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

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
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it was amazing

This book wasn't perfect. But I don't need books to be perfect to give them 5-star reviews. My standard for a 5-star rating (for a certain type of nonfiction) is that the book changes how I think about the world, and "The Righteous Mind" passed that standard easily.

It's actually sort of three books in one, though all tied together by theme and method.

Part 1 argues that humans tend to make moral judgments instinctively and justify them post-hoc, rather than forming moral judgments through rational deliberation.

Part 2, the meat of the book, cites the author's own research to contend that there are actually six moral instincts: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Hierarchy, Divinity and Liberty. These instincts can be in conflict with each other, and many people respond more strongly to some of these instincts than others — differences shaped by ideologies, genes, experience and other factors.

(UPDATE: It's worth noting that other scholars, working from the same general principles as Haidt, have come up with different moral foundations and modes. These other models often line up somewhat with Haidt's system but group things differently. Even if one of these other models turns out to be more accurate than Haidt, the general idea of moral foundations could still hold. Steven Pinker gives a good summary of several of these models on pp. 625-7 of his magisterial "The Better Angels of Our Nature.")

Part 3 is the book's hook, the section that was teased on the cover, but it's actually the slightest of the sections. It takes the moral foundations theory from Part 2 and applies it to contemporary American politics. American liberals, conservatives and libertarians, it turns out, tend to have different moral priorities: liberals prioritize Care above all with assists from Liberty and Fairness; libertarians sacralize Liberty but are moved less by Care than anyone; conservatives respond to all six foundations relatively equally — caring about Liberty, though less than libertarians, caring about Care, but less than liberals, but also moved much more strongly than either group by Loyalty, Hierarchy and Divinity.

Haidt, a liberal, argues for empathy between people with different moral foundations, and urges all sides to recognize how their political opponents see the world differently — and how all moral foundations have merit, even the ones that we may not privilege very much.

It's an eye-opening, perspective-shifting work — but one with which it's still possible to disagree and argue. I'd say, for example, that Haidt is too swift to dismiss the alternative moral frameworks of deontology and utilitarianism just because they don't correspond to his psychological model. Even if those theories are less grounded in the evolved human brain than Haidt's moral foundations, as ideas a range of people and societies have embraced they have had and continue to have tremendous impact on the world and how we think about it. But that's fine! Arguing with a book doesn't weaken it, and Haidt certainly presented plenty of arguments to back up his contentions.

If I identified any problem with the book, it was an occasionally grating tone. The book read like an author trying very hard to explain a complex topic as simply as possible so as many readers as possible could understand — and not quite managing it gracefully. I also sort of wished Haidt had put less of his personal narrative into the story, both for stylistic reasons and because his personal framing of a "liberal who learns that conservatives have a point" got a bit grating and would seem to narrow his audience, contrary to the earlier-described efforts to write plainly. It's also possible some of my reaction was a sense of him preaching to the choir: I came in intellectually committed to the idea that people don't give opposing moral and political viewpoints enough credit, so his efforts to sell me on something I had already bought seemed forced. Others might have a different experience.

Overall, though, this is a relatively short, easy to read work that will force you to think about the world differently. I can't recommend it highly enough — especially since if you read it, we can argue about it together.

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Reading Progress

June 14, 2016 – Started Reading
June 25, 2016 – Shelved
June 25, 2016 – Finished Reading

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