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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

A Belated Book Review

Despite being a music lover, I don’t listen to music radio. Maybe that’s why I don’t listen to music radio. The inane chat, the adverts and the incessant travel news just get in the way. I find new music in two main ways: Spotify and Shazam. The latter of these two usually involves standing in Starbucks or a retail shop holding my phone up to one of the speakers because I’ve heard a tune I really like. Once I find out the name of the track, I find it on YouTube. At this point, I normally discover the song is a year or two old and has already been listened to 750 million times. And the name of the artist is incredibly well known. And I realise that I am the probably last person in the West Civilisation to hear this song. Essentially, I’m eternally playing cultural catch up. (Also, hot tip: I hear Breaking Bad is really good.)

I mention this because I feel like I’m still playing catch-up with books like The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I got a whiff of this American book a couple of years ago soon after it was published in 2012, but didn’t realise that it was a big hit, or at least a big hit among people who read non-fiction. I should have read it before. We all should. It would have helped all of us when it comes to talking about politics, a subject on which we could all use some help.

The book is about how we form our political views and end up sharply disagreeing with each other. Using his own research and drawing on the research of others, Haidt puts forward a very convincing thesis that dispassionate moral reasoning is not the way in which we formulate our moral or political views. He argues that we react to moral situations with gut feelings, and then, when pressed, use moral reasoning to justify that decision. Not only does this ring true in my experience, he presents compelling evidence to, erm, rationalise his gut feeling on this.

So far, quite interesting. But it gets better. How can we explain our instincts on moral or ethical questions? What makes us rush to the judgments we like to think are based on facts or sound philosophy? In examining this question, Haidt has stumbled on something that explains one of the most tiresome political frustrations of our age, which is: The Left thinks the Right is evil. But the Right does not think the Left is evil. The Right tends to think the Left is stupid.

Haidt has some helpful insights into the way in which people form their political opinions. Those on the Left tend to base their views on perfectly decent criteria, mostly a desire for equality and empathy for those who are suffering. Those on the Right, however, consider these criteria, but balance them with other ones, like the realm of the sacred and the good of the existing community (rather than some speculative utopia).

For example, Haidt points out that conservatives tend to see things that the Left sees as self-evidently positive, like the welfare state and feminism, as threats to personal responsibility and the importance of the family. Despite being a leftist himself, Haidt can see how the Right takes the broader view and how the Left mistakes that for moral deficiency or lack of empathy.

Based on those last two or three paragraphs, you might already be shouting at your screen or scrolling down to the comments section, which is understandable. You’re reacting emotionally, which is what we all do. But the book is carefully nuanced and well argued. If anything he takes a little too long over it. It’s probably 60-80 pages too long, and I confess I skimmed most of the material on the role of evolutionary biology. But The Righteous Mind is worth every penny for the first hundred pages and the last thirty.

To his credit, Haidt is refreshingly open about his own politics, those of academia and the students participating in many experiments. These disproportionately bright and liberal student are highly unrepresentative of the population as a whole and skew the test results accordingly. Haidt also talks about having confronted his own leftist biases and move towards the centre.

Pic by Marc Falardeau via Flickr

But there is an unacknowledged irony that for all of his fair-mindedness and self-awareness, Haidt just cannot bring himself to say anything positive about Republicans. When he talks about the Right, he always specifies that he is positive about certain aspects of conservatism, and is at pains to point out that he is not praising or endorsing anything to do with the GOP. Presumably, he has already enraged his fellow Left-leaning academics enough with the very idea of searching for balance and considering other points of view. The overall effect of this to me, at least, demonstrates that even those with the greatest insights into political opinions succumb to the prejudice of party politics.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is published in the UK by Penguin. And can be purchased here.