Last Saturday, a friend of mine had five people over who had recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt argues that today’s conservatives have a built-in advantage in American politics because they understand moral psychology.1 They relate to what Haidt describes as six foundations of morality, while today’s liberals relate to only three. Liberals relate to Haidt’s care, fairness, and liberty foundations. Conservatives do, too, though not as strongly as do liberals to the first two. But conservatives relate also to Haidt’s loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations.2

Haidt’s 2012 book describes varieties of morality in social evolutionary terms.

(If you want to see how Haidt might lump you along his six-foundation continuum, go to and enjoy some of the surveys there. The results from many of these surveys contribute to his book.)

I anticipated the evening as one of those rare opportunities to explore ways of bridging the left-right divide, but we never tried. None of us were emissaries from either side. Instead, in the course of talking about and around The Righteous Mind, each of us seemed not so much to bridge the divide as to dwarf it. Our stories reflected growth that, to me, kept suggesting what a poor job political packages do in accounting for an engaged life. We are dynamic characters, I kept feeling, and the “divide” helps to keep people from themselves, primarily.

Haidt, a social psychologist, defines morality descriptively, and his definition builds on the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who wrote at the turn of the last century. Durkheim wrote that “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to . . . regulate his actions by something other than . . . his own egoism.” According to Haidt, morality developed to support mankind’s evolution from uncooperative creatures (such as chimpanzees) to creatures capable of building societies.

It’s ironic that conservatives use a moral toolkit that is best accounted for by some version of social evolution, from John Calhoun’s crude version to Haidt’s thoughtful and well-researched version. It’s ironic also that liberals are slow to accept what Haidt describes as half of what makes us feel moral compunction despite the recent research in social evolution. Which side really believes in evolution?

Our evening was loosely structured around our stories, and Haidt’s book is loosely structured around his. One casualty to Haidt’s structure is the orderly presentation of the moral foundations. In one chapter, he builds five, but only a turn in his personal narrative brings the sixth foundation along in its own chapter. But, as he points out and as our evening made clear to me, we use our personal stories in part to construct and understand ourselves, and this is what moral foundations help us do, too.

But beyond Haidt’s personal, professional, and political evolution, the book gives little account of an inner life, the side of life that would lead to the stories I heard at dinner. Anything described as transcendent in the book comes through group participation or drugs. Haidt offers a compelling understanding of our social and moral sides. Linking the two felt a lot like Confucianism, though, and as I read the book, I often felt Chuang Tzu at my shoulder. To me, the distinction and interaction between our inner and outer lives is different and more interesting than the distinction (and possible interaction) between liberals and conservatives.

  1. Kindle loc. 2620.
  2. Kindle loc. 2660.