M. J.'s Reviews > The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
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This book was surprisingly good, and I found much of it enlightening; I also felt it ignored some fundamental problems. I thought of dozens of people whose understanding of political and religious disagreements would benefit from reading this book, even though I hesitate to recommend it because of its ultimately atheistic Darwinian attitude--although it must be noted that it strongly opposes the "New Atheism" of Dawkins, Hitchens, and their ilk.

Haidt gets kudos for admitting that he is a liberal and that liberals have a much narrower and in world-wide terms considerably less common moral view. Since he describes his theory of morality within a biographical context of the influences which brought him to this view, we know that one of the major impacts on his understanding arose from an extended period he spent as a researcher in India, where the moral/ethical views are completely different but he was immersed in them and began to grasp them. He has been researching what people believe about morality, and looking for a psychological cause, and he has a very credible one that, in its own terms, validates religion as a vital part of society.

He suggests that there are actually six pillars, what we might as easily call dimensions or facets or even "dials", of moral intuition--the basic concepts on which moral thoughts and beliefs are based. We do not come to our moral positions, he maintains, by reason, but rather use reason in service of our moral positions, which are primarily intuitive (although we can change them in various ways to some degree).

Libertarians build their political philosophy almost entirely on a single pillar, that of individual freedom, individual autonomy, in which the sole function of government is to ensure such autonomy and prevent any entity (person, corporation, religion, family, even itself) from becoming too powerful and taking liberty from anyone. Liberty is set against oppression in this model. Liberals, although they include liberty as part of their foundation, are more firmly grounded on the pillar of caring, of responding to suffering, which Libertarians almost completely ignore. Care is set against harm. (These assessments are Haidt's, based on his own studies and many others in several related fields.) Both also are sensitive to "fairness", as opposed to "cheating", but fairness has a quirk, because there are two aspects to it. For liberals, fairness is more about equality of outcome, that everyone receives a comparable benefit from society; for libertarians and conservatives, it is more about proportionality, that everyone receives in proportion to his contribution.

Conservatives also recognize care, liberty, and fairness--leaning more toward proportionality and less toward equality of outcome--but have three more pillars which are equally important to them. One is loyalty/betrayal, that fidelity to a group is important, whether it be a family or a military unit or a religious organization or a nation. The concept of a "traitor" assumes that there is some moral basis to expect members of our group to protect the group. The second is authority/subversion, that there is value in respecting and obeying within a hierarchical leadership structure, whether it is obedience to family heads or to government officials or to church officials. The sixth is sanctity/degradation, which seems to be connected to innate concepts of cleanliness and purity but extends to create the notion that some things, whether churches or flags or sports teams, are sacred and should be treated with respect.

Everyone has these six basic facets, but due in large part to genetics and further to experience and upbringing we hold them in different degrees. Liberals are so strongly focused on the care and liberty concepts that they frequently regard loyalty, authority, and sanctity as the enemy, concepts which oppose what "really matters" by oppressing people and preventing them from having what they need. In fact, on tests in which participants are asked to answer as they believe someone else would answer, conservatives are usually able to understand the motivations and thinking of liberals, but liberals rarely understand the thinking and motivation of conservatives, because they fail to grasp the importance of the other three pillars. Yet those pillars, Haidt tells us, are vital parts of creating community and increasing altruism between people. They are what make societies function. It is only in what someone has dubbed "WEIRD" (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) societies that the ideology supporting liberal ethics and morality thrives; the rest of the world recognizes the importance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and as a result has a much stronger sense of belonging and societal coherence.

Haidt proves to be a utilitarian, but following the societal model of Durkheim. He justifies religions because they are socially useful, while in a clearly doublethink way suggesting that they are never true. He does much the same with morality, that morality is needed to provide social order but is ultimately not more than a collection of evolved mechanisms whose function is to create social cohesion. There is no more a "correct" morality than a true religion, but we need a moral matrix and a religious community to make societies work.

He concludes well, with the idea that we all need to understand each others' moral matrices in order to find common ground and work together. He believes, quoting several persons including Mill, that we need conservatives and liberals (and libertarians) struggling with each other to produce working societies. He notes the weakness but also the strengths of opposing positions.

It was a good read and an informative one. It probably helped that my education is broad enough that I knew many of the people he was citing (from Darwin and Hume and Durkeim to E. O. Wilson) and so had some familiarity with some of his concepts. The research reporting is impeccable, and it qualifies as a "scientific" book, but is quite readable throughout. I would recommend it to anyone trying to understand why others disagree fundamentally with them and do not seem to be open to reason. I would not recommend it, I think, as an explanation of the origins of morality, other than that it is a view I find weak and it is about as well presented as I can imagine.

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Reading Progress

June 5, 2015 – Shelved
June 5, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
July 9, 2015 – Started Reading
July 24, 2015 – Shelved as: read-non-fiction
July 24, 2015 – Finished Reading

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