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.