The Sunday review: “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

by Anthony Painter

The other day a bus passed by me adorned with an ad from the campaign group, Stonewall. On a bold red background, white writing declared: “Some people are gay. Get over it.” The “get over it” was in black lettering. I thought “uh-oh, that’s dumb”.

To understand why I thought that, you need to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

For many years, Haidt has deployed the tools and insights of psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and economic theory to understand the nature of human morality. He essentially breaks our moral instincts down into categories: harm; fairness (which is actually about reciprocity); respect for authority; commitment to an in-group; sanctity and purity which is associated with religious and tribal ceremony; and, for this book, he has added a sixth – liberty/oppression.

Those who believe in equality for homosexuals are generally motivated by reducing harm and liberty from oppression. Cards on the table – I happen to be one of the people with this instinctive moral sense. I am closer to a left-wing (liberal in Haidt’s terms) than a conservative morality. The problem is that there are different moral senses too. Those who are adamantly against homosexuality – a minority in recent years in our society – may feel that they threaten their group which may be a church, for example, or there is something impure about homosexuality. They may also feel that legal changes to advance equality oppress their liberty to reject homosexuality.

And this is why I felt discomfort at the “get over it” message. Presumably, the objective of a campaign is to persuade. This slogan almost seemed designed to mock, belittle and entrench positions against it. It seemed likely that there would be a reaction.

On Thursday, the reaction came. A group promoting “gay cure” therapies bought ad space and mimicking the original ad, deployed the slogan: “Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!” The entire notion of “gay cure” is harmful and oppressive.

Boris Johnson promptly and rightly – in my moral universe – banned the ad. But you see what was happening here? Stonewall designed an ad likely to offend a deeply conservative morality – deliberately or accidentally – and then an anti-gay group retaliated, albeit offensively.

This is a perfect example of how the culture wars work – and after a few decades of them being waged in the US, they are coming over here. On religion, gay marriage, gay rights and abortion, we are seeing this routine increasingly played out. Haidt’s desire is to find some way of stopping this process. He’s on the left, believes that pluralism is the only viable way forward and is a keen student of conservatism. Again, I can tick all three of those boxes. The question is whether the bigger argument he makes will aid the cause of generating a respectful conversation between different viewpoints.

Essentially, he asks us to understand our own moral nature and that of others, the diversity of moral viewpoint within that and find a way of navigating between our differences. I fear though that his argument may be self-defeating: a heightened moral discourse may serve to divide rather than unite us.

Underneath moral theory is the basic question of how humans bond. Just as there are three states of matter, it would appear that there are three states of human interrelationship.

The first is gas: atoms drift in their own space. This is egotism where individuals are free-floating. There is little need for morality in this state. Essentially, this has been the Enlightenment view of humanity: individualistic and rational.

Haidt questions whether such free exchange can result in co-operative action. Such fleeting collisions are unlikely to create enough of a bond. His research tends to suggest a greater degree of structural rigidity and resistance to change is required. We are 90 percent monkey (a gaseous creature) and 10 percent bee (a solid state creature). What binds us into a solid state is morality.

Throughout the book, I became increasingly uncomfortable. It wasn’t because of his broadening of the moral spectrum from simply a traditional liberal concern with “harm”. I’ve long admired his work and research and so that element of it was well known to me. No, it was more the lack of a definition of “morality”. It felt like he had a very broad take on what it included and this was troubling me. In the end, I penned my own definition based on his argument. It seemed to me that Haidt may be saying that morality was:

“A set of regulating norms, rules and behaviours which are defined by good and bad and when violated create an intuitive objection and attract some form of punishment.”

However, I still retained a sense of unease. About fifty pages after I had written this definition, Haidt finally defined the core term of the book (on p.270!) and the reason for my unease became clear. His definition (of moral systems) was as follows:

“Interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make co-operative societies possible.”

Quite simply, Haidt’s definition of morality is phenomenally wide. It means that almost anything that isn’t generated by the self is a moral interaction. Wow. Co-operation comes through top-down rules rather than horizontal relationships.

While Haidt doesn’t say that co-operation is only possible through the imposition of moral system, he certainly leans heavily in that direction. Only, there is a third state of matter beyond solid and gas which Haidt leaves hidden in the shadows – liquid. There are social bonds and interactions that don’t rely on morality and this liquid state may be far more useful in enabling us to get along. The river flows freely.

