The Righteous Mormon Mind: How Moral Foundations Theory Makes Sense of Latter-day Saint Culture

Mormon Sister Missionaries

Both men and women embark on 18 to 24 month proselyting missions for the LDS Church.

There’s a fascinating, widely acclaimed book I was drawn to recently: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt’s approach to our society’s incivility, that of a moral psychologist, is humble, well-reasoned, and sensitive; and a little polemic—he might even be described as cynical if his carefully constructed theories about human morality were not so even-handed, so perceptive, so true-to-life.

He has accomplished the unusual feat of attracting widespread and positive attention from conservatives, moderates and liberals, both believers and atheists, all of whom find a new method of expression to their views in his profound “moral foundations theory.” As a Mormon reading his book, I found it refreshing how much I had in common with this atheist psychology professor, and felt no hostility toward him for his views, even when he rather quickly summed up religion as a group adaptation (I think that to an extent, he’s right). Recent events have re-introduced America to a once-marginalized minority that now finds itself spread throughout the United States, and more recently, the world. Mormons are unique in American life, even uniquely successful by many measures. Although The Righteous Mind does not discuss Mormonism, Haidt’s ideas may help us explain the virtues of Mormon culture; as well as helping Mormons understand their own faith better by gaining an honest outsider’s perspective.

Of the three core analogies Haidt uses in his book, the one I’ll explain for the purpose of this discussion is that of the “six moral taste receptors”. Haidt argues that we make moral judgments almost instantly. We know when something is “just wrong,” not because we arrived at the conclusion after reasoning, but because our intuition tells us so. Reasoning comes later. He aptly compares this intuitive sense to taste. The analogy becomes more powerful as he separates taste into its five receptors (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory), and argues (in a satisfyingly empirical way) that morality can likewise be effectively reduced to a handful of simple moral foundations, at least for the purposes of theory. He labels these: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

Haidt describes the particular way that these foundations play themselves out in individual or collective settings as “moral matrices,” mindsets that we find very difficult to step outside of. They are the products firstly of natural selection on the individual and on the group, but also of environmental and circumstantial factors—they emerge and evolve in ways none of us can fully understand. Haidt wisely stays away from overly normative analysis of morality in his book. He doesn’t suggest or offer ideal or preferable moral matrices, but rather enjoins sensible pluralism in the public sphere, and I fully endorse this view. Society requires diversity of opinion and practice. Haidt also observes, however, that our morality exists not to further any abstract rationalist goal, but by virtue of its nature to lead us to convert scarce resources around us, physical or otherwise, into offspring who will do the same. He praises prosocial, productive behavior within groups, giving attention to that which is almost universally seen as moral.

This is where Mormons come in. Social scientists for decades have observed the noticeably low violence, strong families, high level of education, and charitable dedication of Mormons. ( has a collection of Mormon-related data here.) They seem to avoid much of modern social disease. (You may not agree—there are drawbacks to the culture I won’t take time to address here.) It is common to ascribe these trends to the Latter-day Saint health code, to a persevering pioneer history, or to simple religious indoctrination. These factors are real, but paint an incomplete picture. For whatever reason, Mormon morality has emerged as a full, nuanced blend of the six moral taste receptors.

Here’s a very brief summary of my ideas. If there’s interest, I’ll expand on each of them in later posts.

  1. Care/harm: Despite the perceived veneer of harsh conservatism, Mormons don’t turn their backs on those who are suffering. Each adult member is assigned a few families in their local congregation to watch over, and help in whatever way possible if needed, in the home teaching and visiting teaching programs. Many young Latter-day Saints embark on 18 to 24 month proselyting/service missions., a new official website, is a compassionate outreach to the gay community which often feels spurned by Christian groups. Mormons favor peace over war and believe that helping the poor, Mormon or not, is a moral obligation.
  2. Fairness/cheating: Everyone in the church is expected to hold a calling (voluntary assignment), contribute tithing and live by church standards. Everyone contributes to the spiritual and temporal community and can expect help if they begin to fall.
  3. Liberty/oppression: Mormons are egalitarian. There is no paid clergy, even at high levels of church leadership. Talks and lessons in church are by various members of the congregation, not by pastors. Authority is tempered by liberal equality; it is only to be maintained by virtue of “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39-46) Mormons are expected to “gain their own testimony” of the religion’s truth; it is not acceptable to complacently rely on one’s family’s beliefs.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: Mormons have an extraordinary unity of doctrine and practice compared to most other religions. When as a member of the church you meet another active Mormon, you feel you already know them. There is an immediate kinship of faith. For Latter-day Saints, family is central, essential and divine, and parenthood is the highest mortal calling.
  5. Authority/subversion: Mormons believe that the church is really Jesus’ church. With Christ as the supreme authority, social order is maintained in a strong hierarchical structure of church leadership. This sounds tyrannical to modern ears, but it is arguably well balanced by “care” and “liberty.”
  6. Sanctity/degradation: Mormonism has a strong sense of the sacred; in that sense it is extremely conservative. We believe in the sanctity of life, sex, marriage, God, nation, family, truth and justice. Active Mormons are connected deeply to each other and to God by ritual: the sacrament, baptism, and temple ordinances/rites.

It’s difficult to convey the particular feeling of being Mormon. It is a deeply religious way of living. It is formally dogmatic; there is not compromise on the fundamental spiritual truths that define a Mormon. But it is also morally adaptive. If you confront a Mormon with a classic “moral dilemma,” you’ll likely find that they’ll respond by appealing to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which speaks to each person subjectively. In this way Mormons are slaves neither to ends nor means, and they do not commit themselves fully to individualism without the responsible consideration of the collective.

This isn’t meant to be a shameless endorsement of the Mormon way of life, and I don’t intend or expect to convert anyone. I hope Mormon readers would take away a new perspective on their faith. I hope other readers would be able to apply the same ideas to their own faith, or worldview. That’s really what Jonathan Haidt has given me through his excellent book. I run the risk of making his ideas too sacred—his book enjoys the company of the Scriptures in my short list of favorite books.

Comments would be appreciated! On a personal note, I’ve never blogged before. Feel free to give me constructive feedback. And let me know what you think of Haidt’s book, and how it applies to Mormonism or to your own way of living.

Update: Thanks to Jonathan Haidt for linking to this post from his site, here.

One thought on “The Righteous Mormon Mind: How Moral Foundations Theory Makes Sense of Latter-day Saint Culture

  1. Hey Tom, I’m enjoying your blog posts so far (reading them backwards on my RSS feed). This book sounds really interesting and I’ll be adding it to my list of books to read. Thanks for taking the time to write about all these different subjects; I’m looking forward to reading more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s