Simon Maxwell

Keep in touch!

The Righteous Mind: An Application

The Righteous Mind: An Application



This is not a review of Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’, but rather an application of the ideas in the book to the question of how to ‘message’ climate change. I posted these two comments at the end of a thread on the subject from last October, entitled ‘The optimists and pessimists are far apart on climate change. How can we disrupt the psychological status quo?’. See here.

First post

I observed earlier in this thread that I had been advised to read Jonathan Haidt’s book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’. I now have, and enjoyed it a lot. Apart from anything else, the little stories he uses to tease out the reader’s moral positioning make for great conversation over dinner. ‘You think they were right to eat their dog . . .!’.

Haidt describes himself as a moral psychologist and explores the roots of morality. There are three core propositions.

First, moral judgements are largely intuitive rather than rational. Strategic reasoning is used to justify or back up intuition, rather than replace it. We should think of ourselves as being small (rational) riders on large (intuitive) elephants. 

Second, morality can be understood as having six dimensions, like a tongue with six taste receptors: the taste buds of the righteous mind. Not everyone has the same taste, but all of us exhibit preferences on way or another on six dimensions. These are:

* Care/Harm

* Fairness/Cheating

* Loyalty/Betrayal

* Authority/Subversion

* Sanctity/Degradation

* Liberty/Oppression

It is fun to test where you stand at The website provides insight into your own moral positioning, but also enables you to compare your results with those of some 150,000 other people. 

Third, we are both ‘selfish’ and ‘groupish’: 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Mostly, we pursue our own interests, but we are also part of a moral economy. Our teams are sometimes religious, sometimes not, but shape behaviour and create division: ‘morality binds and blinds’. Our minds ‘were designed for groupish righteousness’ – and this often makes it difficult to connect and engage across group boundaries, including those of politics. 

Haidt claims, finally, to have ‘explained why people are divided by politics and religion. The answer is not, as Manicheans would have it, because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.’ We should try to connect. After all, Haidt concludes, quoting Rodney King, a black man beaten by Los Angeles police in 1992, ‘we’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out’.

In trying to apply these ideas to the problem of commitment to action on climate change which is the subject of this thread, a useful section of the book deals with the need for successful political campaigns to target all six of the moral receptors and not just one. Reflecting on John Kerry’s campaign for the Presidency, Haidt concludes that ‘Republicans understand moral psychology, Democrats don’t’. Thus, Democrats dealt mostly in fairness and care. Republicans, on the other hand, ranged across fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and sexuality: they appealed to a broader palate. President Obama had a more sophisticated range of messages, but also tended in the old Democrat direction. I wonder whether he has ever completed the questionnaires?!

What this means, I suppose, is that the case for action on climate change needs to tickle all six of the moral taste buds. Something like this?

‘We must tackle climate change because it will harm us, our children and our children’s children. The costs will be borne by all of us, but especially by the weakest in society, at home and abroad. This is not fair to any of us, and we must all play our part in finding a solution, according to our capacities and capabilities. We must believe this and act voluntarily together, but make no mistake, this is a national mission, which we will take on together: no-one can be allowed to stand aside. Our country’s survival is at stake, our ability to sustain a society in which people can be free. We have a moral responsibility also. Our health, our happiness and our future depend on our capacity as human beings to preserve the natural environment in which we are rooted and which we have a duty to preserve.’

Can you do better?


Second post


How interesting is this. Hardly had I written my version of a taste-receptor version of an Obama statement on climate change than he delivered his own, in the inauguration address. Here it is, pasted in below. How do you think he did?

'We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That's how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure -- our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.'

Add comment

Security code
Security code:


latest pollVote now: 

Is the concept of 'fragile               states'                   over-                   burdened?


Follow me on Twitter