Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt from the library recently. It was recommended by the Make Me Smart podcast, which I listen to regularly.

Seeing the term "righteous" in the title immediately made me think of this as a religious book, but that's not really the case. The theme of the book is morals and ethics, and of course religion does play a role, but not a major one. The author explains the use of "righteous" in his introduction as an intentional way to point out that the human mind is not just moral, but also judgmental and critical and intolerant (as in "self-righteous").

That's something of a negative start, but it's an important point that drives much of what Haidt has to say. The book is divided into three sections, each of which presents a principle of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Haidt describes the mind as being like a rider (reasoning) on an elephant (intuition - comprised of emotions, gut reactions, etc). When the elephant has a reaction to something, the rider's primary job is to support that reaction. While it's possible for the reasoning rider to change the elephant's direction, it's difficult and rare. Most of the time, our reason looks for a way to justify whatever our gut feels to be true, ignoring evidence or arguments to the contrary.

2. There's more to morality than harm and fairness. This section presents the Moral Foundation Theory, which describes how different morality systems around the world can all be traced back to a few "foundations". The MoralFoundations.org website describes the theory and foundations as well as some of the research supporting the theory. I think this makes a lot of sense - just about everyone has a sense of "liberty" (to use one foundation as an example) but exactly what that means can be very different between people or cultures.

3. Morality binds and blinds. Moral systems are about more than just personal beliefs, they apply to the groups that we identify with. We gravitate toward groups that line up with our intuitions, and those groups also influence our ways of thinking and behavior. People are willing to do things for their groups that aren't necessarily in their individual interests. That can lead to positive or negative results - the same group instincts can lead to supporting charitable organizations or becoming suicide bombers. We're rarely willing to listen to points of view that run counter to the interests of our groups, even if we would benefit at an individual level. Religious and political associations are used as two examples of groups that can have significant impact on how their individual members behave.

I'm far from an expert on ethics or the philosophy of the mind, but the ideas that Haidt presents in this book certainly seem to make sense to me. I've long thought that most people behave in a largely rational manner if you consider that they have an internal set of assumptions (which they are rarely willing to reconsider, despite whatever evidence may exist to the contrary). Haidt's rider-elephant metaphor fits nicely into that concept, so it wasn't much of a stretch to wrap my mind around his model.

Understanding this is one thing, but it can still be difficult to accept for those of us that consider ourselves rational people. I like to think that presenting evidence and well-ordered arguments is a good way to convince people (including myself). When I really stop and think about it, though, there are examples everywhere that reasoning really is secondary to intuition, including many that Haidt describes in the first third of this book. It's especially true in cases where time is short, either because a snap decision is required or because I simply don't bother to spend a lot of time on something.

This model of "intuition first, reasoning second" has obvious applications for advertising, political campaigns, and other kinds of marketing. If you want people to buy your product or vote for your candidate, you need to present something they identify immediately as good, at an instinctual level. Then you can add logical arguments to that gut reaction to seal the deal. Sounds obvious, but it's not always easy, particularly if you're trying to convince a diverse group.

The Righteous Mind was a very interesting read, though not a quick or easy one. The morality model presented by Haidt is a good fit for explaining how diverse groups of people can have such different ideas about what is moral or ethical. I consider my time with this book to be well spent.

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