’s title knowing that it tends to have a negative connotation of self-righteousness, which we don’t perceive in ourselves but instantly pick out in the other side, whereas in reality “we’re all that way.”
As William Saletan explains in The New York Times Book Review, “Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational…To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason.” Rather, people “reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided…Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.” Reason “evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn.”
This would explain why, for example, “[s]ocial conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability,” and why “[s]aving Darfur, submitting to the United Nations and paying taxes to educate children in another state may be noble, but they aren’t natural. What’s natural is giving to your church, helping your P.T.A. and rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.”
It all feels very refreshing, a sensible theory to explain things that often don’t seem to make much sense.
Then, as if to provide a handy demonstration, along comes Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and now The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Mooney takes a partisan view of Haidt’s psychological principle, first sensibly telling Truth-Out: “We can’t count on facts to change minds – emotions and values trump facts almost every time,” but then tellingly adding, “Nor can we rely on our own natural, nuanced, complex style of communication to reach the public.”
Wait a second. “Our own?” Isn’t he dividing us into us-and-them, just the tendency Haidt would want to challenge?
And then the coup de grâce: “The research suggests that our very instincts are leading us to only know how to talk to ourselves; conservative styles of communication – decisive, direct – have a great appeal to the right and, likely, the middle.”
So the left doesn’t respond to “decisive, direct” communication, because that’s a “conservative style?” Is that Mooney’s code phrase for “unsubtle, ill thought out, stupid?” And isn’t that just the kind of thinking Haidt wants us to be aware of? Because aren’t we actually all lured by righteous thinking?
Yes, Chris Mooney’s ideas have been in the public sphere for years. But I found it instructive to come upon Haidt’s thesis and then see such “decisive, direct” evidence for it – all in a 24-hour period.