This page has links to materials that may be useful for people who want to discuss moral psychology with their congregation or religious community.
I) Interviews I’ve done that focused on religion:
Here’s the main interview I’ve done in 2017 of interest to religious audiences, a conversation with Tim Keller, at NYU, via the Veritas Forum:
—Stand Up, with Pete Dominick, April 2014, an interview focused on religion, including a review of its mostly positive effects, and how America is no longer divided by religion — it’s now left vs. right, with the major religions splitting into liberal and conservative wings.
—Inspiring Naturalism (Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow), a discussion that focuses especially on religion. Dowd is the author of “Thank God for Evolution”. Interesting idea from Dowd: Scientists and (many) Christians can find core values, deep agreement, on: “deep time eyes” (an evolutionary understanding of the universe, on a huge time scale) “a global heart,” and “we all value evidence.”
The Gospel Coalition (10/8/12), 30 minute discussion with Collin Hansen, with emphasis on persuasion via love and good example, and the relationship between belonging and believing.
Tapestry, with Mary Hines (CBC-Canada) (6/3/12). “I’m right, you’re wrong.” We talk more about religion than in most other interviews.
II) Essays, reviews, and blog posts discussing The Righteous Mind from religious perspectives:
Think Theology, “The most important book I’ve read this year,” by Andrew Wilson (2016). Wilson summarizes the main ideas in the book succinctly and then draws out 5 lessons that can help Christians to “shape our preaching and our leadership:” 1) Speak to the elephant as well as (if not more than) the rider. 2) Understand that disagreement may result from different moral foundations. 3) Go beyond telling people what the Bible says is right or wrong; explain why it is right or wrong. 4) Continue to call people to lives of sacrifice and commitment. 5) Learn to disagree well.
See a variety of resources from The Village Square, which runs a series called Faith and Food Fridays. That group (run by Liz Joyner) and I have a mutual crush on each other — they figured out on their own many of the ideas that I came to while writing The Righteous Mind, so we often work together.
Public Discourse, two posts by Russel Nieli. I was on a panel with Nieli at Princeton’s James Madison Program, and he offered a lovely blend of praise and critique which will be helpful to religious readers who appreciate my efforts to be fairminded about religion, but know that that my understanding of religion and religious experience is shallow. (You can see our panel discussion here; Nieli’s comments start at minute 70.) Nieli then expanded his comments into two blog posts at The Witherspoon Institute‘s blog, Public Discourse. In his first post, “Religion as a community-bonding fiction,” Nieli lays out my basic defense of religion against the New Atheists. In his second post, “Religion: Moving beyond Emile Durkheim,” Nieli shows that my Durkheimian perspective is too narrowly focused on group bonding; it sees too little difference between religion and sports fandom. It misses the importance of solitary experience. Most constructive suggestion:
Haidt says again and again that man is homo duplex… It would be more accurate to speak of man as homo triplex—a being who combines in the same nature an egocentric chimp (“looking out for number one”), a sociocentric bee (“all for one, one for all”), and a theocentric seraph (“not as I will, but as Thou wilt”). The chimpanzee and the bee coexist in a complex relationship with the seraph, and just as the “hive-switch” that Haidt speaks about can be turned on at times to override the egocentric promptings of the chimp, so a “prophetic-switch”—one with deep other-worldly connections—can sometimes be turned on to override both the chimp’s egocentrism and the bee’s parochial sociocentrism. It is to many of the great mystic-religious figures of the past… that we owe our understanding of a universal God—a God who transcends tribal parochialisms and opens our hearts to an appreciation of a universal humanity.
Catholic World Report, Moral Feelings and the Moral World, by James Kalb (8/7/14) applies moral foundations theory to understand why traditionalists and progressives see the world so differently.
CatholicCulture.org, “One-Eyed Liberals,” by Jeff Mirus (6/12/12). “We may grant, I suppose, that there are none so sure of themselves as the morally insensitive, and none so morally insensitive as those who take their superior position for granted.”
Mockingbird, “How do I love Jonathan Haidt? Let me count the ways…” (3/28/12)
First Things editor R. R. Reno devoted the “Public Square” essay in the June/July issue to a summary of the book and applications to modern problems such as moral relativism. (Subscription required.)
The Jesus Creed blog explores the book’s implications, without embracing or condemning the book. “We need to be aware of this book. In some ways it confirms postmodernity’s cynicism; in other ways it transcends simplistic theories.”
Virtuous Society, a Mormon blog by Tom Stringham: “The Righteous Mormon Mind: How Moral Foundations Theory Makes Sense of Latter-Day Saint Culture.”
Intersection, an Episcopal blog by Jennie Woodring, notes that liberal Episcopalians tend to limit their application of the Baptismal Covenant to Care and Fairness issues, whereas the full Baptismal Covenant actually covers all of the foundations, including Loyalty (to the Apostle’s teaching) and Authority (of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
III) Congregations that have used The Righteous Mind in sermons, or to foster discussion:
Sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Central Synagogue, New York City, to address a congregation divided in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Rabbi Buchdahl does not cite The Righteous Mind, but I know that she read it carefully (she is my Rabbi) and she employs many of its central ideas to speak to congregants on the left and the right simultaneously — a challenge faced by many faith leaders these days.
