Towards Understanding the Right Wing Mind

Given that I grew up in Dublin its probably no surprise that I was brought up a Catholic. I would say both by temperament and upbringing I am very much on the left. My maternal grandmother was closely involved with  Countess Markievicz and did much good work in the Dublin slums in the earliest part of the 20th century and one of my aunts is a Franciscan Nun and considered one of the founding mothers of Malaysia. I’ve always found it difficult to reconcile being Christian to being right wing. Whereas I am very disappointed with the current crop of politicians, I’m pleased that with the current Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury we have good leaders with a strong moral compass.

In the The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.

Haidt’s six moral foundations are:

  1. the sense of needing to provide care and protect from harm.
  2. the sense of what is just and fair.
  3. the sense of loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for a group.
  4. the sense of obedience or respect for authority.
  5. the sense of needing to preserve purity or sanctity.
  6. the sense of liberty/oppression.

Haidt finds that liberals tend to strongly emphasize the first two moral intuitions (harm and fairness) in their responses to situations and events, but are much weaker on emphasizing the next three (group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity or sanctity). By contrast, Haidt finds that conservatives more than liberals respond to all five moral intuitions. On the sixth liberals and conservatives alike care about being free from tyranny, from unjust exertions of power, but they seem to apply this impulse differently. Liberals use it to stand up for the poor, the weak; conservatives use it to support the “don’t tread on me” mentality.

Its an interesting thesis. Currently the Tories are very much using number three in their appeal to patriotism and what seems to be an attempt to drum up the Falkland’s War spirit, but this time with the EU as the external enemy. It doesn’t work with me I have seen the destructive effect of “the sense of loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for a group” on my own island.

Possibly you see some of these traits in yourself?



  1. Mark Crown -

    Very interesting Sean.

    What I see are 6 broad principals that can be interpreted by anyone wanting to win over a voter for any purpose. The Tories use the concept of fairness in a most perverse way by insisting that tenants are firstly charged a tax on any spare rooms and are then evicted when the reduction in benefit or increase in rent makes the home unaffordable.

    UKIP surely plumps for purity and sanctity when trying to stop immigration.

    In an age of fake news and the Alt Right, these foundations are made on sand in my view. They can be bent to anyone’s view no matter how extreme.

    I am reading Richard Thaler’s ‘Misbehaving’ at the moment – the co-writer of ‘Nudge’. In Chapter 33 ‘Nudging in the UK’ there is no doubt that Thaler is somewhat taken in by Cameron and Co’s attempts to bring caring conservatism to Britain by nudging to change behaviours – he sees them as genuine (who didn’t?). Rather presciently though, at the end of this chapter on page 345 Thaler says this:

    “Businesses or government s with bad intentions can use findings of the behavioural sciences for self serving purposes , at the expense of those being nudged”.

    The lesson is that there is a duality to this well meaning stuff that can be exploited – including Haidt’s 6 foundations.

    The right has learnt how to use progressive moral language to portray themselves as ‘nice’. To make themselves look reasonable.

    Have you ever read John Dunn’s ‘The Cunning of Unreason’? It is hard going but there are moments of sagacity that make it well worth reading. Human partiality to what we think we know and for our ideologies is identified as the main problem.

    And the message to progressives has to be what can we learn from this? Well, we have to be just as cunning I’m afraid. We have to start playing the same game and get our hands dirty.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      very interesting, I haven’t read these but am reading David Goodhart’s book “The Road to Somewhere” at present. Not sure I would recommend it; its a bit hit and miss. Sadly I think you are right: Jeremy Corbyn is a much nicer person than Theresa May but much less effective and popular. Haidt also comes to the conclusion that the right understands the left far better than visa-versa.

  2. Peter May -

    Thought provoking, but as you’ve mentioned two Christian leaders I wonder how different this is from ‘ I am my brother’s keeper’. I reckon that covers the first three.
    I’m a bit skeptical about the remaining three. Purity or sanctity isn’t morality for me but it reminds me of ‘the right looks for converts, the left looks for traitors.’
    And obedience/ respect for authority and the sense of liberty/ oppression are two sides of the same coin. I don’t think obedience is ever moral unless you think about it first, nor really is liberty which if you don’t think about it properly becomes licence.
    I certainly think progressives have to realise that what we feel is probably more influential than what we think. So as Mark says, we need to be prepared to play the game.
    I actually think Corbyn is able to engage with people on an emotional level and is good at it. And far better than May who on the rare occasions she ever answers the question sounds as detached as a speak your weight machine. Indeed I cannot really understand if the current Tories have a moral direction that doesn’t come from economics – and we know that is no moral direction at all.

