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5.0 out of 5 stars The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail Ride Through Morality and Politics!, December 23, 2011
This review is from: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Hardcover)
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I do not exaggerate when I say this is one of the best (nonfiction) books I've read this year. Haidt is a great writer, and has a real knack for explaining a wide variety of things with clarity and wit. Here, Haidt is concerned to walk us through the world of morality and politics, explaining some of the reasons why very smart and good people disagree on such things as the value of equality, authority, tradition, and other thorny topics.

In 2006, Haidt wrote The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, part of whose thesis was that cognition is primarily based in emotion, with reason coming in after the fact, most often to justify what has already been 'decided' on. Section 1 of this book (one of whose chapters is titled "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail, also the title of an earlier article by Haidt) picks up where Haid's previous book left off. There is evidence from neuroscience (Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, behavioral psychology Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, and other areas (Thinking, Fast and Slow) that increasingly suggests that human reason is less a tool for figuring out what to do, and more a tool for justifying what we've already decided to do (based on emotion and other simple snap-judgment intuition) to ourselves and others. Of course, this isn't to say reasoning is futile, or that we don't ever use it to actually decide what to do, but we generally use reason as a deciding mechanism only when intuition and emotion are at a loss or conflicting.

And the upshot of this? Reason is often less decisive in deciding what the best moral positions or political positions are. And this leads us into section 2, whose primary thesis is that any moral or political theory that attempts to use reason to discover the simple rules that should govern all political and moral decision making are likely going to fail. Why? Because, according to Haidt's and others' ressearch, there are at least six mental 'modules' that go into moral and poltical decisions, and it is difficult to argue that any one (or two or three) are more important than others. And they are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. Some people (often of the political left) care most about care/harm and fairness/cheating in their emphasis on egalitarian politics that aim to provide care for those in need and create fair rules in the sense that everyone, relatively speaking, starts on an 'even playing field.' Others (usually conservatives) have tempermants that focus on authority/suversion and loyalty/betrayal, focusing on maintaining or promoting institutions that foster some level of deference to authority (in legitimate hierarchies), and loyalty (whether to country, God, family, etc).

So, while liberals like to boil all politics down to questions of fairness, rights, and freedom from oppression, and conservatives like to boil politics down to matters of preserving tradition and legitimate fidelity to rules that have stood the test of time, Haidt reminds us that human nature is more complex than either of these. (Yes, this oversimplifies, but Haidt does it to show that, despite the diversity of beliefs liberal or conservatives have, their within-group 'core' is largely the same.) Humans, he writes in Section 3, are oftee\n self-interested individuals who require liberty, but also have a remarkable capacity (and often longing for) being part of groups where they sacrifice some liberty for the group. Humans have a tendency for egalitarianism (we get mad when we feel, or see others, oppressed), but also organize just as often into hierarchal groups. (Incidentally, this is similar to the thesis of Frans de Wall, who in Our Inner Ape, suggests that our ancestry is mixed between the hierarchal ape and the egalitarian bonobo). Haidt writes that evolution works at many levels: gene, cell, organism, group), and human nature is largely a push-and-pull between individuals competing and individuals cooperating.

The overall mmessage in The Righteous Mind is that the righteous mind, which attempts to privilege its own take on morality and politics, just doesn't grasp the complexities of morality and politics. We try to break down moral decision making into a set of unflappable rules: do what maximizes overall happiness, do what gives everyone the most liberty compatible with the liberty of others, do what strengthens the well-being and cohesion of the group, etc. And all of these seem to have a piece of reality, but none of them captures the whole thing. In reality, we are both selfish and altruistic, yearning for liberty and group-membership, egalitarianism and hierarchy, equality and proportional reward, etc. In the end, Haidt's word of wisdom is that whatever favored position you have politically, try to always question what else it is you are missing. After all, very smart and good people are conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, Christians, atheists, and many other things. Is it more likely that your positoins are right and everyone else is just missing it (the position of the righteous mind), or that you probably have a grain of truth in a field that contains many other grains? As philosopher Isaiah Belrin, a philosopher whose plurallism Haidt's argument resembles, has written (in Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty), "One belief more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals... This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revalation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the ronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of the uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution."

If I have one criticism of this otherwise fantastically interesting and wide-ranging book, is that its wide-ranging-ness is not very well tied together. While each chapter definitely has an argument of its own and concludes with a brief summary, he doesn't tie it all together very explicitly. We go from the basics of moral psychology to discussions of the "modular mind" theory in neuroscience, to discussions about different political positions, to group selection theory in evolution, to the New Atheists take on religion.... but Haidt isn't very explicit in explaining how and why he ties these things together. What makes things a tad more confusing is that Haidt is (somewhat) inconsistent between chapters (though not in a way detrimental to his argument): in one chapter he might explain why humans are primarily selfish, or why group selection is a valid theory in evolution, then in a proceding chapter, he'll suggest that selfishness, or group selection theory, are not quite as good as some suppose. So, while Haidt isn't being horribly inconsistent (one can suggest, as he does, that humans are primarily selfish without seeing this as the ultimate explainer of all human activity), but it does add to the book's somewhat disjointed and whirligig feel.

