The Righteous Mind – Book Review

My friend Doug Lavin from WRA high school days recommended an interesting and thought-provoking book, 2012’s “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It is a book about what current science says about human nature, and how that science can help to explain some of the political problems we face. I recommend the book highly, but I despair for humanity after reading it. His conclusions are very vague and hard to implement in practice. He misses the most essential fact of all, or rather, he chooses to ignore it – the elephant in the room – ironic, since his #1 metaphor is of the moral mind being like a rational rider on an intuitive elephant.

His key blind spot is that he thinks of ideology and morality by how they work, rather than their outcome:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

True enough. But by this definition, Fascism, cults, brutal totalitarianism, the Mafia… all “succeed” because they fit this definition. Different moral systems have different impact on real human beings. Haidt glosses over this central fact. He points it out, and says “My definition of morality was designed to be a descriptive definition; it cannot stand alone as a normative definition.” and waves to Utilitarianism as maybe a good candidate for a normative ethical framework.

His key thesis is that if we all just understand that our divisive and incompatible moral systems are the inevitable outcome of evolution, psychology, anthropology, and several other -ologies, we might understand each other better and get along. But the two opposing moral frameworks that underlie today’s politics are not just two competing “teams”, either of which could “win” and the result would be a functioning society and happy human beings. They embody utterly divergent values, with extreme differences in practical outcomes for both individuals and society as a whole.

It isn’t hard to see how human nature as described by research science could be very highly adaptive for small groups of farmers establishing defendable social groups, battling for dominance at the dawn of the modern era, 50,000 to 12,000 years ago – hence its origin. But it is poorly adaptive for a species crowding into huge cities, with coalitions of nation states, mega-corporations, and worldwide religions battling for dominance, and technology able to enslave us by exploiting and amplifying the insights about human nature Haidt clearly explains. He has no solution to this “sudden” maladaptive problem. But understanding it is the first step, I guess.

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