Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2012)

I had heard about this book and bought it with every intention of reading it, but didn’t get around to it until a writing friend of mine who is very liberal told me that he was reading it and that it was expanding the way that he viewed politics.  So I started reading it and soon had my highlighter out, always a good indication that I am paying attention.  Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University who studies moral psychology, which is how we make moral choices.  He used to be at the University of Virginia and previously published a book on happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006).

Haidt first shows that psychological research has demolished the idea that we arrive at moral choices through rational thought, as supposed by philosophers, who tend to put rational thought at the center of all our thinking.  Rather, he argues that we make moral choices though a process of moral intuition, which is a subconscious (or preconscious, if you prefer) process.  These intuitions are genetically-based modules, subject to natural selection.  His Moral Foundations Theory explains that we have six modules:
  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
There may be other modules, but these are the ones that Haidt and his colleagues have identified.  You can take a survey at YourMorals.Org to see where you stand on these different modules, though the survey requires honest reflection, which is not something that many of us are inclined towards doing.  While this theory of morality can be applied to many different arenas of human life, Haidt applies it towards explaining politics in America.

For most of us, our political attitudes are really moral choices, beliefs about how the world works and how it should work.  In America, political orientations are often considered moral imperatives by their most ardent advocates.  Haidt found that liberals or progressives in America are very preoccupied by the first three moral foundations, while conservatives tend to draw from all six foundations.  For instance, a liberal is very concerned if someone is being hurt (an example of care/harm) or disadvantaged because of their race, sex, or sexual orientations (an example of liberty/oppression).  While a conservative does care about someone being hurt or being oppressed, the conservative will often also balance those moral intuitions with other moral intuitions, such as a sense of loyalty towards established norms and respect for authority.  The conservative may also seek sacred values that create a moral intuition.

Once any person has reacted to a moral situation with a moral intuition, then comes the rational phase, which is the conscious thinking that we often call rationalization.  The purpose of this second stage to explain to other people and to himself or herself rational reasons for the moral reaction they have already arrived at.  Haidt describes this as the Elephant and Rider metaphor, where the elephant is those innate moral intuitions and the rider is conscious post hoc rationalizing.

This fascinating book has changed how I think about political issues.  It made me more sympathetic to other points of view (even though I think that I was already pretty sympathetic, since I am in the middle on most issues and quite moderate).

Posted: 27 January 2014