David's Reviews > The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
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Jun 29, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2012
Read on June 29, 2012



Despite some painful infelicities of style, this book is compelling and generally well-argued. Two aspects irritated me -- I thought several of the author's chosen analogies were dreadful -- clunky and not particularly apt. The silliness of the metaphor that humans are Homo Duplex -- "90% chimp, 10% bee" -- is just so jarring that it distracts the reader from the argument. Similarly, I found his other recurrent metaphor, that for our rational and intuitive mental processes -- "The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant" -- to be severely deficient. And the less said about the unfortunate phrase "taste buds of the righteous mind" the better. Not to mention crimes against the language like "groupishness", "Durkheimogens", or the "hive switch".

However, though I did find these stylistic tics annoying, in the end they are minor flaws in a book which was fascinating, highly readable, and thought-provoking. I found it considerably more interesting than I did "The Happiness Hypothesis". The first third of the book, about the origins and dimensions of moral intuition, is very much the author's home turf, and he writes about it lucidly and authoritatively. The second section, which attempts to explain the development of human moral sense in evolutionary terms, was not fully convincing (to me). But it was thought-provoking and well-written -- the arguments are laid out clearly, so the reader can judge them on their merits. On the topic of religion, Haidt's arguments are considerably more interesting, and expressed with far greater civility, than the shrill invective doled out by the anti-God group of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.

The last couple of chapters in the book, in which the author examines the polarization and loss of civility that has crept in to American political life in the last decades, are fascinating. In particular, his explanation for the difference in moral priorities between liberals and conservatives rings true. Both sides battle it out, on a variety of social and political issues, each convinced they occupy the moral high ground, increasingly dismissive of their opponents. Whether or not you believe Haidt's claim that this very human trait of moral superiority is a logical result of evolutionary pressure, its potential to be destructive in the political sphere is obvious.

The author (wisely) offers no magic solution to the ever-more bitter polarization of the American electorate, concluding instead with what is essentially a call to the better angels of our nature. The question posed by Rodney King, back in 1992, has never been more relevant - "Can we all get along?"

I highly recommend this book.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Eric_W I agree with your assessment of the metaphors. As far as polarization, I suspect each generation considers itself unique, but as I review the elections of 1800 and that of Andrew Jackson, I discover we are probably more civil today. Excellent book as I noted in my review.


Stuart Berman I thought the metaphors were apt if stylistically jarring. The metaphors helped me to really understand his points (chimp egoist, bee hive minded).

It really made sense when Haidt at the end of the book gets into politics and say that the liberal would save a few bees at the expense of the hive. Not everyone will agree and perhaps a different writer could be far more graceful. Maybe a poet can take the principles and craft a beautiful work from this.

I did find the book very enjoyable and entertaining and offering enough food for thought that it was well worth the read. The quantity of endnotes give the work both credibility and a guide for more reading.


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