The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt*

This is a summary of two core concepts in the bestselling book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. The goal of this article is to show how Christians might apply some insights from these two core concepts to their life of faith.

battle black blur board game
Photo by Pixabay on

1.   Intuition vs. Reasoning : which one should lead?

A fundamental theme in Haidt’s book is that our intuition drives our reasoning/decision-making.  In the Chapter, The Intuitive Dog and its Rational Tail, Haidt summarizes the popular schools of thought on the issue of the relationship between our intuition and reasoning. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, believed that it was reason that drove/or should drive our intuition. Former US President and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson believed that neither intuition nor reason drove the other; but rather, both were at war. David Hume, an enlightenment period philosopher, took a position opposite of Plato saying that it was the intuition that drives our reasoning. The author, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, agrees with Hume. He produces ample evidence from research in neuroscience, anthropology and (evolutionary) psychology showing that humans are not rational beings alone. These studies indicate that we follow our intuitions and then find ways to rationalize what we already know or wish to do intuitively

In all, Haidt demonstrates that our intuitions are not merely emotions but a type of cognition developed in a complex way which downloads as a type of software in us when we are born, and ultimately develops in interaction with other genetic and social factors. 

Key implications are: we would sometimes be wrong in our judgment since our intuition is made up of an ecosystem of factors ranging from our genes inscribed by both our biology and the decisions of our ancestors to our culture and upbringing. 

Another implication is that we would take a stance on things that we know intuitively but are unable to rationalize with reasons. For instance, Haidt shows from an experiment that people generally do not approve of incestuous relationships even by two consenting adults but often cannot provide rational reasons why, even after they have been told that the two adults had protected sex and that potential genetic anomalies in their offspring was not an issue. 

For Christians, Plato was Right and Christ is the Reason that Drives or Should Drive our Intuition

Contrary to Haidt and Hume, Plato’s view is most compatible with Christianity. This is no surprise given how much of his thought has transferred into Christian theology and prepared Christians, humanly speaking, to understand divine revelation through Christ. For instance, the concept of the human Soul as eternal, and the notion of personhood which are core to the Christian theology were greatly assisted by Platonian philosophy.

Plato’s stance that reason drives or should drive human intuition captures the agency of the human person advocated for in Christianity. Christianity encourages humans to value and use their agency to make choices that reflect goodness and to not choose those that propagate evil.  Christianity teaches that man is capable of overcoming and taming his intuition because man in Christianity, is greater than the sum of his ancestor’s decisions, his biology and genetics, having been endowed with the Spirit of God to be children of God or God-like (a little less than Angels), he has dominion over created things as God does (Genesis 1: 26-28; 1 Corinthians 9: 27; Psalm 8:5 ).  Therefore, the Christian person must work to exercise that dominion over himself including his intuition.

However, the reasoning that guides intuition cannot be human reasoning alone. This is because the human is unable to dissociate from his intuition or his reasoning in an objective manner since both are innate.  He needs a reasoning outside himself. One that is both human centred (to applicable to his life), but also one that is perfect. 

Jesus Christ is the Perfect Reason to Drive Intuition

Saint John opens his gospel with a description of Christ in Greek as “the Word,” (In the original Greek “logos”) which also means Reason

Christ is the reason that Christians should replace or supplement their reasoning with. He is the reason that should ultimately drive human intuition. He is both perfect God and perfect man meaning his reasoning is applicable to human nature but at the same time, beyond it. While on earth, Christ spent a lot of time transferring his thinking and reasoning to his disciples and followers. Saint Paul would later pray to the Holy Spirit, that we/all Christians have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2: 5-11). He also describes Christ as the “head” of the Church to which the community of Christians should be affixed (Ephesians 1: 22).

However, it is important to note, that while vindicating Plato and empowering humans with the perfect reason to drive their intuition, Jesus also seems to recognize both the Jeffersonian as well as the Hume/Haidt view. There is evidence in Christ’s teaching that his starting point was always the Hume/Haidt view that intuition drove human reasoning. He used storytelling and narratives including popular parables such as the Widow’s Mite or the Prodigal Son to guide intuitions instead of starting with reasoning which Haidt explains as less effective in changing people’s minds, especially when there was no initial relationship of trust. In this regard, intuition is a raw material that Christ works with. However, because Christ is perfect even in the exercise of his authority, he does not impose on intuitions that are unwilling to accept his authority. He merely told these narratives and let those who were willing apply there reasoning to draw out lessons from them. Lessons which should plant seeds of the Christian mind including total trust of God such as in the story of the Widow’s Mite or the story of the mercy of God and repentance in the story of the Prodigal Son. 

There is also some evidence that Christ appreciated the Jeffersonian view that there is a war between intuition and reasoning in the heart of man. He himself demonstrates this latter struggle during his agony in the garden, being torn apart by the reason for his coming to earth which was to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for humanity’s sins by dying on a cross versus his human intuition and reasoning to avoid the pain (Luke 22: 39-44). We also learn from the Christian Old Testament that the heart is deceitful and that one cannot know it (Jeremiah 17: 9-10). St. Paul also describes a war of two laws in his nature: Romans 7: 22-25.  

In all, unlike the author of this book, Christianity teaches that because intuition is partly determined by forces outside of our doing (such as ancestral decisions, genes, social interactions), it is often flawed and therefore needs to be guided by reason. Not just any reason but perfect reasoning because human reasoning is also flawed; given that it resides in a person with flawed intuition and because one cannot successfully separate their intuition from their reasoning. That perfect reasoning is not a mind alone but a whole person: Jesus Christ who took on flesh to become fully human to model to humanity how to act.

