The Book that Changed My Perspective

... and could change yours.

Every once in a while, you read a book that truly influences you and stays with you throughout all the seasons of life. Sometimes, we are even able to point to a specific book that has most significantly impacted our lives, our thought process, or our vision. For me so far, that book is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

One of the best educators I have ever had assigned this book to my Political Psychology class during my undergraduate studies at Monmouth College. If you know me at all or have even just perused this website, then you know how greatly I care about the growing issue of political polarization. I am constantly seeking to understand why we are at such an extreme divide in our country. Why is rhetoric so full of hate? Why have our neighbors become the enemy? Why has civil discussion become a thing of the past? Why is our freedom of speech being infringed upon by our own fear to speak up for that in which we believe?

Now, admittedly, this book does not definitively answer all of these specific questions, but it does help the reader to understand political polarization in a broad sense and formulate some of their own answers.

When I began college, I saw those with opposing views as less smart and possibly even "brainwashed." I was admittedly blinded by my own biases and refused to believe that those other points of view had any validity at all. I grew up in an area where nearly everyone believed the same things, so I truly thought that I had to be right. In my mind, I was good and they were bad; I was right and they were wrong. It wasn't until a few semesters into college that I read Jonathan Haidt's book and realized that no one is right.

I'm going to say that again for you: No one is right.

Haidt's book dives into what the subtitle suggests, "Why good people are divided by politics and religion." In very broad summation, his answer to this question is that we all simply derive our views from different moral perspectives.

In the first part of the book "Intuition First, Strategic Reasoning Second," Haidt presents his research and explains that people's beliefs are derived from a model he calls social intuitionism. In this theory, he suggests that our beliefs are 1. Primarily intuitive, 2. Rationalized/explained after the fact, 3. Taken in order to influence others, 4. Influenced/changed by talking to others. In Haidt's theory, our stances on moral issues come primarily from our own intuition, often without rationalized reason. Reason comes later when we are forced to explain our position.

Haidt explains his theory with examples of what he calls "moral dumbfounding" - when an individual claims to have a very strong moral view but then struggles to justify or explain that viewpoint when asked. One of his examples of moral dumbfounding is in the following excerpt:

"A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.
If you are like most of the well-educated people in my studies, you felt an initial flash of disgust, but you hesitated before saying the family had done anything morally wrong. After all, the dog was dead already, so they didn’t hurt it, right? And it was their dog, so they had a right to do what they wanted with the carcass, no? If I pushed you to make a judgment, odds are you’d give me a nuanced answer, something like 'Well, I think it’s disgusting, and I think they should have just buried the dog, but I wouldn’t say it was morally wrong.'"

Interesting, right? And Haidt doesn't stop here, he continues to provide examples throughout his book about the social intuitionism theory. He also ventures into the debate of nature vs. nurture. That is, whether children are born with innate moral perspectives, or their moral perspectives are influenced and shaped by the way they are raised and their environment.

In the second portion of Haidt's book "There's More to Morality than Harm and Fairness,"

he presents the moral foundations theory.

This theory presents five main moral foundations on which we build all of our moral and political beliefs.

  1. Care/harm: Underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

  2. Fairness/cheating: Generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

  3. Loyalty/betrayal: Underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.

  4. Authority/subversion: Underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

  5. Sanctity/degradation: Underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants

These foundations enter politics in the way that they shape the "cultures" of liberals and conservatives, especially in American politics. Haidt argues that the current polarization can be seen as arising from the fact that the left relies primarily on the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundation to formulate and then justify their political views. Adversely, Haidt argues that conservatives (especially religious conservatives) rely on all five of the foundations.

It was this theory that completely shifted my understanding of political opinions. We all base our moral-political opinions on different moral foundations, which is why it can be so difficult for us to see eye-to-eye with opposing viewpoints. While a conservative may rely heavily on the authority/subversion and loyalty/betrayal foundation to explain why the death penalty is just, a liberal will formulate a different opinion relying on the care/harm and fairness/cheating principles.

Even further, conservatives and liberals often have different ways of explaining each moral foundation. For example, conservatives may rely on the fairness/cheating foundation to explain why they are pro-death penalty and believe that capital punishment establishes justice for victims, while liberals may rely on the care/harm principle to explain why they are anti-death penalty and believe that rehabilitation of the convicted is more just than capital punishment. See? We can often rely on different understandings of these five foundations to establish and justify our political views.

This is nowhere near an exhaustive summary of Haidt's book (there's even a third part) but you'll have to read it to best understand his theories and research. I also don't suggest that Haidt's theories are facts or that there is no other explanation for morality. However, I do think that his book is an excellent start on the journey to seeing through your bias, to putting yourself into others' shoes, and to taking part in constructive civil discourse.

When you hear an argument that is contradictory to your own and you feel the urge to roll your eyes or call them wrong, try to understand why they believe their argument. Which moral foundations are they relying on? Which ones are you relying on? What do they prioritize in this issue? What are you prioritizing?

Remember, no one is truly right, we all just see the world through different colored glasses.

What foundation do you use in your life? Take quizzes and test to better understand which moral foundation you rely on:

Understand the social intuitionist model:

Understand the moral foundations theory:

Read The Righteous Mind:

More from Jonathan Haidt:

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