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addabook - The Righteous Mind
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The Righteous Mind
Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt
read on February 1, 2013

This is another book by Jonathan Haidt, whose first book The Happiness Hypothesis, was pretty solid. I saw this book at a Barnes and Noble in North Beach CA and from the cover knew I'd have to read it (not the cover shown here...). This book seems like a logical sequel to his first. Haidt continues his metaphor that the brain is like a rider on an elephant - where reason is a jockey atop an elephant, looking around and trying to rationally decide where to lead it - an then the elephant (intuition, morality) is the actual thing doing the walking, and for the most part it goes wherever it damn well pleases. I think he expands this metaphor a bit from the prior book, and then goes on to build out a really solid foundational theory of morality. His premise is pretty much that we all understand morality in very similar ways, but we (through nature/nurture) end up expressing those morals in different ways. It's a well organized book, and while I don't really read very much about morality, a lot of the ideas here were new to me.

There was a fair amount of unsurprising discussion about how easily people justify what they (their elephant) want to believe. Haidt frames this as "can/must". When you want to believe something, you ask yourself "Can I believe it?". When you want to disagree with something you ask yourself "Must I believe it?". In both cases, you only need one piece of evidence to be satisfied.

My favorite quote from the book was pretty early on. Haidt spends the first half of the book talking about reason vs. intuition, and then the second half discussing the implications of those on politics and religion. On reason, Haidt had several thoughts that I've never come across before, and liked very much. I thought the below was fantastic:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.

... I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning; for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgements, but they're often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any individual's ability to reason.

... each individual reasoner is really good at one thing, finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth seeking reasoning; particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning power to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

Author Bio:

Jonathan David Haidt (pronounced "height", born October 19, 1963) is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. His academic specialization is the psychology of morality and the moral emotions. Haidt is the author of two books: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), which became a New York Times bestseller. He was named one of the "top global thinkers" by Foreign Policy magazine, and one of the "top world thinkers" by Prospect magazine.