The Righteous Mind of the Ethical Consumer: How Jonathan Haidt Made me see the elephant beneath the rider

climbing-47618__340Until recently, if someone asked me to name a book that has had the biggest influence on my life, I could not have named one. Now I can. It is a book by Jonathan Haidt, and it is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. From the first pages I could see what a mind-changing book it is and what a profound effect it will have on me – personally, but also on my research project. It so happens that I discovered this book at the time when I am about to finish my fieldwork – having done dozens of shopping trips and about 25 hours of in-depth interviews, I have a wealth of data to dive into, sieve through and make sense of.  These last 4 months were not merely about meeting new people, shopping with them, locating new grocery stores and discovering products I have never heard of, looking into people’s food baskets and getting the low-down on their diets, eating habits and concerns. It was about realising diversity, witnessing decision-making, revealing contradictions, learning morality – and not just of the people I met, but my own as well. So what have I learned in the past several months and why Jonathan Haidt’s book on moral psychology seems to be something that is going to crown it all?

The book is a fascinating exploration into the evolution of human morality. It teaches the reader to recognize the diversity of moral views and to be able to understand moral worlds other than your own. From this perspective, the key thread waving through the entire fabric of my study becomes apparent – my goal is to understand people’s morality, and the hardest challenge (and, simultaneously, a key to success) is to understand it from their own – inevitably subjective, but equally valid – point of view.

Not that I did not expect the questions of morality to be pertinent to my research. In fact, I have long put them on the top of the list of issues ethical consumption is defined and driven by. Indeed, the concepts of right and wrong were mentioned by all of my participants, albeit each had a different perspective on what the greatest good is and how to achieve it. However, my initial approach to morality as being something inherent, universal, authentic, and fixed has (luckily) crumbled apart. What I should have been focusing on from the onset is how different moral values emerge, develop, and come to define people’s most mundane decisions, such as the choice of food, but also how these values get challenged, reconsidered, negotiated and repudiated.

Jonathan Haidt has this excellent metaphor of a rider on the back of an elephant where the rider is the conscious, reasoning part of the mind, and the elephant is its unconscious – automatic, emotional, visceral – side. The rider is trying to control the elephant, but has only limited command of the direction in which the giant animal takes him. Having painted a mental picture of a little rider who wants to go in a certain way, but is always at the mercy of the elephant, I could apply the metaphor to my work, although my elephant is something slightly different from Jonathan Haidt’s. I came to truly appreciate my research methods and understand what exactly I was able to learn from numerous shopping trips and a dozen of 2-hour long life history interviews. When observing people shopping, I was seeing the riders – ethical consumers appearing to be mindful of the choices they make, rationalizing their decisions, always finding a reason to provide for why they choose to buy or not to buy this or that particular product. By learning the story of their lives, however, I could see the elephant – the social backgrounds, family circumstances, cultural exposures, educational inputs – all that has been shaping and crafting people’s morality as they went through their very specific life paths, leading them to become who they are, to have the concerns that they have, to develop values and principles they commit to. But this giant elephant is not just a product of past experiences; it is also a net of various factors that presently affect consumers’ ability to shop ethically – the most salient ones, as my own study seems to indicate, are the price, availability, time, family needs and preferences.

The idea of responsible shoppers as riders who wish to be always consistent in their consumption ethics but are inescapably constrained by the powerful elephant is a first step towards understanding the role of morality in people’s day-to-day food choices. My journey into the world of moral psychology is still underway – I will keep sharing my insights and aim to write a review of Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book once I finish it.

References

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.

 

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