Therefore, Christ should be placed first to purify intuition and to give it direction, guidance and reasons.  From Christ’s action, we learn how we could rely on shared narratives to build new relationships of trusts and to ultimately reach those who are still led by their intuition, to show them another way – the Christian way which uses the mind of Christ. Christians are also to recognize the war between intuition and reason and to choose as Christ would have in these circumstances. 

For all Christians, Christ is The Righteous Mind par excellence and he has reversed the order of things so that Reason/Christ himself now guides the intuition – subjecting it to his own. 

group of people on street
Photo by Romina Ordóñez on

2. Christians Should be Politically “Right” or “Left” ?

Haidt proposes that all human beings, either individually or in groups, have different tolerance levels or expectation of what is “moral.”  He describes these as moral taste buds. This concept of being sensitive or not sensitive to various forms of morality is part of moral foundations theory. For Haidt and other social psychologists, there are six moral foundations namely: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression

On the one hand, people who tend to be politically conservatives or “right wing” tend to engage all six senses of morality in their lives including in their daily and communal living and expectations, in their religion and in their politics. However, it is noteworthy that, based on ample experiments presented by Haidt, the fairness moral foundation of political conservatives is linked to proportionality, a strict eye-for-eye view that is remiss for equity-seeking programs such as affirmative action. Their care tends to be conditioned on loyalty. In other words, their care is more parochial or applied to those they already know or who they feel are within their community and have a history of loyalty to what they themselves value. 

On the other hand, people who identify as politically “liberal” or “left wing” in America tend to have only three of the six moral foundations engaged namely fairness, proportionality and care. Fairness for liberals was not fixed to proportionality but to equality of opportunity and outcomes in some cases. Unlike political conservatives, their care was not tied to loyalty, and as such they often engaged in support of poverty initiatives abroad or welfare programs at home.

This difference in the richness of moral foundations between the “left” and the “right”, the author explains, is why politics in America’s recent history has been dominated by the right wing. The right wing is more complete in resonating with the moral taste buds of more people than the left wing. The left wing tends to come in to correct the excesses of the right wing by tempering raw justice with equity, but often does not last long enough in power because they tend to take their care initiatives too far in a manner that causes disruption in conservative principles. Examples include welfare payments to single mothers from impoverished communities which over time has negatively impacted family structures which conservatives see as a necessary authority at the grassroots to build up good societies. 

Haidt concludes his book by using the oscillating swings from left to right in American politics to underscore the value that each brings to the table. For instance, the conservative emphasis on proportionality has been vindicated given the poor result on families and motivation that welfare programs have caused for the economically poor.  However, there is also evidence that placing equity over proportionality is important given the results of the civil rights movement in America and the integration of African Americans, women and other historically marginalized groups. Haidt also demonstrated that the six morality foundations are universal and not an invention of the conservatives. He demonstrates this by showing ample anthropological studies of various human cultures across generation sand within the US itself. He also showed that the left often had a hard time understanding the importance of the other three moral foundations they tended to ignore – Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Instead of taking the time to understand these, the left often dismissed the right as traditionalist and narrow minded.  He ends the book calling for more dialogue across the proverbial aisle between the left and the right. That this dialogue should be human and friendship-based since this is where our intuition is likely to change, leading ultimately to a change of our reasoning in favour of seeing the good in the other and respecting all six moral foundations.

Lessons for Christians from the Six Moral Foundations in The Righteous Mind

1.   Political Conservatives who are Christians should be aware that although they have all six moral foundations, three of them: fairness, liberty and care, seem to be conditional on the individual’s loyalty to their own values. This is not Christian. Christianity calls for unconditional support of the poor, even when they are not patriotic and even when they do not support Christian values. It does not mean spending irresponsibly but it means building an unconditional relationship of care when you can. For instance, conservatives ought to have supported the 1960s civil rights movement to integrate African Americans. Most of them did not.

2.   Political Liberals who are Christians should be aware that although they see less value in loyalty, authority and sanctity, these are foundations that Christ himself uses. He is described as holy (same as sanctity) Hebrews 7:26, and as having the authority, Mathew 28:18-20. Christ also declares loyalty to his father, John 6:38. Moreover, ignoring these moral foundations does not mean they do not exist and does not mean that liberals themselves do not use them. They often use them even though they do not label them as such. For instance, to disagree about climate change today, is often taken to be sacrilegious or against sanctity. Speaking badly of heroes widely respected by the left such as Greta Thunberg, can be seen as disrespectful to her authority and a black woman voting republican may be seen as disloyal to her race or ethnicity. Christians who are liberals should work on understanding these three moral foundations as a part of human existence. They can look to Christ to see a healthy view of these moral foundations including the Biblical examples provided a few lines up.

3. Ultimately, every Christian should vote but should not confuse their political identity for their Christian identity because they are not thesame. Political ideas are not the mind of Christ although they often have aspects of it. Rather, every Christian who is politically active should strive for all six moral foundations using the mind of Christ to weed out un-Christian aspects of their politics. Because political ideas are ultimately human-led, they need purification and must be re-oriented to, guided and purified by the mind of Christ.

The Mind of Christ includes the teachings of Christ in the gospels, the entirety of Holy Scripture as fulfilled by Christ and the Magisterium of the Church: from the Catechism to Catholic Social Teaching. Note that the mind of Christ is not equal to self-acclaimed Christian teachers, whether on the internet or elsewhere, who are ultimately guided by their own left or right politics, and their intuition – none of which are equal to the mind of Christ.  Practical ways to apply the mind of Christ include reading these sources mentioned above to understand Christ better and to refine our politics with what we learn of Christ from Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church. Applying the mind of Christ also means reaching out across the “aisle” to speak to people whose thinking and politics we find “wrong” or “despicable.” Afterall, they are right some of the time, and ultimately, because they too, are children of God – worthy of being understood even when we disagree.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: