Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Righteous Mind

by Jonathan Haidt

2012 was a pretty good year for books, despite the fact that they cancelled this fall's Friends of the Library sale this fall. One of the highlights was discovering a new blog, Mockingbird, which seems to be a promising source for book recommendations. This book was the first such. It's a book of moral psychology which looks at the question "why good people are divided by politics and religion." The typical answer, of course, when we're not demonizing the other side, is that our opponents are just poor, ignorant dupes. But if you take the time to notice the thoughtful, well educated people on both sides of many issues, you soon realize that accusations of ignorance don't hold water. Professor Haidt offers a different solution. His first thesis is that when it comes to decisions, especially moral decisions, we think with our hearts first and then use our rationality to, well, rationalize the decision we just made. He likens the relationship of our rational and intuitive minds to a person riding an elephant. Our rationality is not without its influence, but if the "elephant" wants to go in a different direction, our rationality is stuck going along for the ride. Professor Haidt's second point is that a human being's moral sense has a number of "foundations", or areas of life on which we judge. Things like care vs. harm, loyalty vs. betrayal. His research has turned up six moral foundations, and he demonstrates how people give different priorities to different foundations. When we encounter someone operating with a different set of priorities, we have a hard time understanding how they are thinking, or if they indeed are thinking at all. The final section of the book looks at humanity as social beings--how our groups affect our thinking and behavior. He makes the case that groups like our religious communities or political parties are not something from which we need to evolve, but rather are integral to being human.

I really enjoyed the book. Professor Haidt writes well and livens up the book by intertwining the story of how his thinking on the topic evolved. I did struggle a bit with the numerous times he explained how our minds, communities and religions evolved over the millennia--it's hard to read when you keep rolling your eyeballs. But even those parts had their interest, as I contrasted his explanations of morals that we so often explore in Bible class.

Check it out, why don't you?
LibraryThing link

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