Notes from the bookshelf 10: “The Righteous Mind” of Jonathan Haidt

Having dedicated the last several posts to Jonathan Haidt’s book on moral psychology with reference to my study on ethical consumers, I thought it would be useful to sum them all up into a singe book review – I genuinely hope that some of you will find it helpful.

“The Righteous Mind” takes a reader on a fascinating tour of human morality. The book is divided into 3 parts, each intending to convey a particular message about the nature of human moral reasoning through an eloquent metaphor. The “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” argument should be the key take-away from the first part. Sourcing inspiration from the ideas of a Platonic philosopher Hume, Haidt argues against a rationalist approach to morality which regards moral reasoning as largely a cognitive ability that humans develop as they grow up and that is focused almost exclusively on the concept of justice. Instead, his social intuitionist model asserts that moral judgments are culturally and contextually varied and, importantly, grounded in emotions and intuitions rather than rational reasoning. The metaphor the author develops to explain the idea is that of a rider on the back of an elephant where the rider is the conscious, reasoning part of the mind, and the elephant is its unconscious – automatic, emotional, visceral – side. The rider is trying to control the elephant, but has only limited command of the direction in which the giant animal takes him. Haidt encourages us to draw a mental picture of a little rider who wants to go in a certain way, but is always at the mercy of the elephant, whenever we are faced with and struggle to understand other people’s moral judgments and actions.

The principal message of the second part of the book is that “there is more to morality than harm and fairness”. In this section Haidt presents his theory of moral foundations which purports to explain the origins and diversity of moral worldviews. According to it, all humans share the innate capacity for moral intuitioning which rests on a number of inborn moral foundations rooted in our common evolutionary heritage. Based on cross-cultural research, Haidt and his colleagues suggest the following as the universal moral values that people all across the world have innate empathy with: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Although these foundations are ubiquitous, each culture builds upon them to construct its own unique moral matrix – a web of shared ethics, meanings, values, and concerns which “provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview” (Haidt, 2012, p. 107). This explains moral pluralism – the fact that many moral matrices coexist across cultures as well as within each nation and that “there is no homogenous “backcloth” to our world” (Shweder, 1991, p. 5 cited in Haidt, 2013, p. 109). To illustrate the theory, Haidt offers an expressive analogy between moral foundations and taste receptors – although we all have the same five taste buds, each of us has very specific food preferences shaped by the variety of factors – our childhood eating habits, religion, cultural experiences, etc. Likewise, our common evolutionary history provided us with the same inbred moral potential – yet, each of us develops a distinct set of moral concerns that connects to a specific moral universe. He writes extensively on how this moral divergence fuels religious and political arguments concentrating especially on the differences between liberals and conservatives’ political and social agendas.

“Morality binds and blinds” is the third key moral psychology principle presented in the book. Drawing on Darwin, the theory of evolution, and the idea of group selection in particular, Haidt construes an image of a Homo Sapiens as a Homo Duplex – a two-level human being which is mostly selfish and individualistic, but also cooperative and groupish. The discussion on the role of organized religions in the evolution of human moral communities is central to this part of the book.

Overall, Haidt’s work is an excellent introduction into moral psychology, written in layman’s terms and offering a compelling perspective on the nature of human morality and the origins of its wide diversity. The key message conveyed in the book is that human morality is “rich and complex, (…) multifaceted and internally contradictory”  (Haidt, 2012, p. 113). Its key strengths are accessible language, memorable metaphors and an abundance of stories that catch and hold the reader’s attention and help us to better understand our own and, even more importantly, other people’s moral matrices and worlds.

References

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Allen Lane, London.

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