Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
© 2013 Jonathan Haidt
528 pages

The Righteous Mind begins with a question, seriously posed: why  can't we all get along? To find the answer, Jonathan Haidt delves into the nature of morality, following the pursuit of it from philosophy to evolutionary psychology. Haidt produces three core ideas: one, David Hume was correct in positing that people are more intuitive than rational; two,  moral concerns don't have a singular source, but fall along six separate axes,  each derived from our natural history, despite being couched in flourished religious and philosophical language; and finally, that morality is double-edged sword, binding us with one another as well as against others. Haidt's work is impressive in its breadth, drawing on sources as diverse as Plato, Emile Durkheim, and E.O. Wilson, and in its delivery. Though he covers a lot of territory in a compact book, Haidt constantly works to keep readers aware of how all of the ideas discussed connect together.

The grand idea underlying all this is that morality is neither an objective truth that can be deduced via logic by anyone old enough to reason, nor is it completely subjective, an artifact of culture that is deposited into a blank slate of our infant minds. It is instead a product of evolution. Our instincts for morality are kin to our sense of taste:  there are different flavors of moral concern, and each of them played a part in our species' development. The natural basis for morality is being eagerly explored by scientists like Frans de Waal, who has demonstrated how chimpanzees can empathize with one another, and sense when others are being treated unfairly.  Caring for one another is a mammalian strength, but there is more to morality than care and fairness. There are also senses of loyalty and deference to authority useful to tribes competing against other tribes, and a sense of 'sanctity' that buds off our natural feeling of disgust that keeps us away from unhealthy influences. Our instincts may be strengthened by rationalistic arguments or ritual, but neither can conceal their source,  nor operate independently from it.

Haidt sees our moral-political instincts as particularly far-developed as compared to other primates, though. Although alphas in chimpanzee troops do have a political role in mediating disputes, they are not kings: they do not command the tribe to go here or there, or make plans for its future well-being. Haidt believes natural selection has favored our 'righteous' (political-religious-moral) instincts in this regard  out of necessity, because for thousands of years we've had to regularly deal  with so many of our own numbers:  instincts which promoted order and cooperation were favored, and those populations which most exhibited them flourished, while populations that didn't disappeared. Religion, too, played a powerful part. In Haidt's view, we are not merely instinctive creatures who one day stumbled upon culture and started happily passing it down to the next generation like a good stick. We have evolved to be dependent on culture, and this is why religion is such a universal and powerful  trait of human kind.  Religion is first and foremost about morality and keeping the tribe together:  ideological religions like Christianity and Islam are fairly novel.  

These instincts are not part of the past; they are present, with us now.  Haidt examines US political parties by this six-taste model and concludes what while liberals depend strongly on the Care and Fairness feelings, and Libertarians are somewhat obsessively fixated on the Liberty-Oppression axis (which is a 'new' taste that developed fully after we'd become tool-users), conservatives draw marginally from each 'taste' equally across the spectrum.Like all products of evolution, our righteous instincts are a trade-off. A dog with long legs runs fast, but loses heat more quickly than a short-legged rival -- and morality which evolved in the atmosphere of inter-population competition is all about Us vs. Them.  When we rally towards an 'us', we draw away from a 'them'.  In light of that, Haidt ends the book by offering ways people of varying political opinions can argue more constructively. He first asks readers to keep in mind that people who disagree with us may simply be drawing on another set of instincts and beliefs:  you are not the center of the universe, and those who are different from you are not the Evil Villain set against you in some colorful psychodrama. We must labor to discern where people are coming from if we intend to communicate. Secondly, he draws on his own experience as an idealist-turned moderate to detail what liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can learn from one another: markets are magic, but not perfect -- and if something isn't  good for the beehive, it can't be good for the bee.

The Righteous Mind is  astonishing:  the argument masterfully organized and sympathetically voiced from an author who distills a wide range of research from across the intellectual spectrum into a reflective, wise work.  This is very much recommended.



  1. Sounds very interesting. I'll add it to my 'watch out for' list.

  2. I *knew* this would be a thought provoking book. It touches on several themes I've been ruminating on lately--morality, and the differences among various political ideologies.

    I amazoned this one, too. It should arrive sooner than the other, due to the fact I used my sister's account which qualified for a free 30 day Prime trial.

    My budget is cursing me out for discovering your page, BTW. ;)

  3. Hah! I know how that is; it's why I try to avoid Goodreads and Amazon after a certain point. The problem with really interesting books is that they tend to mention OTHER really interesting books....

  4. I'm actually blaming you for pushing my Amazon Wish list over the 300 item mark... [lol] Not that I needed *that* much encouragement mind!

  5. It's only fair, considering how many of your just-finished-reading posts are piling in my bookmarks!

    (Especially the naval stuff..oy!)


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