Every now and then I post about a website, article or book that has either inspired or challenged me. Today’s post is about just such a book – a book about moral psychology titled The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.

I consider myself to be a cognitive/behavioral therapist, practicing a school of psychology that emphasizes the role of thought in dictating emotion. Many of the blog posts that I’ve written deal with the primacy of our thinking versus our emotions (e.g. “Choosing Your Thoughts,” “The Incredible Power of Thought,” “Thought Management and “A Key Principle Underlying Thought Management” etc.).

However, The Righteous Mind turns the relationship between thought and emotion on its head when it comes to such fundamental issues as morality, political views, and religious beliefs. It is one of the 10 books recommended by the Washington Post for this summer’s reading. It’s not a page-turner, but a serious investigation of “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” (the book’s subtitle). It’s particularly relevant to those of us here in the nation’s capital who are dismayed by the political gridlock of the past several years, and concerned about seemingly intractable conflicts abroad that flow from different religions / moralities. This book will certainly help provide new and more accommodating ways of thinking about ideologies that are antithetical to yours.

Haidt cites voluminous series of studies that clearly demonstrate that humans use logic / reason to justify their deeply held emotional values. Thought, in other words, comes after emotion rather than the other way around. I was skeptical of this premise when I first encountered it in this volume, but became convinced, particularly by Haidt’s experiments in different cultures. He concludes that “…reasoning…evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of other people….’skilled arguers…are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.’ ” What he’s talking about here is confirmation bias, the tendency to favor facts and ideas that support one’s position, even if those facts and ideas are sketchy.

Take some time to notice what happens to your thought processes the next time someone close to you upsets you. If you’re like most people you will devote a lot of your mental attention to a rationale for why the person who upset you is wrong / bad / guilty, and you’ll probably come up with quite a list of that person’s faults. That person’s good points will be ignored: logic being used in the service of emotion, an emotion that dictates exactly what logic must focus on.

This process helps explain why people we like and admire a lot in certain respects can seem so maddeningly obtuse about fundamental issues of fairness. In fact, one’s morality is not necessarily anchored to the concept of fairness. It can spring from other ideas – from loyalty, respect for authority, or prescribed sanctity, for example. Western “first world” societies tend to emphasize the rights of the individual. These rights were articulated during the 18th century Enlightenment and led to the American and French revolutions. Those uprisings upended the highly hierarchical Church and Monarchy-controlled order (an order with heavy doses of loyalty, respect for authority, and prescribed sanctity).*

The different bases of morality lead to very different prescriptions for how life should be led, and what is and is not permissible. Approval of same sex marriage, for example, rests on the belief that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable (and paramount) rights. Disapproval frequently rests on the authority of certain Biblical interpretations, and on the idea that society is best served by heterosexual marriage – communal interests trump individual ones in this example.

I urge all of you to get this book and read it. It will help you understand and appreciate (perhaps for the first time) people whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. And it’s exactly that understanding and appreciation which can bring us a step closer to a smoothly functioning democracy, and which can contribute to resolving the all-too-numerous international conflicts of the twenty-first century.

*Eastern and third world societies place much more emphasis on the cohesion of the group. The author’s exploration of the Indian social order and caste system contrasts strongly with our American ideas about the primacy of the individual.