Rosh Hashanah service at Temple Israel, Natick MA, by Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People). Great insights into the importance of community (“It is impossible to be a Jew alone”) and sacredness (“To be a Jew is to recognize that we live in a world that is starved for holiness.”)
Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Israel, in Tallahassee Florida, by Rabbi Jack Romberg, on how moral foundations theory can help us understand the Torah, and the differences between conservative and progressive Jews (and Christians). He focuses on God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac — as clear a conflict between the care and authority foundations as can be found anywhere in world literature. “Judaism considers a series of complimentary values and recognizes we cannot eliminate any of them for us to function.”
Sermon at Unitarian Universalist church of Palo Alto, by Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern. Conclusion: “As we move through the difficult next five weeks [before the election of 2012], at those moments when we feel despair that this country can ever be united or that goodness can ever prevail, let us turn not to the shelter of our own righteousness and self-righteousness, but to our neighbors, all of them, and ask them, “What moral values do you hold most dear?” Let us be ready for what they say to surprise us, hearten us, and challenge us. Let us be prepared to see beyond the walls we have built and find something of value on the other side. Maybe then we can build, together, despite our differences, because of our differences, a society that will be good, and do good, for the world and the future.”
[Please email me if your congregation or reading group has used the book, or if you have any materials or links to contribute]Read More
JONATHAN HAIDT-INSPIRED POEMS
NINETY PERCENT HUMAN, TEN PERCENT BEES
If humans should incorporate
ninety percent chimp and ten percent bee,
we ought to find out how they punctuate
their equilibrium in their apiary.
Does power of their interest tend to climb
like interest rates when they are making money,
and does it rise still further over prime
when focusing on frolics with their honey?
Could they reduce their conflicts of morality
allowing both the forest and the hive
to determine the precise legality
of conduct that enables them to thrive,
not climbing up a tree since largely chimps,
or stinging those who they believe behave
like chimps, contented to withdraw like wimps,
avoiding dangers that befall the brave.
Altruism is the holy grail
that mankind now must ruthlessly pursue,
for if does not find it, it will fail,
and anthropologists will not know what to do.
This altruism must be based on sym-
biosis between ten percent, the bees,
and ninety, a preponderance more dim,
reflecting humans’ chimpish tendencies
The rationale of reason is to spin,
and not to help us understand or learn.
Reason’s spin will justify a sin
when for it we emotionally yearn,
justifying what we have desired,
and can’t resist for what emotions long,
by reason not as much, in fact, hard-wired,
as by emotions driven to do wrong.
David Hume was right when he declared
that reason is the slave of passion: morals
are based on it, and we become most scared
whenever reason with the passion quarrels.
WHAT SMELLS DISGUSTING TO MAN AND GOD
We may say that in God we trust,
but all of us perceive disgust
by means of sense of smell, our noses
a better guide for us than Moses,
whose laws that tell us to avoid
abominations that annoyed
this great lawgiver and the Lord
are by us largely now ignored.
Few people feel disgusted by
the swine and gays he would decry,
or even hold our noses in
the air to scorn them all as sin.
Ditto for remarriage to
a women with whom you renew
your former vows, or shepherds who
in ancient Egypt were taboo,
and people who enjoy cross-dressing,
and treat a cage aux folles as blessing,
but things that don’t smell good offend
all people, and will make them tend
to feel far greater outrage when
confronted by the sort of men
and women for whom they don’t care
than they would feel in clean, fresh air.
Our feelings in foul air start stinking,
while unbeknownst to us we’re thinking
with both our nostrils, not our brain,
and quite irrationally complain,
by our olfactory lobes inspired,
since our disgust-sense is hard-wired.
Objectively we cannot tell
how much our brains are ruled by smell,
as is the brain of God, whose nose
burns when He’s angry. There’s no hose
with power to extinguish what
is troubling His most sacred snot.
We imitate Him when we trust
His sense of smell with our disgust.
DUE TO IGNORANCE WE SACRALIZE
Due to ignorance we sacralize
the issues that we cannot analyze
systematically or understand,
worshipping them in a wonderland
where through a looking glass we only see
ourselves, transformed by idées fixes, without
perspective or the objectivity
required to see issues with great doubt.
We must make sure that vision is constrained,
not focused on what’s sacred, the profane
should by the pious never be disdained:
desacralizing vision keeps us sane.
Here is the Introduction, which gives an overview of the book
“Can we all get along?” That appeal was made famous on May 1, 1992, by Rodney King, a black man who had been beaten nearly to death by four Los Angeles police officers a year earlier. The entire nation had seen a videotape of the beating, so when a jury failed to convict the officers, their acquittal triggered widespread outrage and six days of rioting in Los Angeles. Fifty three people were killed and more than seven thousand buildings were torched. Much of the mayhem was carried live by news cameras from helicopters circling overhead. After a particularly horrific act of violence against a white truck driver, King was moved to make his appeal for peace.
