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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt Summary

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

The Righteous Mind Book

The Righteous Mind explores the origins of our cultural, political and religious disagreements.

He identifies six different moral flavors, and notes that progressives and conservatives differ in their approach to each.

Haidt notes an understanding of morality and our different views on it is essential to advancing society through civil discourse. Key insights:

  1. We have intuitions first, and justify those intuitions with reasons later

  2. The six moral tastes are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression

  3. Progressives focus on care and fairness, whereas conservatives balance all six moralities

  4. Fairness comes in equality of outcome (progressives) or equality of opportunity (conservatives)

  5. Religion provides moral structure through normalizing rules; atheism relies on internal morality

  6. Religion – with divine penalties for bad deeds – works to reduce behavior bad for society

  7. Righteous ends DO NOT justify violent means at all; use the rule of law to resolve conflict

  8. When considering complex issues, use both moral intuition and logical reasoning together

  9. Beware anyone preaching the ‘one true moral’ framework

  10. Morality ‘binds’ and ‘blinds’ us when dealing with issues

Book details

Full title: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.

Length: 528 pages, or 11 hours and 1 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: The rider and the elephant – intuitions first, reasoning second defines morals as ‘of, relating to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong.’ So where do morals, or morality, come from?

Psychologists have long noted that the mind is divided into parts that often conflict. From ancient Greece onwards we’ve talked about the choice between reason and the ‘passions.’ More often though Western Philosophy has worshipped reason and distrusted passion – an approach Haidt calls the rational delusion. It’s a delusion Haidt says, for when people make something sacred they lose the ability to think rationally about it. In this way, ‘morality binds and it blinds’ notes Haidt. Consider the following statements and the level of moral outrage each invokes in you, and try to identify why you are outraged or not:

  1. You see a woman throwing her cat across the room for scratching the furniture

  2. You see a man quickly cancelling a blind date as soon as he sees the woman

  3. You see a runner taking a shortcut on the course during the marathon in order to win

  4. You see a referee intentionally making bad calls that help his favored team win

  5. You see a father requiring his son to become a farmer like him

  6. You see a boss pressuring her employees to buy goods from her family’s general store

  7. You see a player publicly yelling at his soccer coach during a playoff game

  8. You see a teenage girl ignoring her father’s orders by taking the car after her curfew

  9. You see an employee joking with competitors about how bad his company did last year

  10. You see a teacher publicly saying she hopes another school wins the maths contest

  11. You see a man having sex with a frozen chicken before cooking it for dinner

  12. You see two first cousins getting married to each other in an elaborate wedding

Did you feel any moral outrage reading these statements? All of the above questions are from a standardized set of moral questions to determine where one sits on different moral issues; which we’ll discuss below. The point here that Haidt raises, is that we intuitively know whether something is right or wrong first, and we come up with reasons second. Haidt notes our intuition is based on our ancient feeling brain comprising rapid, automatic, opaque processes – what he refers to as our ‘elephant’.

The rider in contrast, represents our modern, logical, controlled, and transparent thinking processes. Haidt’s model for these interactions is below. The model starts with an event triggering an intuitive judgement (the elephant as step 1), followed by post-hoc reasoning for the judgement (the rider as step 2). Step 3 and 4 are how we explain ourselves to other people.


We like to think the ‘rider’ is in charge of the elephant, and sometimes he is – see link 5 and 6 in the diagram above. But mostly the elephant is in charge and for that we need to know what the elephant is thinking; or more precisely, what are the elephant’s moral guidelines that the rider is often left trying to justify. Before leaving key insight 1, some quotes from Haidt:

“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.”
“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”
“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”
“The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant.”

Key insight 2: Six ways our moral ‘elephants’ think

Haidt’s research showed solid evidence for five moral foundations as outlined below.

1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance. This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.

2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.

3. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.” This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.

4. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions. This foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.

5. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). This foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values — such as flags, statues, national holidays, or churches — which are important for binding groups together.

A sixth moral foundation with lesser evidence was also found as noted below:

6. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

In the next section we’ll look at how different people have different perceptions of morality and what this means for political society. A key point to consider first however is the importance of having full and frank discussions with people of different moral persuasions to help us develop more nuanced moral intuitions. Or more simply, to help the ‘elephant’ in us learn. From Haidt:

“We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.
This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Key insight 3: How progressive and conservative elephants intuit differently

The chart below was based 132,000 test subjects completing an online question at in 2011. Note that ‘liberal’ in the X-axis label relates to ‘progressive’ or the left side of politics (this is opposite to the understanding in the UK and Australia).


If you look at the left dotted-line box, you’ll see only two moralities – care and fairness – are endorsed by folks with a Liberal (or Progressive) perspective. These same folks actively reject loyalty, authority, and sanctity for moral guidance. In contrast, the right dashed-line box shows that all five moral tastes – care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity – are endorsed by Conservative folks.

