Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: The Righteous Mind:

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is a highly readable yet still scholarly look at the foundations of human morality. His point of view is essentially that of evolutionary psychology: that our moral systems evolved in order for us to live in highly cooperative communities not composed solely of close kin – the only animals who can do that. Haidt describes his starting point as that of essentially a conventional liberal, scornful of conservatives and persuaded that their success was based on fraudulent appeals.

His story of scientific discovery, then, is not just a scientific one but of a change of personal perspective, to that of a self-described “centrist” with a lot of admiration for conservative thinkers but not much for the modern Republican Party. He is a story teller, and he weaves together themes from familiar and unfamiliar philosophers – his original major in college was philosophy – to ethnography and especially experimental psychology. Philosophers who flunk the test of experiment include Plato, Bentham, and Kant, while Hume and Durkheim are golden. For me, at least, he makes a convincing case that our moral principles grow out instincts shaped and refined by our hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, living in small communities.

These instincts are realized in the mind, he argues, as “modules,” which serve as mental templates upon which our varied moral structures can be built, much in the way that we have language templates that are suitable for building the whole range of human languages. He thinks that he has identified about six of these, which we may call “care,” “fairness,” “loyalty,” “authority,” “purity/divinity,” and “individuality.” He makes the case for each of these, without pretending that they are either monolithic or complete. Their central shared characteristic is that each can be shown to function to facilitate communal living, human style.

There are several excellent reviews out, as well as book jacket endorsements by a number of my personal intellectual heroes, including Steven Pinker and Edward O. Wilson. Amazon reviews are generally favorable, but I like to look at the "one stars" – the people who hated the book. Somewhat to my surprise, except for one eccentric whose politics I could not identify, all were from disgruntled liberals, angry that he was not condemning conservatives. My personal favorite, as an example of the genre:

This book is hopeless because it starts off with a fatally flawed premise. Good people are *NOT* divided by politics. In fact, politics can show us who the good people are and who the bad people are. In fact, here's the truth in two simple sentences:

Good people are liberals. Bad people are conservatives.

Whether the author was tongue in cheek or not, this cracked me up. I heartily recommend the book to anyone who is interested in a deeper understanding of human moral psychology, moral and political divisions, or who just wants a darn good read. Every chapter contains terrific insights and experimental results. What’s the point of tattoos, male circumcision, or facial piercings? Haidt can give you a plausible answer. You might find that it opens your eyes. It did mine.

Other comments I've made on the book can be seen here.