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268 of 295 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rosetta Stone for Understanding the Left/Right Divide, December 27, 2011
This review is from: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Hardcover)
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I was first introduced to the striking findings of Dr. Jonathan Haidt's research when I heard him speak at a conference on ethics and human research. The combination of his engaging speaking style married to hard data from his psychology experiments was impressive, as was his ability to constructively engage both the liberal and conservative members of the audience. I was intrigued enough to read the book-length version of the lecture, and I was greatly rewarded. Haidt shows how our minds have evolved to make us prone righteous disagreement. He hopes that a better understanding of our predisposition to take uncompromising moral stands can be a starting point to reverse the increased contentiousness of our politics.

Reading Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" was in some ways like taking a college survey course in moral psychology. In particular, the early chapters take a reader through the controversies and the limitation of prior attempts to study the psychological underpinnings of why we think the way we do. Experiments in psychology are accessible and illuminating in ways that other fields can only envy, and Haidt's book is full of absorbing descriptions of the research. Throughout, this book is highly data-driven (it concludes with nineteen pages of references to the scientific literature). What sets it apart is Haidt's ability to weave into the science both his own research and his evolving understanding of his personal moral frameworks. This human element makes the book both accessible and engrossing. Haidt wraps each section of the book around a "central metaphor" and then demonstrates the fascinating studies that validate that metaphor.

Section 1: Central metaphor - Our minds are like a rider on the back of an elephant. Through multiple studies, many conducted by Haidt himself, a reader learns how our conscious thoughts have a very limited ability to influence our emotional predispositions. We spend most of our intellectual effort as the "elephant rider" not in rationally deciding what course of action to take, but in trying to justify what the elephant has already done based on its gut level snap judgment. Or, to quote David Hume from 1739, "¯reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." What Hume perceived, Haidt validates. In addition to the research demonstrating that this is so, Haidt also explores the teleological argument of _why_ our brains evolved this way. Fascinating.

Section 2: Central Metaphor - The human "moral palate" is like a tongue, but instead of taste receptors for bitter, sweet, salty, etc., it responds to different dimensions, or flavors, of morality. Liberal morality draws most heavily from the moralities of "care/harm", "liberty/oppression", and, to a lesser degree, "fairness/cheating". Conservative morality, in contrast, values "care/harm", fairness/cheating", and "liberty/oppression", but not quite so highly as liberal morality. At the same time it also elevates concerns about "loyalty/betrayal", "authority/subversion", and "sanctity/degradation", flavors of morality that are rare on the liberal palate . This places the two sides of the political divide in an asymmetrical position. Conservatives seem to have an ability to at least appreciate liberal reasoning, even if they disagree about its conclusions. Liberals, in contrast, have trouble even recognizing as authentic any arguments which appeal to the non-liberal moral palate.

Haidt, who began his research as a proud liberal, finds this to be one of the central reasons for the failure of liberalism to connect with the broader public. I think this sort of openness to unexpected findings is sadly rare in the behavioral sciences, which are replete with papers explaining what is "wrong" with conservatives. It is to Haidt's great credit that he used his research to look for a greater understanding of moral psychology, not for confirmation of his underlying personal bias.

Section 3: Central metaphor - We humans (at least morally) are 90% chimp, 10% bee. Haidt makes the case that the human mind crossed the intellectual Rubicon from chimp to man when we developed "shared intentionality", the ability to work together for a group, not an individual goal. From that point forward, it is possible that natural selection favored not just the fittest individual, but also the fittest groups. Haidt suggests that a portion of our psychology co-evolved with religion and other group-binding mechanisms to make the best use of interconnected moral communities. In short, our understand of the underpinnings of civilization is incomplete if we think purely in terms of "Homo economicus", man as a seeker only of individual reward, and instead must at least consider our instinct for "hive-ishness".

Conclusion: There really wasn't a metaphor here, but I'd call this the "that's all very interesting, but what can we do about it?" section. In some ways this is the weakest chapter, in that it is more proscriptive and (somewhat) less data-driven. On the other hand, it is also the most ambitious, as this is clearly the section where Haidt tries to leverage his research into practical application. He hopes that a clearer understanding of what motivates our fellows will lead to less divisive politics. As he says:

"Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say."

The proscriptions for achieving this are more general, but none-the-less worthy. Haidt calls for a less Manichean approach to politics, recognizing that liberal, conservative, and libertarian have vital contributions to the success of the body politic. If his book can help opponents to see the morality, even if it is a different morality, that is at work in the values of our political opponents, then maybe compromise might stop being a political dirty word. As Haidt concludes:

"We`re all stuck here for a while, so let`s try to work it out."

5 stars.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 22, 2012 10:34:21 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 22, 2012 12:09:57 PM PDT
B. Speer says:
I feel like I have my finger in the dike's leaking hole. It might take writing a book myself and I do not feel up to the task. My career skill is architecture and I can't draw my objections to this and many other authors approaches to left/right differences and things in common.