Overall, though, this is small potatoes, and you'll notice that I am still giving the book five stars. I began the review saying that this is esaily one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year (and I've read many). I stand by that, even with some minor flaws. If you have any interest in the field of moral theory, psychology, evollutionary biology, or evolutionary psychology (and I am interested in all four), you MUST read this book. Strongly recommended.
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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 274 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 26, 2011 2:35:11 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 26, 2011 8:35:40 PM PST
Brad4d says:
Thanks for the wide-ranging review, which helped me decide whether or not to order the book (although Haidt's discussions are generally worth examining), and which I have rated as Useful.

I do think you've mildly but notably oversimplified the Liberal /Conservative dichotomy in your paragraphs 3 - 5, however. It's a commonly accepted stereotype, for example, that liberals are basically more compassionate, and more concerned with social and economic justice (whatever those mean) than conservatives, but it's often much deeper and multi-dimensional than that, and many good arguments often exist for the reverse. Compared with liberals, conservatives are often found to give more to charities and to be generally happier. I would suggest that conservatives and liberals are often both concerned with social justice and advancement, but approach them diversely. Conservatives often think compassion and justice are best served by values and consistency (The Dalai Lama expresses this and although he is surely one of the world's examples of Compassion, he often embarrasses or infuriates more "liberal" followers by being quite conservative in his outlook on many moral and social issues). Regarding the promotion of social and economic equality, many conservatives believe nothing has been more socially and economically uplifting than free markets and trade (everyone's standard of living and social welfare has improved since people began trading with each other in earnest), while government can be just as sinister as any corporate entity (look at North Korea, the Native Americans under the US federal government, or Stalin's USSR). "Let's-let-the-government-save-us" may sound great on the surface, but central decision-making may not be the best solution to the complex problem of socio-economic well-being or compassion, and allowing a more emergent solution may actually work better. I won't summarize these arguments about free markets versus government control, but would suggest looking into M. Shermer's Mind of the Market or M. Ridley's articles and books. Those are not going to appeal to everyone, but they are worth looking into.

At any rate, compassion or concern for social welfare is not a monopoly of either party or ideology, and such stereotyping is simply wrong, simplistic, and not productive. Both liberal and conservative (again, whatever those terms mean) can be sources of diversity and strength. Thanks for your Review.

Posted on Feb 4, 2012 4:18:04 AM PST
EnbeUU says:
I'm watching him (Heidt) now on Bill Moyers (a show I don't watch; fascinating. This guy the author has a great theme, and I'm pre-ordering his book.

Posted on Feb 4, 2012 4:20:58 AM PST
EnbeUU says:
it won't be out until March...

Posted on Feb 6, 2012 6:45:36 AM PST
papabird says:
Jonathan Haidt is of the same school as Michael Shermer who in his book "The Believing Brain" further developes the thesis that we make a decisions then seek reasons to justify them. Concerning Kevin Currie-Knight's review, it confirms my own "belief" (which I also seek to justify) that the "ultimate answer is", there is no answer and that our existence is biologically and psychologically and socially the phenomenon of random selection. These books are worthy reads.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2012 2:58:37 PM PST
put. Thanks.

Posted on Feb 9, 2012 8:47:22 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 9, 2012 8:48:24 PM PST
S. Prewitt says:

I usually enjoy your reviews, but this one ... not so much. Your conclusion ("you MUST read this book") doesn't seem to follow from your description of the book. Not at all.

According to you, the fundamental premise of Haidt's book is that none of us can distinguish between valid, objective arguments on the one hand, and nonsense rationalizations generated by our brain's "baloney generator" module on the other. If that's true, I suppose Haidt's ultimate conclusion must be that laws and constitutions and politics don't matter, because ANYTHING we do is as "correct" as any alternative we might choose. Is that what Haidt believes?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 10, 2012 7:10:24 AM PST
S Prewitt,

I think you are taking what Haidt is saying to extremes. No, Haidt is not a nihilist. Haidt's core argument is that political and moral thinking has more to with emotional gut reactions and subsequent rationalizations used to justify them. In general, we feel about things first and then think about them post-hoc, most often, in order to justify the conclusion we have determined we want to reach. (That has actually never been surprising to me, as I work often in the area of moral philosophy, which consists of people creating theories to justify their "intuitions," so disagreements over whether x or y theory of justice are better most often have to do not with disagreements of reason, but disagreements of intuition about what 'justice' is. And philosophers like Richard Taylor (Good and Evil (Great Minds Series)) have spotted that trend years ago.)

