Book Review of "The Righteous Mind - Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt

Author Information:

"Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at New York University's Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia."

First Impressions

There is a lot of information in this almost 400 page book. Fundamentally the book discusses human psychology with respect to morality and relates it to modern political issues (and more general philosophical issues), such as conservatism and liberalism in modern American politics. There are three parts to the book and each feels quite different than the other. The first part deals largely with fundamental psychology and Haidt attempts to make the comparison of intuition vs strategic reasoning as like a rider on an elephant, where the elephant represent intution and cannot be easily controlled and the rider represents strategic reasoning. Part 2 delves more into morality but I found Part 3 to be the most intersting as Haidt really described the interesting characteristics and advantages of religious behaviors of cooperative societies.

Definitions of terms used in the book:

Nativist - Someone who believes the morality of an individual is acquired at birth as if it were a genetic trait.
Empiricist - Someone who believes morality is taught to an individual and all are equal until they go through different education systems.
Rationalist - Anyone who believes that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge.
Rationalism - The idea that children figure out for themselves what morality is and it is neither innate nor learned directly from parents.
Sociocentric - Places the needs of groups and institutions first.
Individualistic - Places individuals at the center and makes society a servant of the individual.
Social Darwinism - The idea that the richest and most successful nations, races, and individuals are the fittest. Therefore giving charity to the poor interferes with the natural progress of evolution: it allows the poor to breed.
Evolutionary Psychology - The idea that emotions are the foundation of morality and the emotions are assumed to be shaped by evolution.
Ethic of Autonomy - The idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other's projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies.
Ethic of Community - The idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. People have an obligation to play their assigned roles in these entities. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism. In such societies, the Western insistence that people should design their own lives and pursue their own goals seems selfish and dangerous.

Moral Foundations:

The author, Jonathan Haidt, introduces these 5 "guesses" as his first draft that defines the moral foundations of human nature

A Metaphorical History of Life on Earth

In chapter 9 Haidt describes an amusing metaphor for the evolution of life on Earth

"Suppose you entered a boat race. One hundred rowers, each in a separate rowboat, set out on a ten-mile race along a wide and slow-moving river. The first to cross the finish line will win $10,000. Halfway into the race, you're in the lead. But then, from out of nowhere, you're passed by a boat with two rowers, each pulling just one oar. No fair! Two rowers joined together into one boat! And then, stranger still, you watch as that rowboat is overtaken by a train of three such row boats, all tied together to form a single long boat. The rowers are identical septuplets. Six of them row in perfect synchrony while the seventh is the coxswain, steering the boat and calling out the beat for the rowers. But those cheaters are deprived of victory just before they cross the finish line, for they in turn are passed by an enterprising group of twenty-four sisters who rented a motorboat. It turns out that there are not rules in this race about what kinds of vehicles are allowed."

Genes Make Brains

In chapter 12 Haidt describes an interesting experiment performed in Australia to understand the relationship of genetics to political preference

"After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, scientists recently found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to neurotransmitter functioning, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain's response to threat and fear. This finding fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as a sudden blast of white noise."

Fascinating Quotes:

Final Thoughts:

I highly recommend this book as it was a pleasure to read. My only criticism is that it contains such a large variety of information (just look at the quotes) that it did become hard sometimes to remember what the overlying purpose of the book was. If you are someone who is interested in understanding how we has humans work together and the cooperative psychology involved in any civilization than you should read this book.