The Dark Side of Sympathy

If you think reason is the better angel of our nature, think again.

According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the noblest aspect of human nature is revealed in our sympathetic dealings with others. Sympathy, not reason, is the royal road to overcoming selfish and destructive behaviors. Yet even sympathy has a dark side, as indicated by the title of the book. But before we explore the dangers of sympathy, here’s a quick overview of Haidt’s fascinating work.

The Righteous Mind

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, he advances three principles of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reason second

“We don’t reason about moral matters to discover the truth,” says Haidt. “We reason to justify our beliefs.” In the early 90’s, Haidt conducted interviews to probe reactions to the morality of harmless but offensive stories. Thirty eight percent of those he surveyed claimed someone was harmed even though the stories were carefully crafted to exclude harm. He found the people quickly condemned the action in a snap judgment. Haidt construes this as evidence that reasoning often serves intuitions, not the other way round.

2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness

In the Western world, we’ve embraced an ethic of autonomy, which protects rights and liberty and balances justice for individuals. We tend to think that actions are permissible so long as they don’t harm anyone else. But there are other moral frameworks in the world, as a simple matter of fact.

Statue of Liberty

In an ethic of community, moral concerns center on duty, hierarchy, respect, and patriotism. Here people are viewed as members of a group, not as separate individual people. Tribes, groups and families are worthy of moral regard, independently of what a person thinks or feels.

In an ethic of divinity, central moral concepts include sin, sanctity and purity. People are seen in relationship to God, gods, or something supreme that’s worthy of worship. In this worldview, moral concerns focus on the need to protect the “divine” dimension of life.

Now if you’re like me, you’re at home in an ethic of autonomy. But before you shrug off the moral language of community and divinity, ask yourself, “Is it OK for a brother and sister to have consensual yet 100% protected sex?” Or, “Is it OK to use a dead chicken for sexual gratification?”

Well, is it?

Like Haidt says, there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

3. Morality binds and blinds

Morality has a light and a dark side. On the one hand, morality enables people to get along within a group.

“When I say that human nature is selfish,” Haidt explains, “I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saint, but we are sometimes good team players.”


On the other hand, morality, in enabling us to overcome selfishness and form cohesive groups, creates a new problem, namely, out-group tension and conflict.

“Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Beyond the righteous mind

One of the finest aspects of Haidt’s work is that he suggests a path forward, a way for us to accept the brute facts of in-group and out-group dynamics, while identifying areas where interventions, both technological and educational, can help minimize the effects of our moral blind spots.

One such area of focus is emotion regulation. Because human nature is an emotional elephant with a rational rider, building social and emotional intelligence can help people recognize, understand, and shift how they’re showing up in the world, how they’re acting and behaving.


Another area of focus is the cultivation of belongingness. By promoting authentic social connections, emotions and thoughts are nudged in positive, healthy directions. This in turn impacts belief and action further downstream, in this case, yielding greater sympathy and compassionate behavior.

Lastly, in education, it’s important that we’re honest about the limitations of individuals to reason their way to truth or moral decency on their own. This isn’t something that can be done in isolation. Social and emotional learning programs can help people empathetically relate to one another, enabling them to bridge group divides—social, racial, religious, and political.

  • Thanks for discussing this book and some of its implications. I was part of an eclectic reading group last year where we tackled Haidt’s ideas in relation of environmentalism. We wondered if his insights would translate to the effort to get more people committed to ecological sustainability. His six moral foundation pairings were especially interesting to us because they illustrate the difficulty of persuading people to do or think a certain way about a complex problem. Simple problems can be framed easily in all six categories, but big hairy problems – like education – are tougher to frame.

  • Kevin Neilson

    Hi Randy, first of all, thank you for commenting. I’m curious, what did your group conclude? Do Haidt’s insights inform the way an environmentalist might seek to persuade a cold Earther, as it were? It might interest you to learn that Thomas Nagel roundly criticized Haidt for pretending that his definition of morality, which Haidt stipulates as if it were an uncontroversial statement, is a “scientific” definition. I believe Nagel’s review was in the New York Times Book Review if you want to chase it down.

  • Randall Honold

    We didn’t conclude anything, as I recall. This was a group that gets
    together semi-regularly and whenever we come to the issue of communication
    or persuasion we end up back at Aristotle. As a practical program, it’s
    hard to beat cultivating habits first then conceptualizing them later.
    Moving the needle inside fully-formed adults is nearly impossible. I’m not
    sure I’m that interested in anything Nagel has to say…but I didn’t read
    Haidt as setting down his insights as anything like a law of motion. They
    were gleaned from inductive research, and significantly, outside the WEIRD
    (white, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) orbit.

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