Monday, 26 March 2012

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt *****

Don’t be put off by the title of this book (or the subtitle ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’). Although they are technically correct they don’t give a full sense of the glory of what is certainly the best popular science book I have read this year, and comes easily into my top ten ever.
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who specializes in morality. We are inundated with books about human behaviours and traits – and many of them are rather tedious – but this is a totally different beast. Not only is it a real page turner but it is full of ‘Oh! Is that why?!’ moments when the reader gets an explanation for some strange behaviour of human beings that they have never fully understood.
I ought to say that this isn’t like a book about general relativity, say, where even though there are alternative theories, the core has been vastly tried and tested over the years. What is presented here is the work of Haidt and his team and there may well be psychologists who disagree with his model in its entirety. But the great thing is that, if there are, his model explains why they do.
I don’t want to over-inflate the importance of this, but I felt a bit like I did as a teenager when reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The idea that the Foundation’s mathematics could predict the way human society behaved into the future was entrancing. But, in the end, it was fiction. Reading Haidt’s ideas I got a similar jolt, but based on sensible relatively simple observations. It’s almost too right to be wrong.
The Righteous Mind suggest that we make moral decisions intuitively and then justify them using rational argument. It presents six dimensions (care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation) as the framework in which we make these moral decisions. And shows how the two main political wings differ in that the left almost entirely bases its thinking on the first two dimensions (with a touch of the third), while the right tends to use all six much more evenly. This apparently simple observation results in some truly impressive insights.
Every politician should be forced to read this book before taking office. And everyone who believes that people from the opposite end of the political spectrum is evil, wrong and stupid should also read it. As should every wild-eyed scientific atheist who proclaims that religion is entirely bad and without redeeming features. And every fundamentalist religious supporter who believes liberals and atheists should be burned.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the way that Haidt, a left wing intellectual atheist, comes to realize that his own position and views are blinkered, just as much as any right wing religious bigot. Truly brilliant.
also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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