As an older man I have struggled with left/right conflicts through one divorce, mother, father, plus siblings that are on opposite sides of left/right. My reality is Liberal. Perhaps the "elephant" chooses my course. I doubt it.

If we are each on our elephant we are a society of elephants but a herd of elephants. If so then each elephant is not leading it's rider the whole herd is leading each elephant. Someone is leading the herd with intellect because they are riding one of those elephants. If that is confusing let me get to the point.

Years of trying to find a path of understanding I finally asked "why do people hold conflicting facts in harmony" as their reality? There's a chapter of explanations. Men are often color blind some women too ok? No matter what they are told they cannot see the true of color. Same in left/right realities. Left builds it's community based on ETHICS. Right builds on MORALS. The author bases his book on morality and says he is right/conservative. See the problem? Another chapter.

Next Chapter: Right builds their family on children with RESPECT AND FEAR of Strict Parents (painful spankings, i.e. tough love) w/self defense, morality, discipline. Left builds their family on children with RESPECT AND TRUST of Nurturing Parents w/Openness, Empathy, Reflection.

To keep it short look at "common" career preference. Right/conservatives seek careers with authority: police, judges, stockbrokers, sales and military (Right are called "hawks") Left/Liberals seek careers to help improve others: teachers, scientist, professor, architect (me) and MEDIA (Left are called Doves). Right complains about left careers and Left complains about right careers.

I can go on for many pages this is not the place. Bottom line: If you believe in Evolution, not popular with conservatives, why would you think it ever stopped? Left and Right people look the same and act the same in countless way but they are not the same.

It is not about elephants it is about TWO SPECIES both mistakenly called humans. This is about two distinct and separate species of the same humanoid tree of evolution. One will eventually displace the other. My guess based on individual realities Liberals are the Progressive species and will dominate. That is why monarchies are diminshing and human rights are becoming less dependent on top down power.

We on the left want a better life expressed as a LEVEL PLAYING FIELD where all have equality from birth to death. Where wealth and power are obligations to those who need a helping hand to better themselves and EMPATHY is abundant. The Right has always preferred top down power and rule by the strongest. Right reality is Survival of the Fittest. Left reality is All for One and One for All. It is not about intellectualism or elephants or herds or morality and religion that is another chapter which the Left often appreciates better than the Right starting with Sermon on the Mount which the Right seldom if ever refers to because it teaches the opposite of Right values and morality, LOL But they know they are Christians in a Christian Nation of Morality? LOL

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 9:15:10 PM PDT
David McCune says:
B Speer,

Two points, "a level playing field" or "equality from birth to death" - pick one, because they are mutually exclusive.

Point two: USSR, China, Nazi Germany, N, Korea - left wing governments, top down power.


In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 6:51:48 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 24, 2012 7:26:29 AM PDT
B. Speer says:
We have some serious definition disagreements, LOL

The Right always loves to call progressive values communist politics. Far from it. It's like me saying Fascism is extreme conservative government. Let's at least try to be fair and honest in our communication. N. Korea and USSR and China are quite different from each other too.

Mexico's government reminds me of where Republicans would take the US if we lowered taxes enough and stopped as much government involvement in infra-structure or schools, etc. In many ways I think Sweden and Norway have more progressive governments but Canada stands out as the best model.

So let's compare Canada to Mexico as Left to Right. I can get as specific as you want, LOL I have no clue what equality from birth to death" means. Guess that is another way of saying communisn? Level playing field as I meant it is about the "government of the people" making laws to protect the middle class from wealth and power. Wealth has advantages in passing laws to favor themselves by taking from you. There was a time when the wealthy could kill with immunity or steal. Like that? How about setting up laws that put you in jail for being unpatriotic when I get to define it and the jail is out of the US with lots of extra inconveniences like torture, no lawyer, no trial and no fun, LOL

My idea of a level playing field helps you IF done properly under the Constitution. If Mexicans out number whites you want them to pass laws favoring them? Or the reverse of course. I am not the bad guy here and neither are you if we are willing to honestly talk about what a "government of the people" is about. That is the opposite of top down, right?

There is strength in numbers mutually governed by consent. When government and taxes become the enemy that Nation is at risk of ceasing for the Country is at war with itself. We are more threatened from within than without and communism has nothing to do with it, LOL

All for One and One for All means I help you when you need it and vice versa. My neighbors and I do it all the time. I even have keys to their homes and vice versa. Imagine that! Acutally I just gave one back because it was rented to someone new. They decide. Do you think we need guns?

My world is not about taking from you it is about giving to the common good like public schools so our children grow up smarter for better jobs and higher incomes so they can add more taxes for the common good we mutually agree on. Want better schools? Can you see that private schools means wealth goes to superior schools for the wealthy. We get poor educations fnr poor futures? My conservative sister pays $2k/month each for two boys. Obviously it would please her not to pay taxes for public schools i.e. "lower taxes". Just be reasonable we are not enemies if I want you to have a level playing field for your future?