  3. Grace Sutherland -

    Hi Sean,
    Good morning to you. I hope you are enjoying this fine day.
    My first thought is that his statements seem overly simplistic. Taking them one by one here as some thoughts:

    1. the sense of needing to provide care and protect from harm.
    Conservatives are certainly good at giving loyalty to their own groups or like-minded groups, and are very partial to their own values, but as we have seen they are not so hot at inviting other groups to the party, or seeing the perspective of the significant ‘outsider’ You could argue that liberals have transcended the idea of loyalty to the group- to include loyalty to other groups – caring about the welfare of all, not just those who think England is somehow their personal property.

    2.the sense of what is just and fair.
    Once again, just and fair to whom? Do we think it good idea to Brexitise the world and retreat into a fictional past or have we not now realised that we must go beyond our narrow national interests to create a world that is just and fair to more of us and not less of us? How is it just and fair to perpetuate a politics that makes the top 1 percent richer at the expense of everyone else?

    3.The sense of loyalty and willingness to sacrifice fight for a group.

    It could be argued that the loyalty of the liberal mind has transcended and included any narrow group membership. It’s not that they don’t care about loyalty but they now incorporate more groups into their more worldcentric consciousness.

    4. The sense of obedience and respect for authority.
    I believe the liberal mind (as distinct from the reactionary mind of rebellious youth) is no less respectful of authority. As a liberal, I have gone beyond the stage in my life when I was obedient because some distant authority figure told me to do something. I now do the right thing because I have a deep conviction that doing the right thing is good for society. I am my own locus of control. I don’t need to look to an authority to know what I think any more. My obedience and authority is to something greater than myself and something greater than ‘the law’

    5. The sense of need to preserve purity or sanctity.

    I have no idea what is meant by this statement and would only be guessing without reading the book so I won’t respond to it.

    6.the sense of liberty /oppression
    Again, its a nebulous phrase and I would only be guessing at what it meant without seeing the context.
    I think the divide between the left and right is essentially a debate about developing consciousness it’s the conformist or tribalist mind against the international or global mind.
    Must say I am less interested in which group exemplifies this or that statement above, than in which group has the enlightened leadership, perspectival wisdom and sophistication to deal with the devilishly complex problems the world now faces, such as culture wars, climate change, a failing Neoliberal capitalism that perpetuates the economic divide.
    Whichever political party that is, it is hard to believe it is espoused by the narrow vision of the likes of Theresa May.
    Now to the sunshine!

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. I am not endorsing Haidt’s work, I just thought it was interesting. Indeed enjoy the sunshine. I particularly liked “I Must say I am less interested in which group exemplifies this or that statement above, than in which group has the enlightened leadership, perspectival wisdom and sophistication to deal with the devilishly complex problems the world now faces, such as culture wars, climate change, a failing Neoliberal capitalism that perpetuates the economic divide.” I am deeply worried about Theresa May, she seems to be singularly not up to the task. Churchill said “country first parliament second party third” but May comes across to me at least as “party first party second and party third” and seems singularly unsuited to represent the entire country – I do hope I’m wrong.

  4. Richard Murphy -

    I am inclined to share the other’s view that these ideas are too malleable to be useful. But the idea is sound. The left does need to understand the right. And because the left wears its heart on its sleeve the right is willing to exploit it in two ways. First there is the charge of hypocrisy that is always levelled whatever we do. The trouble for the left is that if you’re not seen to be living by your principles the pounce, but the reality is that then exposes their own weakness (if not in their own eyes). This weakness is that they make clear that they do not care. Think of it in Venn diagram terms. In answer to the question as to who their neighbour is the left have a rather wide circle of overlap and the right’s is pretty narrowly defined around the person offering the perspective. That to me is the fundamental difference in perspective between left and right. And we have to point it out, I suggest.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      its a good thought. I tend to see the essential goodness in all humanity; but maybe its easy for me I’ve been pretty successful in my life. I have been fortunate in my parents, education etc. but serendipity plays a greater part than many acknowledge.

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