Mike Kueber's Blog

May 5, 2012

Sunday Book Review #73 – The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 8:13 pm
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The inside jacket to The Righteous Mind provided me with as much motivation to read the book as any other jacket I have read:

“Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount?  Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens?  In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.”

As a political moderate, I can’t imagine a more beneficial objective.  Unfortunately, Haidt is able to deliver only with respect to the origins of our divisions, but not as applied to getting past these divisions.

Haidt begins with the thesis that, with the human brain, intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.  This thesis is very similar to one that described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow (Book Review #67).  A major difference, however, is that Kahneman believes that humans can train their strategic reasoning (so-called System 2) to override their intuition (so-called System 1).  By contrast, Haidt believes that intuition dominates the human brain and that strategic reasoning was developed only to serve the intuition.  To reflect the significant difference in influence between intuition and strategic reasoning, Haidt describes intuition as the elephant and strategic reasoning as merely the rider.  The rider serves the elephant by performing the following functions:

  1. It can see further into the future; 
  2. It can learn new skills and master new technologies; and
  3. Most importantly, it acts as a spokesperson for the elephant by rationalizing for public consumption what the elephant decides to do.  This role is equivalent to being a lawyer or a PR flack.

Haidt’s second thesis is that, although most people think there are essentially only two moral foundations – care/harm and fairness/cheating – there actually are six:

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Liberty/oppression
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degradation

Haidt suggests that the source of the Democratic Party’s electoral failures for the past 30 years is that it has appealed only the first two moral foundations while the Republican Party has been very good at appealing to all six of these moral foundations.

Haidt’s third and final thesis is that individuals are not purely selfish, but rather they follow their club/clique thinking.  He calls this “Morality Binds and Blinds” because it not only creates cohesiveness, but also causes an unthinking rejection of all contrary positions.  Religion and politics are quintessential in their ability to bring together a large number of individuals for a common cause while at the same time magnifying any differences with individuals outside the group – “us vs. them” thinking.

Based on his three theses, Haidt defines moral systems as “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make co-operative societies possible.”  And with respect to “pointing the way forward to mutual understanding,” as the book jacket suggested, Haidt concludes with the following:

           This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion.  The answer is not, as Manichaeans would have it, because some people are good and others are evil.  Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness.  We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning.  This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations. 

          So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try.  Don’t just jump right in.  Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust.  And when you bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest.

            We’re all stuck her for a while, so let’s try to work it out.

(The last sentence was a quote from Rodney King that the author has referred to earlier in the book.)

The book makes a few references to YourMorals.org.  I went to the site and found that it offers a plethora of morality quizzes.  I’ve taken one, with many to follow.

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