Here’s why self-righteousness doesn’t persuade

Have you ever been in a discussion with somebody about an impolite topic — say, politics or religion — and thought the other person was one of three things:

1. Stupid

2. Misguided or ignorant of crucial facts

3. Immoral

And, no matter what you say, the other person has a comeback to the point that you finally conclude you live in parallel universes?

I’ve been reading a fascinating new book on moral psychology by University of Virginia Professor Jonathan Haidt. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt tries to explain why.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in convincing others of their way of thinking. I can’t do it justice in 500 words, and I suspect Haidt would say he can’t do the topic justice in 300 pages, but with wide knowledge of archeology, psychology and history, Haidt comes close.

First, he says, the truth is that we are essentially instinctual beings, not acting on reason. He likens it to being the rider on the elephant. The elephant operates on instinct and mostly goes where it wants to go until the facts become compelling that it should go in a different direction. The rider, meanwhile, wanting to appear in charge, comes up with all sorts of explanations why the elephant is going in the direction the rider wants to go. We call this reason.

Today, we are just over 12 weeks away from a major election. Here at the paper, we are expecting to be bombarded with letters to the editor. Haidt says most of these political arguments are not written to convince others to join their cause. Instead, they are written to prove that the writer belongs to one group or another or to strengthen the already held beliefs of one’s own group.

Haidt says that he first thought morality was based on five foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation. Haidt undertook several experiments to determine how people who are politically liberal or conservative differ in their morality.

He found that everybody cares at least some about all five foundations, but liberals value Care and Fairness far more than the other three foundations, while conservatives endorse all five foundations fairly equally.

Haidt says this explains why rural and working-class Americans generally vote Republican when it is the Democratic Party that wants to redistribute money more evenly. Democrats often say that Republicans have duped these people into voting against their economic self-interest. However, conservatives don’t see it that way. Haidt says they believe they are voting in their own moral interests. They don’t want the nation to devote itself primarily to the care of victims and the promotion of social justice.

That’s why Republicans are generally more opposed to flag burning (Loyalty), are more supportive of the military (Authority), and care more about stopping abortion (Sanctity of life).

Then Haidt discovered a sixth moral foundation: Liberty/Oppression. While hatred of oppression is found across the political spectrum, the difference, Haidt said, is that liberals use it in support of underdogs, victims and the powerless everywhere while conservatives use it to fight high-tax nanny states, over-regulation and reducing national sovereignty through the United Nations and international treaties.

The reason we don’t get along, Haidt writes, is that “team membership blinds people to the motives and morals of their opponents — and to the wisdom that can be found scattered among diverse political ideologies.”

It’s reached the point that in Congress and the Legislature, friendships and social contacts across party lines are discouraged. The opposing party is simply “the enemy.”

We could tolerate it in the 1990s when the economy was booming, but now, when the ship of state seems to be sinking, it seems as if we have two separate crews fighting for control of the ship but nobody is repairing the leaks.

Haidt claims to be a liberal atheist. He used to despair over the difficulty Democrats had connecting with voters — until he came to understand where Republicans were coming from. As he sees it, Democrats operate on a three-foundation morality and Republicans operate on a six-foundation morality. More is not necessarily better, but it does explain the difference.

And just as there are differences in politics, Haidt sees the same kinds of differences between religions.

Thus, the next time you get into a political or religious argument, Haidt suggests working extra hard on trying to understand where the other person is coming from, where the concern lies — in short, how they form their view of morality.

Then, remember, we are all just riders on the elephant of our instincts. Your after-the-fact reasons justifying your politics or your faith  will not convince someone who is riding a different elephant with different moral underpinnings.

Haidt urges everyone to, yes, become more tolerant of those with whom they disagree, to work harder to understand their own version of morality, and to re-phrase the arguments they use to persuade others in ways that will appeal to the six foundations of morality, not just their own.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at

up arrow