Book review: Why good people are divided by politics and religion?

This article is about moral standards. It is based on a book written by a social and cultural psychologist, a professor in the US, Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt explains that the mind works as a rider on an elephant. He uses the elephant as a metaphor because it is more difficult to control than a horse. “The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. 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.” (p. XV) In other words, the elephant is our intuition and the rider is our reasoning. Haidt believes that we make up our mind based on our intuition, which is itself based on our moral principles, and only then do we make arguments relating to our opinion or to our behavior.

Haidt develops what he calls Moral Foundations Theory. He identifies six sets of moral principles, (1) Care/Harm, (2) Fairness/Cheating, (3) Loyalty/Betrayal, (4) Authority/Subversion, (5) Sanctity/Degradation, and (6) Liberty/Oppression. Haidt believes that we all have these moral foundations embedded in ourselves but that we are more sensitive to one, or two of them. He compares them to our taste buds. Everybody has all five taste receptors but we are more sensitive to different ones.

Let’s consider a scenario from Haidt’s book:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?”.

How would you respond? The majority of people would completely disagree in the very first seconds after having read the scenario, and only afterwards would they make justifications for their decision to disagree. Even when making counter-arguments, people would not change their mind because their intuition has already made the decision for them.

What does this mean? After I read this book, I realized that all of us have different moral foundations and that is why we are divided on political or religious issues. I learned to be more tolerant when I try to get my own argument through. Most importantly, I realized that when a certain issue is debated with an emphasis on a different moral principle, people are capable of changing their minds. We have to remember that we are not just talking to the rider, but to the elephant as well.

I strongly recommend reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, because as the New York Times wrote, it is “a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.” If you want to learn more about your own morality, ethics and values and at the same time contribute to a scientific research, please visit

Veronika VARGOVA

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Penguin Books, 2012, ISBN 978-0-141-03916-9

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