The Righteous Mind

I really liked this book! I highly encourage all Americans to read this book. It helps keep things in perspective – helps to understand where ideas develop from those who have different opinions than you do. It even helped me understand my own default positions better. In the end, this book does what most other political type books do not – bring people together. Being able to understand the other person’s perspective, world paradigm, values, and ethics opens the door to conversation, collaboration, and unity.

In summary, this book describes why people are divided by politics and religion.

What follows will make most sense and be most useful to those who read and understand the book. Here are ideas from the book for my personal reference:

Moral judgements are not subjective statements; they are claims that somebody did something wrong. … We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgement; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgement.

Moral judgement is a cognitive process, as are all forms of judgement. The crucial distinction is really between two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning. … Intuition .. describes the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgements and decisions that we all make every day.

Emotions are a kind of information processing. Reason is the servant of the intuitions. Intuitions are a kind of cognition. They’re just not a kind of reasoning.

Moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog.

There are three principles of moral psychology:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
  2. There is more to morality than harm and fairness
  3. Morality binds and blinds

Social and political judgements depend heavily on quick intuitive flashes.

The mind is divided into parts, like a rider (controlled processes) on an elephant (automatic processes). The rider serves the elephant. If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.

The elephant (automatic processes) is where most of the action is in moral psychology.

Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story.

When we see or hear about the things other people do, the elephant begins to lean immediately. The rider, who is always trying to anticipate the elephant’s next move, begins looking around for a way to support such a move.

Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.

The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.

In daily life, we act like intuitive politicians striving to maintain appealing moral identities in front of our multiple constituencies.

Accountability increases exploratory thought only when these 3 conditions apply:

  1. Decision makers learn before forming any opinion that they will be accountable to an audience
  2. The audience’s views are unknown
  3. They believe the audience is well informed and interested in accuracy

The rest of the time, accountability pressures simply increase confirmatory thought. People are trying harder to look right than to be right.

Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.

We care a lot about what others think of us.

IQ is by far the biggest predictor of how well people argue, but it predicts only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side.

The elephant leans, ever so slightly, and the rider gets right to work looking for supporting evidence, and invariably succeeds.

People cheat only up to a point they themselves could no longer find a justification that would preserve their belief in their own honesty.

When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We then have permission to believe.

When we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” The we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.

People care about their groups, whether those be racial, regional, religious, or political. … Our politics is groupish, not selfish. In moral and political matters we are often goupish, rather than selfish.

Rationalist delusion: the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason.

The most bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.

We must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. … If you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to dis-confirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate…you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.

To produce good behavior, not just good thinking: it is even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuition-ism.

If you want to make people behave more ethically:

  1. You can change the elephant (hard to do and takes a long time)
  2. You can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on.

We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us.

Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken.

With help from the press secretary, we are able to lie and cheat often, and then cover it up so effectively that we convince even ourselves.

Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach.


  • Autonomy – based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. (Dominant ethic in individualistic societies)
  • Community – based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations.
  • Divinity – based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine souls has been implanted.

WEIRD people: western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic – The WIERDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.

Moral pluralism is true descriptively…the moral domain varies across cultures.

The moral domain is unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures (largely limited to the ethic of autonomy) and broader in most other societies, religious, and conservative moral matrices (including ethics of community and divinity).

Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This is what makes it 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.

Morality is like taste in many ways – The Righteous Mind Moral Foundations:

  • Care/Harm – makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.
    • Everyone cares about Care/Harm, but liberals care more.
  • Liberty/Oppression – makes people notice and resent any sign of attempted domination.
    • Antiauthoritarianism (Left); Don’t tread on me (Libertarians); Give me liberty anti-government (Conservatives)
    • Everyone cares about Liberty/oppression, but each political faction care differently. Liberals are most concerned about rights of certain vulnerable groups and look to government to defend the weak against oppression by the strong. Conservatives hold more traditional ideas of liberty as the right to be left alone and resent liberal programs that use government to infringe on their liberties in order to protect the groups liberals care most about.
  • Fairness/Cheating – makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.
    • 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.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal – 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.
    • The left tends towards universalism and away from nationalism, so it often has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation.
  • Authority/Subversion – makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.
    • It is much easier for the political right to build on this foundation than it is for the left, which often defines itself in part by its opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power.
  • Sanctity/Degradation – makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values – both positive and negative – which are important for binding groups together.

Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (openness to experience). Conservatives are higher on neophobia (prefer to stick with tried and true)

The process of converting plubribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.

Democrats often pursue policies that promote pluribus at the expense of unum.


We are more likely to mirror and then empathize with others when they have conformed to our moral matrix than when they have violated it.

A leader must construct a moral matrix based in some way on the Authority foundation (to legitimize the authority of the leader), the Liberty foundation (to make sure that subordinates don’t feel oppressed, and don’t want to band together to oppose a bullying alpha male), and above all, the Loyalty foundation (response to the challenge of forming cohesive coalitions).

Create hive environments:

  • Increase similarity, not diversity – make everyone feel like a family.
  • Exploit synchrony – Syncrony builds trust – People who move together are saying, “We are one, we are a team”
  • Create healthy competition among teams, not individuals – pitting individuals against each other in a competition for scarce resources will destroy hivishness, trust, and morale.

Good leaders create good followers, but followership in a hivish organization is better described as membership.

Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.

Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.

Gods and religions, in sum, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.

It’s friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about. And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.

How people adopt ideologies:

  • Genes give then brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat, are predisposed (but not predestined) to becoming liberals. They tend to develop certain “characteristic adaptations” and “life narratives” that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left.  (and opposite ways – right)
  • Once joining a political team – they get ensnared in its moral matrix

Moral matrix leads:

  • Liberals to make two important points:
    1. Governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms
    2. Some big problems really can be solve by regulation
  • Libertarians (who sacralize liberty):
    • Markets are miraculous
  • Social conservatives (who sacralize certain institutions and traditions):
    • You don’t usually help the bees by destroying the hive – If you destroy all groups and dissolve internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.
    • Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less.

If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.

  1. Think about the 6 moral foundations
  2. Try to figure out which one or two are carrying the most weight in a particular controversy
  3. If you want to open your mind, open your heart first
  4. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the other group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they are saying

When talking with someone with a different matrix:

  • Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust
  • When you do, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest