Presented below is a selection of the book reviews - in separate posts, I will offer his TED Talk from this year (which offers a slightly more "upbeat" perspective than the book), more of his own writing, as well as some of the analysis of his book (particularly an integrally-informed piece by Matthew Kálmán Mezey at the RSA).
From the Wall Street Journal:
Read the whole review.
We possess a dual nature that includes selfish striving and a nobler "groupishness": 90% chimp and 10% bee.
By GARY ROSENThe work of Jonathan Haidt often infuriates his fellow liberals. A professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he has focused in recent years on trying to understand the range and variety of our moral intuitions, especially as they relate to the most polarizing issues of the day. What he sees across the dividing line of American politics is a battle of unequals: Republicans who "understand moral psychology" arrayed against Democrats who "don't."
Mr. Haidt is not simply parroting the familiar charge that the party of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is more adept at the dark arts of political manipulation. He means something far more shocking to liberal sensibilities: that conservatives possess "a broader set of moral tastes" and are able, in appealing to the public, to tap a richer moral lexicon.
But don't mistake "The Righteous Mind" for yet another guide to how liberals can revive their rhetoric and electoral appeal. Mr. Haidt is not a partisan with an agenda. He is a social scientist who appreciates America's tribalism, our "groupishness." He worries, though, that our divisions are hardening into mutual incomprehension and dysfunction. His practical aim is modest: not to bridge the divide between left and right, atheist and believer, cosmopolite and patriot, but to make Americans, in all their diversity, more intelligible to one another.
Mr. Haidt describes at length the fascinating research that he and his colleagues have carried out through a website called YourMorals.org. The site asks visitors to state their political and religious preferences and then poses a range of questions meant to elicit a moral response. Participants might be asked, for example, if they agree or disagree with such statements as: "One of the worst things a person can do is to hurt a defenseless animal"; or, "It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself"; or, "In the teenage years, parental advice should be heeded."
More than 130,000 subjects (as of 2011) have provided answers, which have been categorized according to the "moral foundations" that Mr. Haidt and his collaborators consider the best candidates for "universal cognitive modules"—that is, the intuitive ideas that all cultures draw upon for their ethical norms.
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From The New Humanist:
Read the whole review.The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane)
Jonathan Haidt is a world leader in the new discipline of cultural psychology, which combines the psychologist’s understanding of what goes on inside our heads with the anthropologist’s interest in the social meanings that surround us. Cultural psychology applies the principles of Darwinian natural selection to problems about morality, consciousness and human existence, and Haidt believes that it offers definitive evidence-based solutions to the problems that have been baffling philosophers since the dawn of civilisation.
He is an enthusiastic public advocate for his discipline, with streams of anecdotes about all those wonderful people – teachers, colleagues, friends, students, parents, wife and kids – without whom he would not have been able to rise to the top of his game. He is also, it would seem, one of the great communicators, with an easy way with words and a gift for grand, memorable metaphors.
A few years ago, in a book called The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt focused on the role of emotions in human life, hoping to rescue them from the dogmatic disdain of Western philosophers who, so he said, have been “worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years”. But recent work in cultural psychology showed that the philosophers had got it wrong: emotions were not stupid distractions from truth, but indispensable forms of perception. They were “filled with cognition”, and the ancient prejudice against them was no more than a professional myth – a conspiracy designed to “make philosophers look pretty darned good”, and “justify their perpetual employment as the high priests of reason”.
Haidt must have read an awful lot of philosophy, you might think, to gather the evidence for such a large generalisation, or alternatively he may not have read any at all, but in any case he summed up his discovery in one of his celebrated metaphors.The mind, he said, is not a peaceful philosophical realm where reason and consciousness reign, but a battlefield of conflicting impulses largely beyond our knowledge and control: or rather, it is like a mighty elephant crashing through the forest with a would-be rational rider perched precariously on its back.
In his new book, Haidt applies his elephant simile to morality and politics, suggesting that most of our interactions with each other are processed by the elephant rather than the rider, and that we need to realise that the elephant is not a free agent but a pre-programmed product of evolution.
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From The New York Times:
Illustrations by Johnny Selman
By WILLIAM SALETAN
Published: March 23, 2012
You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong.This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature. Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason. In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions,” was largely correct. E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right.”To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.Haidt’s account of reason is a bit too simple — his whole book, after all, is a deployment of reason to advance learning — and his advice sounds cynical. But set aside those objections for now, and go with him. If you follow Haidt through the tunnel of cynicism, you’ll find that what he’s really after is enlightenment. He wants to open your mind to the moral intuitions of other people.
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Hardcover, 384 pagesAmericans, it seems, have never been more polarized about religion and politics. With minds made up and combat-ready, we have a hard time bridging the chasms that divide us.
In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains why. A moral perspective, he argues, is a feature of our evolutionary design. Morality has made it possible for human beings — unlike any other creatures — to forge large, cohesive, cooperative groups. Morality also blinds as it binds, producing conflicts between groups, tribes and countries.
Drawing on fascinating studies in cognitive, behavioral and evolutionary psychology, The Righteous Mind is splendidly written, sophisticated and stimulating. It may well change how you think and talk about politics, religion and human nature.
Arguments on these topics often go nowhere, Haidt asserts, "because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog." We make moral judgments immediately and emotionally. They are based on foundational "receptors" — Haidt's candidates are "Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity and Liberty" — that are innate but develop differently in different cultures and vary in emphasis and intensity from individual to individual. Whether the subject is UFOs, abortion or tax reform, we almost always generate reasons as after-the-fact justifications for conclusions we want to reach.
Haidt makes a compelling case that Republicans understand moral psychology better than Democrats. Their ads, slogans and speeches go right for the gut, and they activate all six receptors. The Democrats, by contrast, are more emotionally cool (think Dukakis, Gore and Kerry); they stick exclusively to Care, Fairness and Liberty, disdaining Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity as dangerous and damaging.
Religion, according to Haidt, is their biggest blind spot. Focusing on the faulty reasoning of believers, the left undervalues religion's role in preserving moral capital. When secular organizations call for sacrifice, their members make cost-benefit calculations. Church congregants are far more likely to work together, trust one another and help those in need.
Haidt acknowledges that religion also promotes the "we-they" thinking that threatens contemporary American society. He has not discovered the magic bullet to make it go away. Haidt does note, however, that when individuals are prevented from making snap judgments and presented with alternatives, they are somewhat more likely to re-evaluate their preconceived notions. His book can provide a pause that refreshes righteous minds, giving them a moment and a method to empathize across a moral divide.