Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and the NFL Kneeling Protests

Written in 2012, The Righteous Mind deploys moral and behavioral psychology to explain where we get our politics from. In doing so, it offers a path toward better conversations across political divides. Five years ago, I could have surely written some dumb, hackneyed line about how “our politics are more divided than ever, blah, blah, blah!” After the 2016 election, though, our politics indeed are more measurably divided than ever in my lifetime, and close relationships are ending acrimoniously as a result. We need this book.

Haidt’s moral taxonomy classifies five principles, each of which he traces to its evolutionary origins. The care principle was developed to nurture vulnerable children. The ethic of fairness was built so that humans could reasonably expect reciprocity from partnerships with non-kin. Loyalty emerged to keep coalitions intact. Authority came from status hierarchies, or what others call dominance hierarchies. And the principle of sanctity is a result of keeping out parasites and pathogens. His classifications and their respective origins seem clear and comprehensive.

A self-described liberal, Haidt says that conservatives have a fuller sense of morality, one that rests on all five principles, while liberals are primarily motivated by care and fairness. One of his projects, a questionnaire at, maps the extent to which people of varying political persuasions are motivated by each of those ethical principles and substantiates Haidt’s conclusion that liberals have a narrower scope of morality than conservatives do.

While reading, I immediately applied Haidt’s moral matrix to our contemporary political debates, and found it to be a useful tool for broader understanding and even surprisingly pragmatic solutions. For example, hundreds of hours of cable television have been devoted to whether NFL players, who are mostly black, should stand during the national anthem or kneel as a protest against racist police officers. Naturally, the American left defiantly applauds the protests while the right recoils. Both sides are locked in their positions, something Haidt and empiricist philosophers like the late-David Hume say is a function of human intuition rather than reason — another pillar of Haidt’s thinking. Unlike rationalist thinkers like Descartes, Haidt and Hume say reasoning is mostly a post-hoc fabrication. We intuit our conclusions (players ought to stand or players ought to kneel) first, then engage in strategic moral reasoning to justify them. If that’s the case — and I believe it is — then one ought to focus on the ethics and intuition underpinning each argument.

Some San Francisco 49ers kneel during the National Anthem before a game against the Washington Redskins on October 15, 2017. Author: Keith Allison

In this NFL kneeling debate, the right and left are emphasizing and deemphasizing contrasting ethics. Rather than seeing one side (pick whichever you want) as operating in bad faith and poorly informed, the serious thinker must distill the arguments to core principles. The left is zeroed in on the care and fairness principles, and for good reason. They see a criminal justice system that is tragically imperfect, adjudicates life or death issues, and is worth being analyzed under a microscope. In many cases, this system has been unfair to American blacks. Surely it’s been unfair to American whites as well, but in the final analysis, it has been more unfair to blacks than to whites. Before getting bogged down on important and contentious issues like violent crime statistics by race and implicit racial biases among police (both of which have been seriously researched and debated), I think it helps to borrow another philosophical tool developed by American philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 A Theory of Justice: the “veil of ignorance.” Simply put, if you were in a hypothetical encounter with a police officer and could choose your race for the next half hour, which would race would you choose to be?

I would not choose to be black in this hypothetical scenario.

If you answered similarly, then you agree this is unfair to blacks. Your fairness cognitive module ought to be activated. Similarly, liberals (and conservatives alike) have their care principle activated by this issue. Since Haidt says that care evolved to nurture vulnerable children, it is easy to understand why CCTV video of young Tamir Rice’s summary killing acutely activates the ethic of care. For MSNBC and their mostly-liberal audience, then, this issue is one of care and fairness. The players ought to kneel, they say. But what about the other moral principles? Are sanctity, loyalty, and authority to be eschewed or incorporated when deciding what NFL players ought to do?

They should be incorporated. After all, their evolutionary basis is also real and crucial to a well-ordered society and human flourishing. Sanctity means to imbue something with infinite value, such that it must not be desecrated. To FOX News and its largely-conservative audience who have a broader moral scope, the American flag and the national anthem are symbols worthy of sacred status. Similarly, loyalty to the group is and always has been necessary to keep the group safe from predators and intact, and authority is important to maintain stable status hierarchies — something as natural as a parent-child relationship.

Through this lens, one can see why conservatives object to desecration, disloyalty, and insubordination to their values. Foremost among those values is love of country, which Haidt says explains why conservatives and Republicans have basically had a monopoly on patriotism, something he has sought to rectify through consultative speeches to his Democratic Party.

So, practically speaking, what are we to make of this liberal-versus-conservative Mexican standoff on the gridiron? Temporarily shelving statistics and reducing arguments to their core principles ought to help us see the proverbial forest and offer a path toward greener moral pastures. The answer, I think, is so simple that I almost can’t believe the issue has occupied so much energy and oxygen. The players ought to stand to uphold the ethics of sanctity, loyalty, and authority. And their critics ought to take the hypothetical racial veil of ignorance seriously out of a concern for fairness and care, both of which resonate with conservatives, according to Haidt’s online moral questionnaire.

So, who goes first? As with any Mexican standoff, no one disarms because no one knows who should disarm first. A classic prisoner’s dilemma, there is no guarantee that the other side will reciprocate, and in a one-round game, the other side has every incentive not to reciprocate. “Might as well take the spoils to myself and punish the other side for disarming first,” both sides reason/intuit. But if we conceive of the NFL kneeling protests not as a liberal versus conservative one-round game, but rather as one fight in a series of fights that are optimally solved through cooperation, we can shift to a tit-for-tat moral agreement between liberals and conservatives in which disarmament begets conciliation begets a virtuous circle.

All we need is for everyone who is political (which, after the 2016 election, seems to be everyone) to read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.

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