We can create institutions to incentivise certain behaviours. These are perfectly voluntary – you can join or leave the institution. We can exchange goods and services. Or I can give you a gift with no expectation of reciprocation. We can set up a firm together, work together, or take action together to create a better future for our society or our neigbourhood. Cultures of interest, identity, and commitment can embrace moral content but also go beyond it. Co-operative action that has little moral content can still acquire purpose and succeed. This is the liquid state. It’s less resilient than the solid state perhaps but it’s more adaptable.

For all its strength, the solid state is not without tension and, if there is some external impact, it can shatter. If individuals are unable to meet their needs in a particular moral environment they will challenge it. The development of British democracy is not a moral development predominantly (though moral arguments were deployed): it was more about the power of those beyond elites to challenge their domination.

In the moral battle between Stonewall and the “gay cure” brigade, we have the classic unstoppable force and unmovable object. Now, if the moral frame is applied to any given question of collective endeavour, will that really be an improvement? Moral questions are too often lose-lose, characterised by furious assaults launched between one side and the other. When one side loses then warfare is replaced by anger and hostility. In time, warfare is resumed.

There are some battles which have to be fought. Gay rights is one such battle. But shouldn’t we limit rather than expand the moral universe? The cry from the moralist camp is that everything is a moral decision at heart really so why not be honest about it? Haidt’s definition of morality tends towards this. This is its weakness. So instead of collective action, social exchange, institution building or a whole host of other means of enabling humans to interact, we end up being driven in an emotive and entrenched direction.

The problem isn’t that politicians don’t moralise; it’s that they do it far too much. It’s usually a shortcut to elicit an emotional response rather than do the hard work of persuasion. More often than not, this morality conceals some hidden attempt to use the power of one group over another. If you can get others to intuitively embrace your point of view then that’s just peachy.

Humans are moral but they are also social: they can co-operate in liquid or solid state. The Righteous Mind asks us all to get along. The problem is that the heat of moral discourse makes that less likely. Very soon politics becomes about tribal win or lose rather than pluralistic respect. Haidt’s moral foundations theory gives us a deeper understanding of the way we function as (in part) moral animals. But shouldn’t practical experience alert us to the all too regular dysfunction of overtly moral politics? Rather than forcing us to consider how we can work together, it is more often a case of one group imposing its will on another. A co-operative politics requires rather less temperature.

If you want to understand the way the moral mind works then read this book. If enough people do we may find some way of having moral conversations that don’t descend into hatred and abuse. Until then, let’s not always reach for morality to bond as a society. It is generally counter-productive. Jonathan Haidt closes his book with the line: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.” I agree. It beats “get over it” anyway.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic.

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4 Responses to “The Sunday review: “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    Some people are gay, and its absolutely no business of anyone else’s whether hey happen to be or not. Nothing to do with ‘morality’, but individuals’ own prejudices against a group of people.

    Hence, Stonewall’s campaign isn’t a moralistic one – just making a straightforward statement of what ‘is’. The religionists attempt to present a viewpoint reliant on a belief in a particular outlook based on a certain morality is in that sense, different

  2. Hi Anthony,

    You might find some of the points in my long review of ‘The Righteous Mind’ interesting.

    I titled it ‘Beyond The Righteous Mind: helping Jonathan Haidt understand his own turning-points’.

    You can read it here:


    Matthew Kalman Mezey

  3. I’d recommend Matthew’s review above also – he pushes back strongly against ‘intuitionists’ such as Haidt. Perhaps we have over-compensated for rationalism in the political world and we are being over-pessimistic about our ability to reason and persuade?

  4. Matthew Mezey says:

    Hi Anthony,

    If you want a more balanced view that the ‘intuitionists’, it’s well worth looking at Darcia Narvaez’s article ‘Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning’.

    It’s on this page:

    Also this overview ‘Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?’ by Roy Baumeiser et al, is worth looking at:

    Personally, my mind isn’t made up about any of this…. yet! 😉

    Oh, the article “Snap Judgment? Not so fast: thought, reasoning, and choice as psychological realities” by Elliot Turiel is also worth trying to dig out. Turiel hasn’t got much time for the ‘people are stupid’ school of psychology 😉

    As I explain in my review – – I actually think Haidt’s own (psychological/ideological?) turning-points might best be understood as recognised milestones in possible adult development.

    I guess I’m arguing that the trajectory towards a sort of post-partisan objectivity is part of the potential pattern of all adult psychological growth – even if few ever reach such awakenings.



    PS I did print out my review and gave a copy to Haidt in person, to read in his taxi as he left the RSA. Not heard back… yet 😉 Maybe I was too ‘negative’ – and turned his ‘elephant’ away…!

    PPS All this is my personal view, not necessarily that of my employers etc… 😉

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