The Righteous Mind Review

More and more in our political discourse, it seems that many of us are forgetting the value of disagreement. We definitely still like to argue against people who disagree, but the goal of those arguments seems to be more about winning than about learning. I’m right. They’re wrong. That’s the end of it. Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, offers a  counterpoint to this mindset. The book is a plea to “disagree more constructively,” to set aside our differences and find points of commonality, and, even when we do come to find irreconcilable moral or political disagreement, to recognize that the other side has value.

A series of metaphors guides the structure of the book. In the first section, Haidt argues that “intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.” To illustrate this point, he compares human thought to a small rider trying to guide a large elephant. Since the rider (the rational part of our brain) can do little to actually steer the elephant (our intuition), instead he just makes post hoc justifications for the elephants actions. In other words, in political and moral arguments, we usually come to the answer before we figure out the reason. Although we often claim to be forming our opinions based on a fair reading of the evidence, I think most of us can admit to sometimes simply looking for evidence that conforms to our preconceived judgements.

The second piece of the book argues that human morals are aligned across six “moral foundations:” care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Here he uses the metaphor of a tongue with six taste receptors. Liberals tend to focus on the care/harm and fairness/cheating axes while conservatives draw from all six. More importantly, Haidt draws on his own experience observing different cultures in India to argue that different moral systems make sense for different societies and different times. Some actions that seem morally repugnant (like eating your dog after it got hit and killed by a car) are actually somewhat difficult to explain in a consistent moral framework. They just seem wrong to us. The case for a universally correct moral standard, in Haidt’s view is quite weak.

Finally, the last section, and perhaps the one I found most interesting, talks about humanity’s tendencies towards group behavior. He describes humans as “90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” Each of us generally acts towards our own self interest, but occasionally our “hive switch” is turned on and we act in the way that’s best for the group. He cites Emile Durkheim’s observation that being a member of a group can generate a “‘collective effervescence,’ which describes the passion and ecstasy group rituals can generate.” Haidt points to the feeling you get when you observe incredible views in nature, or participating in raves or sporting events, as examples of this Durkheimian hive switch being flipped.

He then extends this observation to explain people’s attachment to religious communities. “Religion is a team sport,” he quips as he notes the similarities between the “rituals” involved in cheering for a sports team (songs, superstitions, traditions, etc.) and those of religious groups. Although Haidt himself is atheist, he does not take the view of many atheists that religious people have simply been duped into believing. Instead, he sees religion as a natural way to get people to flip their hive switch and think in terms of groups. Religious societies have been more successful because they cause people to create moral, caring communities where individual benefits can sometimes be pushed aside in favor of group success. He writes. “If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it.” Instead, its best to see religion as a way to “suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness. Only groups that can elicit commitment and suppress free riding can grow.”

Haidt presents each of these concepts in an incredibly convincing style. His arguments are well written and well researched. Even more, he does an excellent job at giving a fair shot to both sides of every argument. Although its clear he has his own biases (he is just a rider trying to control an elephant as well), I never felt that I wasn’t getting the full story on any of his points. Each conclusion he makes feels like one of careful deliberation, of considering the best work that has been done on an issue and providing a clear justification for agreeing or disagreeing. Haidt’s memories of how his own views were challenged or changed over time give the reader a look into his own inner intellectual struggle with these ideas and help provide a balanced view on many issues.

This balanced approach is especially apparent in the final section of the book where he discusses the “yin and two yangs” of American politics. The “yin” being points liberals tend to get right, and the two “yangs” being the best points of libertarians and conservatives. While I certainly have some room to quibble with his “liberal wisdoms” (focused on the benefits of regulation), he does a better job of defending the conservative and libertarian positions than many self described conservatives and libertarians could do themselves. Haidt could almost certainly pass an Ideological Turing Test, which cannot be said about most people of any political background.

I particularly liked his summary of the conservatives’ strength with the principle that “you can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.” He writes, “liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive.” Although this idea unfortunately seems to be losing its place at the center of the current Republican Party, I do think it is a good description of the foundation of conservative thought. Tradition, family, American values. Preserving the institutions that, for lack of a better term, made America great, is the main priority for conservatives. Policies that help individuals in the short run should be viewed with suspicion if they threaten to wear down these institutions in the long run.

Protecting the hive is also a distinctly Hayekian idea (even though he claims he was not a conservative). Hayek takes an evolutionary view of societal development. The institutions that have developed across history were not designed. We shouldn’t honor tradition and norms because people in the past were smarter or more moral than we are. But we should respect them because “the result of the experimentation of many generations may embody more experience than any one man possesses” (The Constitution of Liberty). To challenge existing social structures requires a careful consideration of the reasons they developed and the consequences of removing them. These reasons are usually not obvious and we should therefore be wary of attempts to upend the status quo.

There is far more in the book than can be discussed in a blog post, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has trouble understanding where their political opponents stand (no matter what side they are on themselves). I strongly believe that it is as important to listen to what the other side has to say and not to pretend that those who disagree are just uninformed or unintelligent. As Haidt concludes in the final line of the book, “we’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

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