The diagram below shows how the Liberal (Progressive) moral matrix weights each of the six moral foundations. You can see that the most sacred value is care for victims of oppression (i.e. minority groups), followed by freedom from oppression (i.e. by state or religious institutions), and finally fairness (i.e. equal outcomes for all).


What’s missing in the Liberal/Progressive moral matrix are what Haidt calls the three ‘binding’ foundations:

“When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression.”

In contrast, the diagram below shows how the Conservative moral matrix has a more equal weight to all six moral foundations.


Through the above three diagrams you can see the challenges with current political dialogues. The left actively rejects loyalty, authority, and sanctity as moral foundations; whilst these remain important to conservatives. This results in disagreements over:

  • Loyalty. A patriotic view of your nation (conservative), versus a globalist view of the world (progressive)

  • Authority. Respect for the family and elected officials (conservative), versus a tear-them-down view (progressive)

  • Sanctity. Respect for national/religious symbols and institutions such as flags and churches (conservative), versus a respect for universal items such as the environment (progressive)

As a closing thought for this key insight, Haidt notes how his own research helped him move from a progressive view, to a more balanced one:

“I had escaped from my prior partisan mind-set (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later) and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.”

Other insights from The Righteous Mind

4. Two type of fairness – outcome and opportunity. From Haidt, “Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality —people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.”

5. Religion as societies exoskeleton. From Haidt, “Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie—Durkheim’s word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order. We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.”

6. Religion works to minimize bad behaviour. Continuing the above insight, “Creating gods who can see everything, and who hate cheaters and oath breakers; turns out to be a good way to reduce cheating and oath breaking.” The 10 Commandments enforceable by ‘God’, turns out to have been a good way to organize early civilizations. An externalized and uniform moral code, is more effective than an internalized and variable one. Haidt again, “There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.”

7. Righteous ends DO NOT justify violent means. From Haidt, “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.”

8. Think moral intuition and reasoning at the same time. Before engaging in a ‘factual’ debate, consider understanding the likely moral considerations as well to avoid erroneous conclusions.

9. Beware preachers of the ‘one true moral’. From Haidt, “If you take home one souvenir from this part of the tour, may I suggest that it be a suspicion of moral monists. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation. Human societies are complex; their needs and challenges are variable.”

10. Morality ‘binds’ and ‘blinds’. From Haidt, “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society.”

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

If you hadn’t noticed the world has become very politically polarized. Debate is seen as a battle between ‘good’ people and ‘evil’ ones; and righteous goals justify violent means including rioting, cancel culture, doxing people, and even physical harm against people with dissenting views. Why is this so? The Righteous Mind explains why people can have such radically different views and not know it. It explains why one group can believe the other group is evil. In understanding what Haidt calls Moral Foundations Theory, you can better understand your own view points, as well as those of your debating opponents.

In doing so, you’ll see that the way to enhance society is through a civil and informed discussion of competing ideas between the left and the right. Discussions on Black Lives Matter, burning the flag, historical statues, trans rights issues, abortion, welfare, taxation policy, foreign policy, charter schools (school vouchers), and many more can all be improved through an understanding on Moral Foundations Theory. By reading this book you’ll be able to fully participate in these and many more discussions.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#2 – Factfulness. This book discusses how to better understand humanities performance in dealing with a range of significant issues – particularly on care, fairness, and liberty moral issues important to progressives.

#8 – A Little History of Philosophy. This book highlights different philosophical and political responses to moral issues have performed over the millennia. In particular you’ll see how sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

#10 – 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know. This book will cover many of the economics concepts related to markets, incentives, and other ideas that relate to the care and fairness dimension.

#11 – Don’t Burn the Book. This book describes one prominent progressive commentator’s journey from the political left to the center right. Understanding Moral Foundations Theory helps make sense of the transition and the nuance of the author’s political end point.

#12 – Loserthink. This book encourages you to think differently about personal and societal issues; with one frame being to think like a scientist, historian, and economist. The Righteous Mind takes a multi-disciplinary approach to morality so an understanding of Loserthink can help you absorb the insights.

#18 – Sapiens. This book covers the entire history of Homo Sapiens and in so doing touches on many of the historical and cultural references in The Righteous Mind.

#13 – 12 Rules for Life. This book provides psychological guidance for life and in so doing touches on many religious, moral and personal issues.

Book resources

About the author

Jonathan Haidt (born 1963) is an American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, and author. His main areas of study are the psychology of morality and the moral emotions. Haidt received a BA in philosophy from Yale University in 1985, and a PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. He then studied cultural psychology at the University of Chicago as a post-doctoral fellow. Haidt's main scientific contributions come from the psychological field of moral foundations theory. The theory attempts to explain the evolutionary origins of human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, gut feelings rather than logical reason.

Haidt has attracted both support and criticism for his critique of the current state of universities and his interpretation of progressive values. He has been named one of the "top global thinkers" by Foreign Policy magazine, and one of the "top world thinkers" by Prospect magazine. He is among the most cited researchers in political and moral psychology, and is considered among the top 25 most influential living psychologists.

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