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

This 419-page tome (318 if you skip the Acknowledgements and Footnotes) is an academic’s look at morals and how people determine or judge right and wrong. Its overarching goal seems to be to make people understand that those with opposing views are not evil or stupid but think the way they do because there are valuable principles on the “other” side that have served communities and individuals well throughout human evolution. As he says in the final sentence of the text: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

That sounds like little more than Rodney King’s famous line, but the book is really quite intellectual and academic in tone and backed by solid research. I hated the social science classes in college and this reads very much like a textbook in a Psych or even Poli Sci class. It does have descriptions of a lot of academic research in this field, however, including many cleverly designed experiments. Most of them proved the same principle which put simply is that people believe what they want to believe. When people argue they don’t use logic to try to understand who is right but instead use it to try to develop counterarguments to rebut their opponent. This may seem unsurprising, but it was rather startling to me how researchers have proven that people will absolutely ignore compelling evidence that proves their view about something wrong even very simple demonstrable things. In short, people are not persuaded by facts.

Some insights were surprising, however. Until reading the book I did not realize how large a role genetics played in forming an individual’s position on the basic conservative-liberal scale. Conservative in Haidt’s sense is the desire to preserve the status quo and resist change, while liberal is the opposite – the desire to change, to experience new things. Experiments have proven that this dynamic is largely fixed and observable in toddlers. That doesn’t always translate into political conservatism or liberalism, but they appear to be somewhat related.

I can’t say the book was enjoyable reading per se; rather, it was informative and valuable, which makes it enjoyable in a different way.

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