Good reads–The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

`The Righteous Mind’ presents an imaginative theory on the origins of human morality and the source of discord in the realm of moral systems such as politics and religion. It is one of the more ambitious endeavors a reader will come across in popular science and philosophy today, and for this, it is to be commended. But, the theory is far to immense for this book’s style and scope to handle appropriately, it is highly speculative when it shouldn’t be, and ultimately is not nearly as convincing as it could be.

One of the main difficulties is that the author is not straightforward with his premises. By the subtitle we know this book is going to be about “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. But the author does not tell us his hypothesis until we’re nearly finished with the book. Indeed, he admits on page 274 that he hasn’t even established a definition of `morality’ by that point. “You’re nearly done reading a book on morality, and I have not yet given you a definition of morality.” As a matter of fact, he never really does define morality (he offers a definition of `moral systems’, not `morality’), and so it is impossible to make a reasonable assessment of this argument, supposedly on morality.

His rationale for doing this gives the show away: “The definition I’m about to give you would have made little sense back in chapter 1. It would not have meshed with your intuitions about morality, so I thought it best to wait.” In other words, he needed to prepare the reader by giving preliminary arguments, the assumption being that only after those preliminaries were done, the real argument could be understood.

But this is to conceal the point being made until after it has been made, and so no one can properly assess that point in the process. This amounts to a rhetorical trick to get people to accept the argument’s foundation and thus have a harder time denying the argument when it is finally presented. In the meantime, the objective reader will be left confused and a little frustrated–What point is he trying to make? Why is he being so elusive? Why doesn’t he come out and say what he means?

This approach does conform to the theory, itself, however, one of whose main points is to diminish the role of reason and rationality. According to Haidt, people don’t really pay attention to reasonable arguments anyway, rather making decisions based on emotions and intuition. As such, he spends most of the book bypassing a reasonable argument.

It is a shame because the argument is fairly interesting and deserves to be fleshed out in a good, straightforward argument. The argument, summed up by the definition of moral systems that Haidt offers (on page 274), is as follows:

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

Basically, morality is an artificial construct geared toward making society work. Once we arrive at this thesis, we actually have something to work with and much of the material leading up to this point finds its place. Of course, one will still have questions about the thesis and the various proofs offered in defense, but at least one has substance to reflect on and test.

And there is plenty to reflect on and test. Haidt is clearly imaginative and is willing to check prejudices in order to arrive at some penetrating conjectures. He’s right when he suggests that the best way to approach a political argument is to start with common ground. His metaphor of `innateness’–a first draft that can be revised with work–is excellent. Throughout this book, the attentive reader will be compelled to question standards, clarify logic, and conquer new intellectual territory. For this, it is worth the read. And, as long as the reader watches out for the book’s stylistic deficiencies, it can be a rewarding experience.

Those interested in these themes might also consider Everyone Agrees: Book I: Words, Ideas, and a Universal Morality

This entry was posted in Behavioral Economics, Complexity, Culture Divide, Good Reads, Inspiration, Motivation, Political Theory, Psychology, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

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