The Righteous Mind | Jonathan Haidt

Summary of: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
By: Jonathan Haidt


Dive into the fascinating world of human morality as we explore Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’. Unravel the complexities of our moral intuitions that guide our decision-making, often trumping rational reasoning. Discover the influence of self-interest and reputation on our moral compass, and take a journey through the Moral Foundations Theory to understand the basis of human behavior. Finally, confront the cultural biases in psychological research and delve into the evolutionary aspects of human nature: selfishness, altruism, and hive mentality, as well as the intricate role of religion and its impact on communities.

Intuition in Moral Decision Making

Infants use intuitions when making moral decisions, emphasizing the importance of feeling over reason. Studies show that initial judgments based on intuition remain strong even in the face of rational arguments.

Moral decision making is driven by intuition, prompting individuals to feel that certain actions are wrong. This instinctive response is demonstrated even in infants as young as six months old, who consistently preferred a “good” puppet over a “mean” one after watching a puppet show. As research demonstrates, intuition also holds great power among adults when making moral judgments. Once that initial judgment is made, reasoning follows to support the feeling rather than reject it. In instances where participants were asked to judge a situation–whether it was right or wrong for siblings to have sex–most determined it as wrong. Despite arguments that supported it; the use of protection, kept a secret, and that the siblings enjoyed it, intuition prevailed over reason. Thus, intuitions in moral decision making remain crucial when making decisions, prioritizing feeling over reason.

The Elusive Nature of Moral Reasoning

Our moral reasoning is not as objective as we may believe. It is greatly influenced by our self-interest and concern for our reputation. Research indicates that our moral reasoning becomes more thorough when we need to justify our decisions to others. Additionally, people adjust their understanding of right and wrong when their personal interests are at stake. For instance, most people cheat when given the opportunity, but only if they can still feel that they did nothing wrong. This shows that moral reasoning is not a detached, sterile process but deeply affected by others, even if they are not present.

The Universal Basis of Moral Instincts

The Moral Foundations Theory explains how our moral instincts, based on universal moral foundations, are shared across all cultures and are evolutionary adaptations to challenges in social life. These foundations, such as fairness, serve as the basis for human behaviors like collaboration and reciprocation of favors. However, while all humans share these foundations, they can manifest in different ways in different cultures. Authority, for example, is a shared moral foundation but can differ drastically between Western and Asian cultures. Despite these differences, moral interests are based on the same foundations.

Psychology and WEIRD cultures

Psychology has largely been studied in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) cultures, which are not representative of humanity’s general psychology. Research has revealed that WEIRD people prioritize individualistic moral values, while non-WEIRD individuals value the community and sacredness. For instance, non-WEIRD cultures are less inclined to protect the rights of the individual over that of their nation, religion, or family. Studies have shown that WEIRD people are less likely to consider sex with a chicken carcass an immoral act if it does not harm anyone. Non-WEIRD people perceive such an act as degrading and dishonoring to their moral values. Consequently, WEIRD people’s culture and sense of morality stand out as exceptions compared to individuals in cultures that value the community and the sacred in their sense of morality.

The Paradox of Human Nature

Despite being wired for selfishness, humans are also capable of great selflessness and altruism. This paradox is explained by evolution at two levels – individual and group. Natural selection incentivizes selfishness at the individual level, while group adaptation favors cooperation, resulting in the existence of both traits in humans.

Most people exhibit a strange mix of selfishness and selflessness. While we often strive for more significant status, money, and happiness than those around us, we are also capable of astonishing altruism and selflessness. This paradoxical nature is caused by the two levels of evolution that have shaped our minds.

At the individual level, natural selection rewards selfish behavior. Individuals compete against each other for resources, and those who are more selfish have a higher probability of succeeding. In contrast, evolution has also made us capable of and willing to cooperate in groups, leading to the emergence of effective teamwork. When groups collaborate, their ability to hunt, gather, raise children, and defend themselves increases, resulting in better survival chances. The second level of evolution has given rise to shared intentionality, a group adaptation that allows for cooperation, labor division, and accountability.

In conclusion, the paradox of human nature arises due to evolution at two levels, which incentivize selfishness and cooperation simultaneously.

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