Jonathan Haidt on Self-Righteousness and Moralism in Politics

Jonathan Haidt on Self-Righteousness and Moralism in Politics

According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, self-righteousness was an evolutionary boon, not just a present ideological annoyance.

Self-righteousness guides modern politics, creating partisanship and gridlock when competing ideologies, both assured of their own righteousness, come into conflict. The political landscape in the U.S., exacerbated by a Presidential election, is a perfect illustration of this. Public approval, which has been measured as low as 8% of respondents, is actually a composite of these competing ideologies. The political right and left, both of whom consider the other to be “ruining the country” (or some equivalent piece of hyperbole), are part of that low rating. However, there’s also a more foundational moral in the country that politicians must be compromising and seek middle ground, and individuals frustrated with the congressional gridlock and polarization are equally unhappy.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist with the University of Virginia, expounds on the importance of “righteousness” and politics, explaining the its importance in terms of evolutionary psychology and human progress. Haidt calls self-righteousness and the ability to create a moral matrix and to, “punish, shame and ostracize” those that do not behave accordingly a major breakthrough in our evolution. By forming “right” conduct and belief around a moral code, humans have been able to induce cooperation on a scale that other animals could not. In Haidt’s words, “We wouldn't be talking on the phone now if we didn't have righteous minds. We'd be like chimps, brilliant individuals who are poor at cooperating and collaborating.”

The difference is that humans are able to communicate “shared intentionality”, or appeal to other individuals in order to create a common cause. This is also referred to as a “moral imperative”, and drives much of what has happened throughout human history, including politics. Haidt looks back at the last thirty years of political progress in the U.S., and finds one overwhelming trend; Republicans have been very good at finding the common language of morality within their political discourse. “To get folks to vote for you,” says Haidt, “you need to tap into several of their moral foundations.” Republicans have done this very well, even going so far as to instill their members with buzz words and phrases, evocative notions of moral disgust or righteousness. It is the “compassionate conservative” as compared to “liberal media”. In fact, if one listens to conservative media outlets, one can actually “hear” this rhetorical formula; a kind of moralistic vocabulary that has, over the last several decades, been integrated into everyday speech.

According to Haidt, morality is just one more of those intrinsically human qualities that allow us to bind together, to be “tribalistic” in our social behaviors. Like language and music, morality is inherently “groupish”, and as such will breed conflict as well as cooperation; cooperation within the group, and conflict with other groups. It just so happens that in modern politics, one group has been much better at marketing their brand of morality than the other one.