Skip to main content

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.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

David Latchman - Interview

Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic and author of a number of science titles, currently holding the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London.  As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Latchman is the chief academic and administrative officer, and has been responsible for the development of the university since his appointment in 2003.   Professor Latchman serves as Chairman of the trustees of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated the empowerment of the Jewish community through education, employment, medical advancement, and welfare. He also serves as a trustee of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, as well as a number of other committees centred around education, and scientific and medical research in the UK and Israel.  This interview is for National Book Lovers' Day (August 9th). Why should books be important to us? Books have always been a big part of my life, and for many reasons. My love for them sta

Hothouse Earth - Bill McGuire ****

There have been many books on global warming, but I can't think of any I've read that are so definitively clear about the impact that climate change is going to have on our lives. The only reason I've not given it five stars is because it's so relentless miserable - I absolute accept the reality of Bill McGuire's message, but you have to have a particularly perverted kind of 'I told you so' attitude to actually enjoy reading this. McGuire lays out how climate change is likely to continue and the impacts it will have on our lives in a stark way. Unlike many environmental writers, he is honest about the uncertainty, telling us 'Despite meticulous and comprehensive modelling, we just don't know how bad things will get, nor can we know.' But any climate change deniers seeing this as an escape clause entirely miss the point. The uncertainty is over how bad things will be, but not over whether or not things will be bad. As we are told, 'tipping poi

Philip Ball - Four Way Interview

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including H 2 O: A Biography of Water, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour , The Music Instinct , and Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also a presenter of Science Stories, the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He is also the author of The Modern Myths . He lives in London. His latest title is The Book of Minds . Why science? As the pandemic has shown, there has never been a time when an understanding of science is essential for making informed decisions. But Covid-19 has also revealed the process of science in action, with