King’s appeal is now so overused that it has become cultural kitsch, a catch phrase more often said for laughs then as a serious plea for mutual understanding. I therefore hesitated to use King’s words as the opening line of this book, but I decided to go ahead, for two reasons. First, because most Americans nowadays are asking King’s question, not about race relations but about political relations and the collapse of cooperation across party lines. Many Americans feel as though the nightly news from Washington is sent to us from helicopters circling over the city–dispatches from the war zone.
The second reason I decided to open this book with an overused phrase is because King followed it up with something lovely, something rarely quoted. As he stumbled through his television interview, fighting back tears and often repeating himself, he found these words: “Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”
This book is about why it’s so hard for us to get along. We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so while we’re waiting, let’s at least try to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.
* * * * *
People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books. I study moral psychology, and I’m going to make the case that morality is the extraordinary human capacity that made civilization possible. I don’t mean to imply that cooking, mothering, war, and salt were not also necessary, but in this book I’m going to take you on a tour of human nature and history from the perspective of moral psychology.
By the end of the tour, I hope to have given you a new way to think about two of the most important, vexing, and divisive topics in human life: politics and religion. Etiquette books tell us not to discuss these topics in polite company, but I say go ahead. Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together. My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with a mixture of awe, wonder, and curiosity. We are downright lucky that we evolved this complex moral psychology that allowed our species to burst out of the forests and savannas, and into the delights, comforts, and extraordinary peacefulness of modern societies in just the last few thousand years. My hope is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and more fun, even in mixed company. My hope is that it will help us to get along.
Born to Be Righteous
I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings. But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.
The word righteous comes from the old Norse word rettviss and the old English word rihtwis, both of which meant “just, upright, virtuous.” This meaning has been carried into the modern English words righteous and righteousness, although nowadays those words have strong religious connotations because they are usually used to translate the Hebrew word tzedek. Tzedek is a common word in the Old Testament, often used to describe people who act in accordance with God’s wishes, but it is also an attribute of God and of God’s judgment of people (which is often harsh but always thought to be just).
The linkage of righteousness and judgmentalism is captured in some modern definitions of righteous, such as “arising from an outraged sense of justice, morality, or fair play.” The link also appears in the term self-righteous, which means “convinced of one’s own righteousness, especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others; narrowly moralistic and intolerant.” I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.
Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife. Some degree of conflict among groups may even be necessary for the health and development of any society. When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might actually achieve.
What Lies Ahead
This book has three parts which you can think of as three separate books, except that each one depends heavily on the one before it. Each part presents one major principle of moral psychology.
Part I is about the first principle: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post-hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images that hogs the stage of our awareness. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis, where I described how the rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection. In this book I’ll use the metaphor to solve puzzles such as why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite and why political partisans are so willing to believe outrageous lies and conspiracy theories. I’ll also use the metaphor to show you how you can better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason.
Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness. The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. I’ll explain where these six taste receptors come from, how they form the basis of the world’s many moral cuisines, and why politicians on the right have a built-in advantage when it comes to cooking meals that voters like.
Part III is about the third principle: morality binds and blinds. The central metaphor of these four chapters is that human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins. We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.
But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.
Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion. I’ll show that our “higher nature” allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but that altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups. I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or parasite, as some scientists (the “new atheists”) have argued in recent years. And I’ll use this perspective to explain why some people are conservative, others are liberal (or progressive), and still others become libertarians. People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.
(A note on terminology: In the United States the word liberal refers to progressive or left-wing politics, and I will use the word in this sense. But in Europe and elsewhere the word liberal is truer to its original meaning—valuing liberty above all else, including in economic activities. When Europeans use the word liberal, they often mean something more like the American term libertarian, which cannot be placed easily on the left-right spectrum. Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.)
* * * * *
In the coming chapters I’ll draw on the latest research in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary modeling, but the take-home message of the book is ancient. It is one of the Great Truths found in most of the world’s wisdom traditions. It begins with the realization that we are all self-righteous hypocrites:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? . . . You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5)
It continues with the claim that enlightenment (or wisdom, if you prefer) requires us all to take the logs out of our own eyes and then escape from our ceaseless, petty, and divisive moralism. As the eighth-century Chinese Zen master Sen-ts’an wrote:
The Perfect Way is only difficult
for those who pick and choose;
Do not like, do not dislike;
all will then be clear.
Make a hairbreadth difference,
and Heaven and Earth are set apart;
If you want the truth to stand clear before you,
never be for or against.
The struggle between “for” and “against”
is the mind’s worst disease.
I’m not saying we should live our lives like Sen-ts’an. In fact, I believe that a world without moralism, gossip, and judgment would quickly decay into chaos. But if we want to understand ourselves, our divisions, our limits, and our potentials, we need to step back, drop the moralism, apply some moral psychology, and analyze the game we’re all playing.
Let us now examine the psychology of this struggle between “for” and “against.” It is a struggle that plays out in each of our righteous minds, and among all of our righteous groups.Read More