I recently finished reading a book by Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind -Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and thoroughly enjoyed it even though it was uncomfortable reading at times as it challenged and chipped away at some of my core beliefs. It has the potential to be a life-changing book. That is a bit of a bold statement I know, so I’ll explain later.
It was another book that I got through Amazon’s Vince programme, which I might otherwise have missed out on.
Amazon don’t like the reviews on their site to be overly long so I’ll paste what I wrote there and then expand on it a bit because I can waffle on as much as I like here I found this to be a completely fascinating book. As well as presenting a theory about moral psychology it also covers the author’s journey to reaching that theory.
This does mean that it takes a while to actually get to the point of explaining ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’ because, for example, it outlines a theory and then mentions how that theory turned out to have a flaw and then describes how the author revised it and then lays out the new version, so you end up with several iterations of the theory. This is a 400-page book with the last 100 pages being references, acknowledgements, notes and bibliography, so really 300 pages of the proper book and it is not until the last few pages that the question of the title is really addressed, but that is not a problem because you really do need to build up to it.
There are two main metaphors used in the book. One is to picture the mind as a rider (representing the logical mind) on an elephant (representing the emotional mind). By coincidence I have now started reading abook about decision-making processes which covers a lot of the same ground regarding the relationship between logic and emotions, and draws on some of the same references. I’ll admit that I found the metaphor a bit cute at first but eventually came to terms with it.
The other metaphor is the description on the human mind as being 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee to explain how we sometimes act for our personal benefit and sometimes for the benefit of the community.
This was where it got especially interesting as it picked up on some of Darwin’s ideas about social evolution and developed them.
Along the way the book provides a way to classify moral matters into six categories, which the author calls moral foundations, and presents the results of large-scale studies to show how people of different political beliefs possess (or use, or are guided by) different foundations in different proportions.
This is, of course, just a theory and in a field where absolute proof isn’t likely, but it is all plausible enough to be useful, and for a leftie like me a little bit depressing because I am used to seeing my side as being the goodies and the other side as being the baddies. Instead I have the challenge to consider that the other side might have valid reasons for thinking what they do (while still being wrong of course).
The religious aspect is also disturbing reading for a confirmed atheist like me, because the book makes a good case for religion having a positive impact on the development of human society – regardless of whether gods exist or not.
At the very least this book has made me think more about the relationship between my points of view and those of my political opponents. It has the potential to be life-changing if you totally buy into the theory and use it to guide some decisions. For example, the centre-left could make a careful study of the moral foundations to find ways that their manifesto could address all six and not just concentrate on two to make itself more appealing to more people.
Even without deciding to let this change your outlook completely, there is plenty to dwell on and it is very clearly written and summaraised at every step.
So why was it so challenging and potentially life-changing?
Well, as a rule we tend to read things that support our own opinions rather than challenge them. Wooly liberals don’t read the Daily Mail and mad right-wing plutocrats don’t read Socialist Worker. It can set off some serius cognitive dissonance if you find yourself reading something from the oppsite end of the spectrum, especially if you find yourself agreeing with parts of it, because contemporary politics has become very polarised and tribal.
This, however, is not a book written from a right-wing perspective that challenges some aspect of policy. It is worse than that; it is a mostly scientific but sometimes personal explanation of some theories that undermine some fundamental beliefs.
Just so we know where we stand, I’m a pretty staunch republican, atheist and averagely tribal member of the Labour movement, and this book gives very good reasons to not just do away with religions, the monarchy, and the Tories. Even more depressing, it gives some very plausible scientific reasons why liberals (in the broader American sense) are doomed to have a narrower appeal than conservatives (again in the broader sense).
Having said that, with some of this Haidt was pushing at an open door to an extent as I have felt for a while that politics is far too combative and polarised and that while gods may not exist churches (other religious establishments are available) have and continue to perform some useful services alongside the less appealing aspects like institutional child molestation, ritual suppression of women and perpetuation of inequalities.
I’m not going to, and can’t fully explain all that here because I’m not good enough at it and I would have to quote so much of the book it would qualify as piracy. As a rough approximation, there is some investigation of the way the mind works and the relationship between the emotional and rational parts of the brain. As a sort of side-challenge this undermines a lot of what Plato and Mill thought and I’ve always rated them. Anyway, it turns out that a lot of our opinions and beliefs are due to the emotional side of the brain and the rational part does not so much lead us to our answers but is used post hoc to rationalise what our emotions have come up with.
One practical reason why this is bad for us on the left is that we do tend to try and make our case by reason. How many times have you heard somebody at a Labour gathering complain that if only the voters read our well-argued wordy leaflets instead of being swayed by the tabloid heart-string tugging of the Tory leaflets they would realise who is right? We are getting a bit better but generally we try to win arguments (and elections) with logic while the Tories go straight for emotional dog whistles (and the Lib Dems, of course, have their dodgy bar charts). I don’t think we will ever get over this because it is Labour’s instict to think we are above that sort of thing, but unfortunately that sort of thing works because that is how human minds work.
The book closes with a decent argument for why both liberal and conservative attitudes are necessary. Without the liberal influence we would never make advances, especially social advances like equalities. We would still have women not allowed in pubs, homosexuality illegal, children up chimneys and so on. Without the conservative influence though, we would advance too quickly without letting society adapt and adjust to the changes. That clashes with the instictive attitude we are supposed to have that the world would be better if we won every election and won every seat. It may just be that it is better for the balance of power to change every now and then and for whoever is in power to have the other lot existing as a strong and viable opposition.
This is a lot harder to stomach these days. In the past the small-l liberals and small-c conservatives were spread around the parties more. There were socially conservative socialists and socially liberal Tories in far greater numbers. There were more shades of grey, but now we have become entrenched in ever more polarised positions.
I would still happily see an end to all religions, a fully elected second chamber and head of state and all the rest, but I can see how you can’t do that without identifying the useful functions they perform in terms of social evolution and make sure something else is in place to cover them first, and that isn’t an overnight task but one that could take generations – especially as even the concept of social or cultural evolution is still hotly disputed.
Maybe on its own the book hasn’t made me change what I think or do, but it has at least made me realise that perhaps I should. Really I can’t recommend this highly enough.