The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012. 448 pages.
The Benevolent Dictator took his kids to work today. It was allowed, so he did it just for fun and so that they can have some idea what he does all day. This means I have a bit of time to try and present a concise review of a book which tackles a pretty complex subject.
This book sets out to do exactly what its title implies, delve into the reasons and more importantly, the impulses, which send normally sane people off the deep end when the subjects of religion or politics are raised.
Haidt’s seminal focus is in the area of moral psychology, of which I understood little before I picked up his book. Nevertheless, many of his points resonated with me even though he clearly approached the topic through a very progressive lens. Even with this caveat, and with the additional note that this is not a Christian themed book, I still think Haidt did a sufficient job of presenting his case. His case can essentially be summed up in a few quotes.
“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”
As I read this book, I was keenly aware how often my reasons for even the most minor things were crafted after my initial instinct or emotional impulse had decided that it was the direction I wanted to go in or the argument I wanted to make.
“The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.”
Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe this process, The elephant represents our innate leanings, whatever they are and on whatever they are based. Our conscious mind is the rider, which serves the purpose of articulating the rationale behind that which we already believe, or at least want to believe, is true.
“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”
This hardly bears analysis for anyone who has faith in things beyond what we see. However, our culture and our psyches are complex and so:
“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.
Given that this is exactly what our culture has evolved into, an altar to reason, that is, it makes perfect sense that people are easily divided into vitriolic camps based on whatever their moral reasoning has deemed the true and right way.
The Internet makes this possible on a level that our grandparents could never have imagined. Even when one considers the assertion that our dogma is based on reality and science we quickly figure out how to manipulate even that. Kellyanne Conway took a beating in the media for the use of the phrase “alternative facts”, but she was closer to the truth than anyone was willing to admit:
“science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.”
This book changed the way I view Internet commentary and debate in ways I will never forget. It was very instructive on how we become relative experts and feeding our respective elephants to the point that we are not open to the truth even if it becomes abundantly clear. We simply hunker down and regurgitate our “well-established” and”factually supported” beliefs using those facts, and time devoted to collecting them as evidence that what we believe is true:
“People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything.”
To be sure, there were plenty of nits to pick in this book, but there was also lots to learn. This is the takeaway for those not inclined to go through the 448 pages:
“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”
That includes me. And you too.
gratuitous caveat: pretty sure Haidt’s an atheist, for those who care about it. There’s still some interesting stuff here, particularly in light of this age of constant debate and vilification of people who are different from us in myriad ways.