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The Righteous Mind

by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt has a PhD in social psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. The book was written in 2012. It receives much attention: at Amazon.com it has produced 1,328 comments, more than usual for successful books. His other book, "The Coddling of the American Mind, published a couple of months ago (Sep 2018) has 105.

Haidt begins by asking, Why good people are divided by politics and religion? He describes humans metaphorically as both an elephant and its rider. The elephant is impulse and intuition; the rider is rationalization.

The book makes some interesting points, but perhaps his questions are not sharp enough. Good people divided? Who should we include as good people? Politics involves some who don't deserve inclusion among the "good." They lack integrity. They lie. They are hypocrites. They care more about their own benefit and not really about their society.

We the good, better and deplorable are divided politically because we've had different experiences. No mystery here. We have different levels of understanding about the world outside our head, different ways of looking at the world, the universe and people in general, and we have different levels of empathy. (Our hearts bleed differently, and some of us are more social-Darwinian than others.)

One of Haidt's discussions is about the conflict among social-psychologists regarding evolution, including those who (back in the '80s?) were calling Edward O Wilson (the "father of sociobiology") a racist and a fascist. On page 41, Haidt writes of the rebirth of sociobiology in the early 1990s.

For Chapter 9 Haidt asks, Why Are We so Groupish? And for Chapter 12 he asks, Can't We All Disagree More Constructively?

Among the comments on the book at Amazon were complaints about the lack of science which is supposed to be a part of psychology and sociology. Someone calls the book "bad science." There is the complaint that Haidt describes humans as incapable of reason, that we can navigate only by intuition, that we are zombies guided by our gut instincts, feelings and urges. Someone else counters that Haidt doesn't reject "rational thinking entirely."

Someone describes the book as failing to acknowledge humanity's ability to choose between instincts that create evil and those actions that might serve the collective good. Another describes Haidt as giving us,

...another example of Kantian philosophy that advocates the destruction of confidence in reason. This philosophy degrades us to the level of sooth-sayer and jungle oracle — slaves to our whims, impulses, and irrational feelings. The book does not deserve one star.

Someone observes that "Emotions are not tools of cognition. Emotions are determined by our view of life."

Haidt's conclusion is that understanding the other side of a controversy requires knowing their emotional constructs. Someone complains that he is "trying to help liberals and conservatives get along, but his only real criticisms are of people (mainly liberals) who dislike sanctity morality."

The brilliant Barbara Tuchman (1912-89) in her book The March of Folly expected less than do some of us. Tuchman wrote:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be.

Populations have always been not only the victims of those exercising political power; they have been a party to the folly, as we see today. However much some have the ability to choose between good and evil, I don't expect it to become a universal achievement.

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I'll have another look at Haidt's book after I read comments on this site's forum.


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