Jacket of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan HaidtThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane)

Jonathan Haidt is a world leader in the new discipline of cultural psychology, which combines the psychologist’s understanding of what goes on inside our heads with the anthropologist’s interest in the social meanings that surround us. Cultural psychology applies the principles of Darwinian natural selection to problems about morality, consciousness and human existence, and Haidt believes that it offers definitive evidence-based solutions to the problems that have been baffling philosophers since the dawn of civilisation.

He is an enthusiastic public advocate for his discipline, with streams of anecdotes about all those wonderful people – teachers, colleagues, friends, students, parents, wife and kids – without whom he would not have been able to rise to the top of his game. He is also, it would seem, one of the great communicators, with an easy way with words and a gift for grand, memorable metaphors.

A few years ago, in a book called The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt focused on the role of emotions in human life, hoping to rescue them from the dogmatic disdain of Western philosophers who, so he said, have been “worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years”. But recent work in cultural psychology showed that the philosophers had got it wrong: emotions were not stupid distractions from truth, but indispensable forms of perception. They were “filled with cognition”, and the ancient prejudice against them was no more than a professional myth – a conspiracy designed to “make philosophers look pretty darned good”, and “justify their perpetual employment as the high priests of reason”.

Haidt must have read an awful lot of philosophy, you might think, to gather the evidence for such a large generalisation, or alternatively he may not have read any at all, but in any case he summed up his discovery in one of his celebrated metaphors.The mind, he said, is not a peaceful philosophical realm where reason and consciousness reign, but a battlefield of conflicting impulses largely beyond our knowledge and control: or rather, it is like a mighty elephant crashing through the forest with a would-be rational rider perched precariously on its back.

In his new book, Haidt applies his elephant simile to morality and politics, suggesting that most of our interactions with each other are processed by the elephant rather than the rider, and that we need to realise that the elephant is not a free agent but a pre-programmed product of evolution. Not that it is necessarily selfish: Haidt makes a good case for the idea that natural selection operates at the level of groups as well as individuals, and that it can favour the evolution of group-preserving instincts for mutuality and co-operation. He goes on to develop a theory of moral motivation on an analogy with taste: just as our tongues have evolved with several distinct kinds of receptors, one for each of the five essential elements of flavour (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury), so our moral elephants have wound up with several distinct sources of moral perception. There are just six “moral foundations”, by Haidt’s reckoning: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity, and their various permutations give rise, he thinks, to the innumerable forms of moral impulse that human flesh is heir to.

Haidt is proud to be a progressive secular humanist, and as a US citizen he has understandable worries about the Democratic Party and its difficulties in appealing to the American electorate at large. His advice to fellow progressives is that, if they want to change the world, they must “talk to the elephant first”. If they do, they will realise that their policies appeal to only three of the elephant’s moral foundations – care, fairness and liberty – whereas conservative Republicans can tickle the elephant’s fancy for loyalty, authority and sanctity as well.

I am sure that Haidt does not expect Barack Obama to alter his ideals in order to appease a horde of God-bothering bible-bashers, but try as I might I could not see where else his line of thought could lead. So I took his advice and talked to the elephant. “The man’s a clown,” she said, “and all that stuff about the split mind and the information-content of emotions is just a rehash of the commonplaces of traditional philosophy, served up as the latest discovery of modern science.” Maybe so, I said: but surely we cannot override the built-in motives that drive people to behave as they actually do. “Of course not,” she said, “but Haidt manages to ignore the most basic phenomenon of morality and moral philosophy: that we can be tempted to do something, though we know it to be wrong; or that we can yield to temptation, and regret our weakness bitterly.” Ah yes, I said: facts are one thing and norms are another, and you can’t get an “ought” from an “is”. But my elephant had moved on by then: packed her trunk, and said goodbye to the circus.