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Why we’re always talking past each other: A review of Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

If it seems like we are talking past one another too often in politics, the truth is, we usually are. Arguments that seem striking and self-evident to one side fall flat for the other, leaving the two sides no choice but to judge, claiming that their own failure to persuade must be due to the other side’s ignorance or (worse) sinister motives.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, offers three principles of moral psychology to help us understand why decent, upstanding neighbors and citizens can be so bitterly divided when it comes to religion and politics.

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

Many of us think of morality as something we discover after rational and reflective consideration. But Haidt says we judge first, and then we look for (or invent) arguments that back up our moral judgments. Reason isn’t the determinative factor in our moral considerations. Reason is the reinforcement for our moral intuitions.

2. There's more to morality than harm and fairness. 

Haidt compares our minds to a tongue with six taste receptors: liberty, loyalty, authority, sanctity, harm and fairness. Politicians on the right tend to activate more of the receptors, while politicians on the left focus on harm and fairness as the dominant moral considerations.

3. Morality binds and blinds.

Once we’ve developed reasons for our moral intuitions, we look for people who share the same moral sensibilities. Haidt explains: “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds” (xxiii).

Haidt describes the liberal narrative as one of heroic liberation. Authority, hierarchy, power and tradition are chains that must be broken in order to set free the individual. Meanwhile, the conservative narrative is “heroism of defense,” where society is like a home that is being reclaimed from damage done by termites. Liberty is threatened, loyalty is declining, authority has been subverted and sanctity will disappear.

So how do we persuade?

Given the fact that humans are experts at spinning things to confirm what we already believe, how in the world can we have conversations about moral issues? How can a Christian ever expect to convince someone else of a biblical morality?

Haidt sees a powerful social element to our judgments. Social influence matters. We care deeply about what other people think, to the point we are willing to adjust our beliefs or look for justification for other perspectives in order to fall in line with what others are saying.

So persuasiveness in conversing about moral issues matters, but not for the reason you might think. “You can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments” (57). So, going into combat mode is not likely to succeed. Instead, “if you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. . . . Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide” (58).

And how do we empathize? Because intuitions are first and strategic reasoning second, you have to speak to people’s moral intuitions. You have to “elicit new intuitions, not new rationales” (57).

The antidote to a “self-righteous mind” must be a God-focused church.

Application for the church

As a Christian, I don’t buy into Haidt’s evolutionary assumptions or his rejection of a universal morality that transcends culture. But I find aspects of his study of human morality that back up what Scripture teaches. In our sinfulness, we are all self-righteous, and our self-justifying hearts go into attack mode every time we feel threatened, criticized or condemned.

The antidote to a “self-righteous mind” must be a God-focused church that delivers the gospel of grace with the humility of those who know the superior spirit that’s so often seen in our own hearts.

If “new intuitions” matter just as much as “new rationales,” then we need to be part of a community where biblical intuitions are created. We need to be a loving community where the combination of empathy and the convictions of a Christian perspective are on full display.

The Righteous Mind is a secular psychologist’s take on human morality, but it’s a book that points in various ways to what the Bible says about the human condition. In the end, there’s hope. The gospel doesn’t close down conversations between people who disagree; it makes them possible. It diagnoses our self-righteous tendencies and offers a breath of fresh humility into our polarized conversations.   

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