Making Nice or Making Good? Politics, Religion, and Our Righteous Minds

A review of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

On the evening of October 11th, incumbent Joe Biden and challenger Paul Ryan met to square off in the first and only 2012 Vice Presidential Debate. While the two men are currently competing against each other, they share an amicable history as Congressional colleagues. Both are practicing Catholics (though some could quibble about the extent of this) and both have acknowledged that they consider the other to be good men and enjoy one another personally, yet simply disagree on certain political positions. How is it then that men with similar pasts and experiences can disagree on so much? This question is the subject of Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012).

Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, is a rare breed for academics, in that he is not afraid to bring God or religion into the discourse of his professional work. In fact, he’s willing to grant the religion offers a positive contribution to both individuals and society. His research, however, is focused on why there are so many lines that divide society as a whole.

Beginning with moral intuition, Haidt draws from years of prior anthropological and psychological research to ask the question: “where does morality come from?.” The two traditional camps of thought have long held that it is either innate within every person or that morality is something that develops during childhood learning. Haidt, however, does not fully accept either view, and instead follows a third possibility, that morality is constructed and developed through our “cultural learning and guidance” and can be both innate and developed over time.

For Haidt, most of us perceive morality based on our WEIRD upbringings—an acronym meaning Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic societies. These conditions, according to Haidt, have shaped our moral matrices, and made it impossible to conceive that there are other possible moralities and truths. In order to better understand our moral sensibilities, Haidt develops six moral foundations and depending on which of these moral foundations we prioritize or value more, Haidt argues they evidence our political leanings, be it conservative or liberal.

Categories are nothing new when it comes to understanding thought processes or structures—even Aristotle and Aquinas used similar methods to organize various principles and ideas. In Haidt’s model, these moral foundations are an attempt to outline broad values or virtues that are cared about in all cultures, even though the particulars may vary. These foundations are: Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.

Haidt concludes that if you tend to rank loyalty, authority, and sanctity over concerns for care, liberty, and fairness, you are likely to be a social conservative, whereas those that prefer the latter are likely to be social liberals. This construction, for Haidt, leads him to declare that “morality binds and blinds.” In his assessment, however, using these foundations allows us to have a better understanding of both where others are coming from and to also better articulate our political and religious preferences.

What then does Haidt make of belief in God, one may rightfully ask, considering his moral foundations are supposedly both innate, but also shaped by cultural factors? According to his framework, we use these foundations to order our relationships with people, our community, and, indeed, the transcendent, to bring about happiness, which is his ultimate goal. “Happiness,” he writes, “comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.” Here, he allows for belief in a higher being and favors a Durkheimian approach to religion as a “team sport”—but ultimately leaves little room for a personal, active God, as found in Christianity.

Haidt concludes The Righteous Mind with a call for all people to exhibit greater civility in matters of politics and religion. Similar calls have been made in recent months and in this election season by figures such as Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and head of the USCCB. Such a demand is both noble and necessary to sustain our political life today. What Haidt lacks, however, is an ultimate telos, or end goal, for either civility or happiness. For figures like Anderson and Dolan, their telos is oriented toward knowing and loving God in order to find ultimate truth and happiness.  Only then can we experience the good life that Haidt and others so desperately seek.

At a time when certain politicians seem intent on stripping away all religious influence on political life in hopes of achieving a naked public square, Haidt’s allowance and sometimes praise of religion, is most welcome. However, there is more to life than simply making nice with our neighbors. We are called to something higher—a larger goal of making good. This good depends on orienting ones life toward and for God, which Haidt is unwilling to admit. While his Righteous Mind provides a starting point and directs us toward noble ends in this world, the good and happiness that he hopes for can only be fully realized in the world to come.

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.