Are you ever baffled that perfectly intelligent, well-meaning friends see things very differently? Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains why in his new book, “The Righteous Mind — Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” His research has important implications for our personal lives and national politics.
Haidt argues that our political and religious views are based on our sense of morality, but that “morality binds and blinds.” It can bring us together for the common good but also prevent us from seeing beyond the views of “our side.” First of all, there is no one morality for all people at all times and in all places.
We have developed as a species to be naturally selfish (like chimpanzees) and groupish (like bees), and we are able to jump back and forth intellectually and intuitively, depending on the circumstances. We each have a propensity within our genes to be outgoing or reserved, which affects the way we are seen and treated at home, school, work and in society — and whether we end up a flaming liberal, bedrock conservative or something in between.
We develop our sense of morality through reasoning (an intellectual pursuit of truth) and intuition (an emotional gut feeling that also involves some reasoning formed by experience). Liberals (most Democrats) relate more to reasoning, whereas conservatives (most Republicans) relate more to intuition. We all think we make reasoned judgments, but Haidt says, “Reasoning is like a small rider on a large elephant (intuition).” The rider doesn’t really lead with reasoned truth but merely justifies the direction the elephant has already decided by instinct. We often search for truth only long enough to find evidence that supports our view.
Then we harden our position on such things as global warming. With the reach and speed of the Internet, we can find evidence to support almost anything.
We base our moral judgments on six factors: caring, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. We all highly value caring, liberty and fairness, but conservatives value loyalty, authority and sanctity more than liberals. So Democratic appeals often concentrate on the first three factors, while Republicans work all six, and thus often prevail. Conservatives often talk about loyalty, law and order, and the sanctity of the flag, family, marriage and country, etc., while liberals take a more open, “world” view of each. (Think of the Baptist versus Unitarian churches.) We all believe in fairness, but for liberals, it often means helping the less fortunate, while to conservatives, it means earning what you get. Here is an opportunity for common ground, as both sides should agree that some people are ill, handicapped, unemployed, etc., through no fault of their own and really do deserve our help, at least temporarily.
Because of our selfish nature, we immediately go into defense mode whenever criticized, and we tune out what is being said. Yet, because we are also groupish, we will sometimes modify our views for the good of the tribe, especially if we put a premium on loyalty, authority and sanctity. In this way, patriotism and religion can be stabilizing forces in society, but we are not as easily persuaded by people outside our group. For example, President Obama is not likely to win over intuitive conservatives with professorial logic, but Republicans can often prevail without any solid facts.
In summary, none of us can be right or have everything we want all the time, nor do we have to sacrifice our core beliefs. We do have to understand and respect our differences if we’re going to move this country forward. We also have to accept that compromise is the way things get done in a democratic society. With a declining sense of community in Washington, it’s too easy to stick with tribal polarization and demonize the other side. This may be understandable, but it is not acceptable, and we have to change it. We could start by opening our own righteous minds to other legitimate points of view.
David Estey is a Belfast artist and retired Mid-Atlantic manager of IRS public affairs.