You are the government of your family and your income are the earned "taxes" to lift your family to higher standards of living. You help them but they must decide given opportunities how to succeed on their own. That is not your business nor the government. If you assume government is "wast, fraud, and abuse" then take a look at Canada, etc.

Ever seen those signs in construction areas that say "speeding fines doubled"? Same for crooked politicians, double jail time, LOL The father that steals from his family deserves harsh penalties. Those with power have more obligations not less. I have a good income and like helping those in need. Taxes are more patriotic than dying in our wars because you can cheat on taxes and no one chooses to die in war. Vet of Nam, took the first helocopters down from Subic Bay, Philippeans. Not a hero just paying another form of tax for citizenship. All should serve by law. That is a level playing field. It would make wars less popular and not favor the wealthy who seldom serve.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 11:43:43 PM PDT
David McCune says:
"We have some serious definition disagreements, LOL"

True dat.

I don't really think the Amazon comments section is the place to hash out our competing world views. I do suggest that if you were to read Prof Haidt's book, you might be just a tad more understanding of where folks who disagree with you are coming from.

Take care,


In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2012 6:13:44 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 25, 2012 6:30:03 AM PDT
B. Speer says:
If the difference between left/right is due to two separate competing species instead of the Prof Haidt's book proposes I would think my thesis belongs anyplace any subject along these lines comes up. Yesterday on NPR Prog. Haidt gave a one hour presentation with call-ins during the last half hour. This was in San Francisco. I live about 150 miles away. Having little chance of getting my call through and not enough time to make my case I tried emailing in the stream they provide. Mine was not read aloud but I did ready all the others going in and saw none that agreed with Prof. Haidt premise.

My personal life has been seriously impacted by not apppreciating the profound effect left and right realities have when they come in contact. Compared to others generally I have a fairly good mind.

About twenty years ago when my first marriage ended I moved away and began all over again. This gave me a start over perspective on what the heck had happened during the previous twenty. There were so many never ending conflicts in core everyday views of the world. In the last twenty I began to change into what I always would have been w/o my first wife. She was super intelligent and I loved her but we did not fit.

Two species sounds about as nutty radical as you can get just short of "the alians are coming", LOL As complex as quantum mechanics in how it could be feasible. Since I have never heard "my idea" from anyone else and not able to sit down with a professional in a related field like Hawkins here I am butting in again, LOL The clues lead no where else for me. If true what could be more important to the human race? Sometimes I worry that this idea could lead to violence. That would be terrible but truth is paramount. It could also mean world peace and many other good things.

Posted on Apr 8, 2013 7:39:13 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 8, 2013 7:41:50 PM PDT
Free Spirit says:
If you want to know WHY the Left and Right are divided, read Jared Diamond's Collapse. This book explains why some people are so easily duped into being divided. Much to the dismay of the rest of us...

In reply to an earlier post on May 4, 2013 5:56:01 AM PDT
Darren X says:
Hi David, it's a shame that you had to mar such an interesting review with such a stunningly shallow follow up comment.

In reply to an earlier post on May 4, 2013 7:29:05 AM PDT
David McCune says:
Free Spirit,

I've not read Collapse. I thought Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" had some very interesting points, but also some blind spots that revealed some profound biases. He has a tendency to set up straw man arguments and a tendency to minimize the role of culture in the expansion of Western Civilization. I expect I'd find more of the same in Collapse, based on the reviews: interesting facts, straw men, and blind spots. If Diamond had had the opportunity, I'm sure he would have made the same famous bet that Paul Ehrlich made with Julian Simon - betting on scarcity and Malthusian disaster.

From the Wiki regarding the bet:
In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which argued that mankind was facing a demographic catastrophe with the rate of population growth quickly outstripping growth in the supply of food and resources. Simon was highly skeptical of such claims, so proposed a wager, telling Ehrlich to select any raw material he wanted and select "any date more than a year away," and Simon would bet that the commodity's price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.

Ehrlich and his colleagues (including John Holdren, later an advisor to President Barack Obama for Science and Technology) picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price increases: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference. If the prices fell, Ehrlich et al. would pay Simon.

Between 1980 and 1990, the world's population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, the price of each of Ehrlich's selected metals had fallen. Chromium, which had sold for $3.90 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.70 in 1990. Tin, which was $8.72 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.88 a decade later.[1]

As a result, in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07 to settle the wager in Simon's favor.

In reply to an earlier post on May 4, 2013 7:32:59 AM PDT
David McCune says:
Darren X.

You'll need to be more specific in your critique of my shallowness.

Are you defending the governments of China, USSR, Nazi Germany and/or North Korea from the accusation that they are left wing, or the idea that a level playing field and equality from birth to death are not mutually incompatible?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 11, 2014 11:58:57 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 11, 2014 12:00:23 PM PST
Shedder says:
The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (September 3, 2013)

Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon "bet" settled nothing. It was a disservice done to the problems addressed and contributed to perpetuating them. See the book, especially the last chapter.
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