Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount? Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens?
In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding. His starting point is moral intuition - the nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do. These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong.
Haidt shows us how these intuitions differ across cultures, including the cultures of the political left and right. He blends his own research findings with those of anthropologists, historians, and other psychologists to draw a map of the moral domain, and he explains why conservatives can navigate that map more skillfully than can liberals. He then examines the origins of morality, overturning the view that evolution made us fundamentally selfish creatures.
But rather than arguing that we are innately altruistic, he makes a more subtle claim - that we are fundamentally groupish. It is our groupishness, he explains, that leads to our greatest joys, our religious divisions, and our political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
"Haidt is looking for more than victory. He's looking for wisdom. That's what makes The Righteous Mind well worth reading…. a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.” (The New York Times Book Review)
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Required reading... with one caveat.
Broad, scientific approach to understanding the biology of human behavior.
"Thinking Fast and Slow" by Kahneman and "The Believing Brain" by Shermer in terms of understanding neuroscience and the way our brains, opinions and behaviors come about.
We've created a culture where we all operate under the illusion that we need to be right. We convince ourselves that our thoughts and actions stem from some innate ability to realize and appreciate a guiding, transcendent truth, whether it be social, spiritual or logical. The humbling reality is that we have selfish genes which utilize complex modules to ensure their survival. Haidt cogently describes our biology with both scientific and symbolic aplomb.
As a biologist and physician, I have great appreciation for this perspective. I particularly appreciate the analogy between our ethical "taste" modules and our literal gustatory senses. We cannot fight the fact that we are hardwired to respond to these tastes and indulging them initiates the neurochemical cascade which, if deprived, would leave us bereft of the true experience of humanness.
Continuing this analogy, I would attempt to demonstrate where Haidt possibly falls short in helping both himself and his reader best apply their enhanced understanding of human and cultural biology.
As our ethical "tastes" for sanctity, loyalty and authority have a place in maintaining safety and wellness, our taste for sugar and fat has served our species greatly in times of scarcity. The utility of these modules is entirely contextual though. In the United States (my very divided country), we live in relative abundance. The vast majority has an excess of calories as well as social safety. The context has changed and indulging our hunger for fat and sugar as well as symbolic tribal loyalty, sanctity and authoritarian acquiescence has very negative consequences. We benefit when we recognize mal-adaptive application of natural tendencies. There is little risk that we will go hungry if we forgo calories and there is little risk that the fabric of our society (and our own differential survivability) will fall apart if we question authority, symbolism or factionism.
We live in a country of abundance and safety. Indulging these tastes is causing an epidemic of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Could not the same be happening when insisting on applying unnecessary ethical modules? I enjoy being clean AND my understanding of germs and public health tells me I don't need to be continually vigilant. I enjoy my groups of shared interest AND I don't need to denigrate or vilify any groups to which I do not belong. I appreciate order AND I know rules and laws exist to serve a social purpose but my eternal soul is not at risk should I fail to worship compliance.
Haidt is correct in that Conservatives indulge their ethical tastes more broadly. Their message is an ethical meal that satisfies many of our cravings. The Liberterian and Liberal ideologies are less appealing to a broad population... but dining at their table more often may be the only way of preventing the epidemic of ethical indulgence?
- Amazon Customer
Why Good People Are Divided - Good for whom?
- K. Cunningham