From there, Haidt is concerned to show that conservatives, liberals, and libertarians often place very different emphases on different values, and while each of may see value in, say the importance of cultural cohesion, individual autonomy, and equality, the biggest difference between political positions is to what extend they emphasize one of these over the others. And, Haidt writes, the differences in these worldviews seem less up to reason and more up to our emotional attitudes toward the world. (So, for instance, he suggests that one of the key reasons conservatives never seem to convince liberals, and vice versa, is that we are acting as if all we need to do is reason with the other; but the problem may be that liberals and conservatives place different emphases on what social values are important, primarily on an emotional level. That also explains why so many discussions between liberals and conservatives not only wind up NOT convincing the other, and proving to each side how moronic the other is, but getting so emotionally charged. Because worldviews are as much about emotion as reason.)

So, no, Haidt is not just a nihilist saying that there is no such thing as reason (he is writing an ARGUMENT after all!), or that anything we do just is correct. He is, if anything, just trying to show with empirical evidence that the worldviews we have are as much about our emotional dispositions as our reasoned consideration.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 10, 2012 1:34:22 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 10, 2012 1:42:43 PM PST
S. Prewitt says:

Thanks for your reply.

While I haven't read Haidt's book, I have read Steven Pinker's article "The Moral Instinct," which seems to cover much the same ground.

It is interesting that people have a common moral instinct that can be expressed in remarkably different ways. And it's not surprising that the things we "should" value can't be derived by logical deduction. (Something about deriving ought from is.) But the really interesting problem, in my opinion, is this: How SHOULD we design societies?

Unfortunately, we can't solve this problem w/o answering questions that seem to strike many people (emotionally!) as morally repugnant:

1. How should people, optimally, be grouped into different societies?

For example, it's clearly NOT optimal to place deluded Muslims, deluded Christians, and undeluded Physicalists (oops, my bias is showing) in the same group, because each type of person has a very different objective function. And it's clearly NOT optimal to place very productive people and very unproductive people in the same group, because that makes it impossible to simultaneously satisfy everyone's preference for 1) relative status, and 2) individual autonomy/reciprocity. (A democracy controlled by UNPRODUCTIVE voters will tend to ignore productive people's preference for individual autonomy/reciprocity, and will take production from productive people and give it to unproductive people. A democracy controlled by PRODUCTIVE voters, on the other hand, will tend to ignore unproductive people's preference for relative status, and will allow people to end up with very unequal incomes.)

If people could be grouped optimally into different societies, I think the best form of government would be democracy (unless religious beliefs forbade it). Every mature person in a given society would have 1) an equal right to vote, and 2) an equal responsibility to pay positive net taxes. But if people can't be grouped optimally, and we MUST design a government for people with wildly disparate abilities and objectives, the question becomes:

2. How should votes and taxes be allocated?


I guess I'm just disappointed that Haidt apparently doesn't address these deeper questions.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 13, 2012 8:56:22 PM PST
Sanpete says:
@Brad: Don't know if you ordered the book, but it addresses most of what you say in some way or other. Haidt agrees about different political views being a source of strength (as Kevin's review suggests). Your point about charitable giving is interesting in light of what he says, though he doesn't connect all the dots.

His research does show a remarkable difference in how much liberals and conservatives exhibit care about others in their moral and political attitudes (as Kevin's review accurately points out). The research he cites about charitable giving ties it to religious activity (which in turn ties it more to conservatives but not via their moral or political attitudes). It appears to be little influenced by level or type of religious belief, but is correlated with the amount of social relationships within the religious group. As he sees it, religion creates a surplus of social capital that spills over to benefit outsiders too (since the religious also give more to secular charities and participate more in civic activity).

So, on a personal level liberals care more yet conservatives do more. There are no doubt various ways to spin that, but it's a weird effect regardless.

Haidt's data also shows liberals to be more concerned about oppression of those without power, while conservatives care more about proportionality (you should get what your actions deserve). No surprises there. Haidt thinks both are important. He briefly touches on the advantages of markets as opposed to government solutions, as well as ways government can help.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 23, 2012 10:49:50 AM PST
If you've looked at Haidt's research website ( you can see how he approached gathering the information from which he arrived at the above conclusion (which is his, not the reviewer's.) I don't know if the research asked the right questions in the right way, or arrived at the right conclusions, but my impression is that the book is based on a research process. Haidt also did an interesting interview on Moyers & Company ( which you can probably find archived on that site.
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