Review: The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt sets himself quite a task in The Righteous Mind – explaining divisions between well-meaning and intelligent people.  While he occasionally presents his work as practical information that will help one frame an argument, I think he sits firmly on the theoretical side.  I came away with some new ideas about how the mind works, but not with a detailed playbook for handling it.

Laying out a framework for understanding how minds reach moral conclusions and how those mechanisms formed is a formidable challenge.  I am always amazed that people studying these ideas can make any kind of progress.  Sorting the subjective from the objective always seems nigh impossible, especially when looking for brain function with respect to slippery topics like moral abstractions.  Haidt does an excellent job of providing intuitions to help laymen play along as well as providing evidence for his positions when he has it. He also creates the clear impression that he is letting the reader in on an ongoing scientific conversation. None of this is settled, and one occasionally wonders how his ideas will stand the meticulous scrutiny he subjects others too.  (That’s not to say Haidt is unfair, just thorough, and he knows confirmation bias better than I do.)

Haidt does spend a fair amount of time laying out what the consensus is in his field and how his ideas buck those trends.  On the one hand it all feels somewhat “inside baseball,” but the approach is also an important way to play fair with the reader.  It would have been easy to lay his case out as being more strongly accepted in the community, knowing that most readers who agreed with him would never read deeply.  His approach gives the impression of a lively area of inquiry in which his ideas are important, which seems fair.

The ideas themselves are intuitive once they are explained and supported.  Haidt has a nice gift for turning complex ideas into simple metaphors.  He has clearly spent time honing them to be keenly accessible.  The idea of the moral sense as a smart rider providing some input and making excuses for the elephant (s)he’s riding crisply captures his position.  The idea is that most judgments are arrived at by intuitions that can only be  modified slowly where those judgments  are generally rationalized after the fact.  That’s an elephant and a rider, all right.

There are plenty of other ideas to chew on in here, including some that one could disagree with.  The overall framework is a compelling way to frame the ideas and problems, and there is useful support for much of it. Well worth a look, but don’t expect to win any arguments from it.  Unless they’re about moral psychology.

Strongly recommended.


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