Bridging the Political Gap: Haidt's Righteous Mind

This article recently appeared in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit

It is axiomatic that contemporary Americans are divided into two political camps: liberals and conservatives, or leftists and rightists. In recent decades, these tendencies have become more polarized, with each side claiming near redemptive status for itself and demonizing the other as an obvious danger to the republic and its ideals. Each is increasingly eschewing compromise, threatening to paralyze the political process in the midst of continuing economic and other crises.

Enter New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, whose book, The Righteous Mind, shows promise in helping to bridge this yawning chasm, persuasively explaining “why good people are divided by politics and religion,” as the subtitle puts it. Haidt pulls off this seemingly impossible feat by studying the responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas by ordinary people, which yielded unexpected results. In contrast to rationalists of the Kantian variety, who assume that moral judgment follows careful consideration of motives and consequences, Haidt has discovered that people decide right and wrong intuitively. Such decisions are not “a purely cerebral affair in which we weigh concerns about harm, rights, and justice. It’s a kind of rapid, automatic process more akin to the judgments animals make as they move through the world,” responding almost instinctively to aversions and attractions (61).

Morality reinforces group identity, enabling people to engage in a wide variety of cooperative enterprises. Those such as psychopaths who lack the moral intuition, even if their ability to reason remains intact, are inevitably handicapped socially and are more likely than others to engage in criminal activities.

While Haidt admits to being a lifelong liberal Democrat, his findings prompted him to modify his previous negative attitude towards conservative Republicans. In fact, he admits, conservatives have a certain edge over liberals in that their intuitive moral sensors are attuned to a wider variety of moral foundations. Taste buds able to discern only sweetness are handicapped relative to those capable of picking up the full range of flavors. Similarly, a moral sensibility focusing narrowly on care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations (issues emphasized by liberals and addressed by the welfare state) will be at a disadvantage to one attuned also to loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression (conservative issues). This gives conservatives a decided advantage over liberals, often even at the polls.

"Haidt has discovered that people decide right and wrong intuitively." Illustration courtesy of Johnny Selman.

"Haidt has discovered that people decide right and wrong intuitively." Illustration courtesy of Johnny Selman.

While I found Haidt’s book intriguing and largely persuasive, I found myself wondering whether a simple bipolar political spectrum is adequate to account for the complexity of people’s political convictions in the real world. Based on the evidence in his study, Haidt himself found that he had to add a third category to his liberal and conservative factions, namely, the libertarians, who tend to be liberal on personal lifestyle issues, such as abortion, and conservative on economic issues, such as market regulation. Because he found it difficult to fit libertarians into either liberal or conservative camps, Haidt became aware that he was dealing with a distinctive political tendency requiring its own label.

This suggests that there may be more to what divides people politically and morally than Haidt has thus far detected. For example, in an American context, to be conservative implies a desire to conserve political traditions rooted in the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, a conservative Hungarian might wish to restore a strong Habsburg monarch, while an American conservative would likely strive to curtail the power of an imperial presidency – two goals seemingly at variance with each other, yet both somehow conservative. And where would we place the nationalists and radical democrats, neither of whom fit easily into conservative or liberal categories?

Nevertheless, my intuition tells me that Haidt is onto something, even if my reason sees complications in his findings. Haidt’s effort at the end of his book to find common ground among liberals, conservatives and libertarians is something I find most appealing. He does so by showing, based on a fuller understanding of the complexities of moral intuitions, how each group has managed to capture a facet of the truth. Quite simply, libertarians are right about the market. Liberals are right about government regulation of corporations. Conservatives are right about the value of traditions and social institutions.

Whether Haidt’s approach will succeed in spanning the moral and political gaps separating Americans remains to be seen, but his argument for the intuitive character of moral judgment, coupled with the winsome way he lays it out, makes for a worthwhile contribution to the larger discussion.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003). His new book, on authority, office and the image of God, is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications.