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339 of 391 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Namby-pamby, yet full of promise, January 9, 2012
This review is from: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Hardcover)
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`The Righteous Mind' presents an imaginative theory on the origins of human morality and the source of discord in the realm of moral systems such as politics and religion. It is one of the more ambitious endeavors a reader will come across in popular science and philosophy today, and for this, it is to be commended. But, the theory is far too immense for this book's style and scope to handle appropriately, it is highly speculative when it shouldn't be, and ultimately is not nearly as convincing as it could be.

One of the main difficulties is that the author is not straightforward with his premises. By the subtitle we know this book is going to be about "why good people are divided by politics and religion". But the author does not tell us his hypothesis until we're nearly finished with the book. Indeed, he admits on page 274 that he hasn't even established a definition of `morality' by that point. "You're nearly done reading a book on morality, and I have not yet given you a definition of morality." As a matter of fact, he never really does define morality (he offers a definition of `moral systems', not `morality'), and so it is impossible to make a reasonable assessment of this argument, supposedly on morality.

His rationale for doing this gives the show away: "The definition I'm about to give you would have made little sense back in chapter 1. It would not have meshed with your intuitions about morality, so I thought it best to wait." In other words, he needed to prepare the reader by giving preliminary arguments, the assumption being that only after those preliminaries were done, the real argument could be understood.

But this is to conceal the point being made until after it has been made, and so no one can properly assess that point in the process. This amounts to a rhetorical trick to get people to accept the argument's foundation and thus have a harder time denying the argument when it is finally presented. In the meantime, the objective reader will be left confused and a little frustrated--What point is he trying to make? Why is he being so elusive? Why doesn't he come out and say what he means?

This approach does conform to the theory, itself, however, one of whose main points is to diminish the role of reason and rationality. According to Haidt, people don't really pay attention to reasonable arguments anyway, rather making decisions based on emotions and intuition. As such, he spends most of the book bypassing a reasonable argument.

It is a shame because the theme is fairly interesting and deserves to be fleshed out in a good, straightforward argument. The argument, summed up by the definition of moral systems that Haidt offers (on page 274), is as follows:

"Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible."

Basically, morality is an artificial construct geared toward making society work. Once we arrive at this thesis, we actually have something to work with and much of the material leading up to this point finds its place. Of course, one will still have questions about the thesis and the various proofs offered in defense, but at least one has substance to reflect on and test.

And there is plenty to reflect on and test. Haidt is clearly imaginative and is willing to check prejudices in order to arrive at some penetrating conjectures. He's right when he suggests that the best way to approach a political argument is to start with common ground. His metaphor of `innateness'--a first draft that can be revised with work--is excellent. Throughout this book, the attentive reader will be compelled to question standards, clarify logic, and conquer new intellectual territory. For this, it is worth the read. And, as long as the reader watches out for the book's stylistic deficiencies, it can be a rewarding experience.

Those interested in these themes might also consider Everyone Agrees: Book I: Words, Ideas, and a Universal Morality
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Showing 1-10 of 60 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 16, 2012 5:50:31 AM PST
Bryan Cass says:
I appreciate your thoughtful review. Looking at your profile, we have a lot in common, including this book. :-)

Posted on Jan 25, 2012 1:25:46 PM PST
David Ross says:
Nice observaton on Haidt's rhetorical trick of hiding the conclusions until the end which does make it more difficult to follow.

Posted on Feb 4, 2012 3:15:48 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 4, 2012 3:16:33 PM PST
C. Dalton says:
Thanks for the heads up.

Yet, one could re-read the book to determine whether or not they agreed, if they were interested enough to do so.

Or read the review before reading the book with a more critical mindset.

Posted on Feb 5, 2012 11:22:07 AM PST
For the sake a brevity, I'm not going to write a tome here. Yours, as well as subsequently entered comments are extremely helpful and I appreciated reading them all but I feel a very simple, yet elementary aspect isn't valued in the book. The book title, itself, will draw people from vastly differing perspectives, each with their own hope to have their positions validated in one way or another or, like me, have their curiosity regarding the state of our political atmosphere sated. I preferred being given a wide perspective to take under consideration before being presented with his thesis statement. It allowed me to relax my judgement and just let the thoughts be read with objectivity while allowing them to widen my perspective. I consider this a valuable learning element and appreciated it.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 5, 2012 11:52:20 AM PST
Wasn't the purpose of the book to encourage an open mind and present thoughts that represented a wide variety of perspectives. Reading the book with a critical mindset destroys its purpose. Keep your mind open, not closed. You need not agree and truly do need to read to determine that but the point is to try to illustrate how preconceptions can color our opinions and, indeed, have. Keep an open mind, enjoy the book, keep what you value, and discard what you don't. You will still come away with more than what you had prior to reading it.

Posted on Feb 5, 2012 7:42:14 PM PST
Interesting reasons to criticize the book. Almost every book on ethics and philosophy I have read always does the same thing. The lay a foundation, try to identify presuppositions, move aside objections, then present their conclusion and argument. So the same criticism could apply to any philosophy book out there from Aristotle to Kant to Derrida and beyond.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 5, 2012 8:25:52 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 5, 2012 8:29:10 PM PST
gpstogo: You are right to stress the wide variety of perspectives that Haidt presents. His breadth of influences is clearly vast, and this is probably the best aspect of the book. Meanwhile, I cannot accept the notion that critical judgment on the book equals close-mindedness. To be a good reader is to be critical, and this is especially true if one is going to be open-minded.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 5, 2012 8:37:49 PM PST
Edward J. Hassertt: Good point (especially in the case of Kant). Though, it is also par for the philosophical course to begin with definitions of the relevant terms. Without this crucial first step, it is possible to build arguments around movable goals, which is nothing more than sophistry.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 5, 2012 9:35:50 PM PST
Agree. My comment was in support of his 'setting the scene' so to speak. I find it beneficial to have all aspects addressed,to the extent they can, before the thesis is established because it tempers my judgement with possibilities I might have initially resisted.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2012 5:50:21 AM PST
Bryan Cass says:
Just a thought here about how truly unbiased this book might be. Personally, I do find it biased toward the author's perspective regarding religion. His own preconception that there is no God entity outside of our own perceptions and constructs is evident. A more rational approach would be to suppose that there may or may not be a reality outside of our own experience. To assume that everyone else experiences reality in the same way that you do is pretty bigoted, IMO. But then, that may be bigoted of me to say that... argh! :-)
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