One of the Most Important Books of the Last Decade

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion - Jonathan Haidt

"This book is about why it’s so hard for us to get along. We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so let’s at least do what we can to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, . . Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together. My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity. We are downright lucky that we evolved this complex moral psychology that allowed our species to burst out of the forests and savannas and into the delights, comforts, and extraordinary peacefulness of modern societies in just a few thousand years. . . I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational."

I hardly feel qualified to make any kind of judgments on this book having little background in philosophy, especially moral philosophy, so I especially appreciate Haidt's lucid summary of the development of moral philosophy through examples and hypotheticals.

I remember several years ago having a visit from the local anti-abortion denizens, nice people, very concerned about youth, etc. They steered the conversation to abortion, their favorite topic. Being of a liberal and hopefully rational and reasoned mindset myself, I described a book I had recently read,The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy by Harold J. Morowitz, James Trefil, a small, excellent analysis of the abortion debate that contains a plea for looking at the issue rationally. I described their suggestion that we need to decide what constitutes "human" and then see when the fetus acquires the capability (cerebral cortex) to be human, etc. etc. To which the response was, "well, I don't believe that." All debate and discussions ceases when that statement arrives. Now, I could have said, well, you old biddy, I don't give a fuck what you believe, I'm trying to find some common ground here." But, my mother having raised me as a good little boy who is always polite to old people, I merely sat there rather stunned. That's the problem. How do you create a discussion of issues when either side can just say, well, I don't believe that.

This is not just a conservative or right-wing problem. Try having a rational or reasonable discussion about the merits of circumcision, climate. autism, raw milk or veganism. I guarantee the true believers will immediately assemble with truckloads of vitriol. We all suffer from what Haidt calls "confirmation bias," that is, our gut tells us what to believe first and then we seek out justifications for that belief.

Haidt's book reaffirms what has become fairly obvious: we divide ourselves into tribes and those tribes consist of like-minded people which we use to validate our intuitive predispositions. His stated goal is to attempt to find a way to bridge the divide between two different moral world views., and to find a way for each side to at least understand the other's perspective.

Both left and right are motivated by the moral foundations of care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. But they differ qualitatively: liberals tend to care more about suffering and violence; conservatives care about harm done to others but not as intensely. Conservatives, on the other hand, place more emphasis on fairness, i.e. getting what you deserve. Both sides value liberty but have differing definition as to what constitutes the oppressor. Similarly, with fairness, each side values it but define it differently: liberals view it from the standpoint of equality while conservatives look to proportionality, i.e. fairness is being rewarded for your accomplishments and if you work harder you should be rewarded proportionally. 

The biggest divisions relate to sanctity, authority and loyalty. You can easily guess where the preferences of conservatives and liberals lie. Haidt suggests that liberals will fail to gain wider acceptance until they come to terms with those three moral values and find someway to create their own vocabulary validating them. I would add that liberals will have to be more accepting of groups, particularly religious ones (as much as I despise them,) which serve an evolutionary need to discount selfishness and promote group adherence and benefits.

To some extent that's why I am so puzzled by the right's celebration of Ayn Rand who promoted the antithesis of group-think by celebrating independence and selfishness, i.e. think of yourself first and what benefits accrue to yourself through your actions. She hated coercion both governmental and religious, in particular, yet both encourage group adherence and loyalty.

I just wonder how much of what Haidt says come from his intuitive side (the elephant) and how much from the rational or reasoning part (the rider.)

Here's a quote that struck me: "And why do so many Westerners, even secular ones, continue to see choices about food and sex as being heavily loaded with moral significance? Liberals sometimes say that religious conservatives are sexual prudes for whom anything other than missionary-position intercourse within marriage is a sin. But conservatives can just as well make fun of liberal struggles to choose a balanced breakfast—balanced among moral concerns about free-range eggs, fair-trade coffee, naturalness, and a variety of toxins, some of which (such as genetically modified corn and soybeans) pose a greater threat spiritually than biologically."