Righteous Minds, Moral Matrices, and the Real (Non-)Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives

Are our brains fundamentally wired to experience and filter reality according to standards of moral […]

David Zahl / 12.13.11

Are our brains fundamentally wired to experience and filter reality according to standards of moral righteousness? And if so, what’s the emotional and relational cost? We know how the Apostle Paul would respond, and we now know how cutting-edge UVA social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would. In an interview over at The Scientific American, Haidt talks about some fascinating recent research into moral psychology which cuts to the heart of the religious impulse, as well as the deep ideological divides we’re experiencing in this country at the moment. Namely, that we all look for evidence to confirm our moral intuitions rather than refute them, so that depending on where your subconscious priorities lie, you will interpret the same data in different and sometimes contradictory ways, and seek out people who feel similarly, all the while masking your convictions in rationality. Which creates massive obstacles to mutual understanding and dialogue, to say nothing of compassion. In Haidt’s view, then, morality is not a rational domain; it is just as informed by self-justification (and, as he wisely points out, group-justification) as any other area of life. Even conscience is subordinated to it. In this sense, everyone is religious, regardless of whether or not they would classify themselves as such – which, fortunately for us, only confirms one of Mbird’s core convictions, that we are united, not divided, in our need for justification, ht KW:

Morality is difficult. As Haidt writes on his website, “It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.” And while many of us understand this at a superficial level, Haidt takes it to heart. He strives to understand our inherent self-righteousness and morality as a collection of diverse mental modules to try to ultimately make society better off.

As Haidt says on his website, “we are just not very good at thinking open-mindedly about moral issues, so rationalist models end up being poor descriptions of actual moral psychology.”

Haidt is putting the finishing touches on his next big project, The Righteous Mind, which is due out in March 2012. He was motivated to write The Righteous Mind after Kerry lost the 2004 election: “I thought he did a terrible job of making moral appeals so I began thinking about how I could apply moral psychology to understand political divisions. I started studying the politics of culture and realized how liberals and conservatives lived in their own closed worlds.” Each of these worlds, as Haidt explains in the book, “provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to attack by arguments from outsiders.” He describes them as “moral matrices,” and thinks that moral psychology can help him understand them.

Quick aside: While certainly Christianity offers a competing matrix(-ces), Christ himself seems to have been uncommonly concerned with exposing such constructs for what they were, i.e. attempts to root personal righteousness in something we can theoretically control. You might say he was interested in people abandoning the certainties and judgments that come when the Law is heard only in its superficial behavorisms and not its excavating (and compassion-producing) severity:

To understand what constitutes these moral matrices Haidt teamed with Craig Joseph from the University of Chicago. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder (with whom they both had studied), they developed the idea that humans possess six universal moral modules, or moral “foundations,” that get built upon to varying degrees across culture and time. They are: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. Haidt describes these six modules like a “tongue with six taste receptors.” “In this analogy,” he explains in the book, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors.”

Haidt recruited his UVA colleague Brian Nosek and graduate student Jesse Graham to create a questionnaire that measured how people of certain political parties valued (in terms of importance) five moral foundations (he dropped Liberty/oppression). The questionnaire eventually manifested itself into the website www.YourMorals.org, and it has since gathered over two hundred thousand data points. Here is what they found:

The key piece of the puzzle came when he connected [Emile] Durkheim with Darwin to argue that morality binds and blinds. The metaphor he uses to describe this idea is that we are 90 percent chimp 10 percent bee. That is to say, though we are inherently selfish, human nature is also about being what he terms “groupish.” He explained to me like this:

“When I say that human nature is selfish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.”

What comes out of The Righteous Mind is initially pessimistic but ultimately optimistic. At first, Haidt reminds us that we are all trapped in a moral matrix where we our “elephants” only look for what confirms its moral intuitions while our “riders” play the role of the lawyer; we team up with people who share similar matrices and become close-minded; and we forget that morality is diverse. But on the other hand, Haidt is offering us a choice: take the blue pill and remain happily delusional about your worldview, or take the red pill, and, as he said in his 2008 TED talk, “learn some moral psychology and step outside your moral matrix.”

Self-justification, in other words, regardless its ideological basis, is ultimately a dead-end — and real help and life and love must come, by definition, from outside our self-perpetuating little worlds and teams. Here’s the talk in question, which is really, really worth the 20 minutes. Whatever your political persuasion, be sure to stick with it:


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7 responses to “Righteous Minds, Moral Matrices, and the Real (Non-)Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives”

  1. MargaretE says:

    I’ve been following Haidt’s work for a few years now. I think he’s brilliant! Thanks for this…

  2. Bryan J. says:

    “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex…”

    Best line? or Best line ever?

  3. Thanks, Dave. Incredibly insightful. I can’t wait for that book to come out.

  4. This is really interesting… hoping that the American people can begin to look outside their matrices and to the common good.

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