Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is extremely valuable for understanding these matters. I recommend it highly. (For a very good review in the New York Times, click here.)
Haidt is trying to explain the “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude. I’ve noted previously a whole genre of books by left wing intellectuals diagnosing conservatism as a form of mental illness, or delusion, or selfishness. Haidt acknowledges this too, confessing that he began as a typical academic liberal thinking that way. But the intellectual journey resulting in this book brought him to a very different place.
Start from the notion that our views are the product of reasoned thought. Haidt introduces the metaphor of an elephant and rider. The rider is your conscious rational mind, which you may believe is in charge. But the elephant is your unconscious thinking, your intuition, which is far bigger and stronger. The rider is really the elephant’s servant, whose job it is to come up with rationalizations justifying the elephant’s movements.
This is particularly true in the realm of moral thinking. Again, we may think we’re reasoning. But it’s usually the elephant answering the questions, with our conscious rational minds producing explanations to fit those answers.
The book is mainly about the moral foundations underlying political proclivities. Haidt is a psychologist, and his research centered upon detailed questionnaires filled out by thousands. Their answers showed that our moral thinking utilizes six distinct modules that Haidt analogizes to taste receptors (sweet, sour, salty, etc.). They are: caring (versus harm); liberty (vs. oppression); fairness (vs. cheating); loyalty; respect for authority; and sanctity (vs. degradation).